This homily is based on Luke 17:5-10.
Nobody says it, but what our Lord tells us today, taken literally, is–put bluntly–unbelievable. All we need, Jesus tells his disciples, is faith the size of a mustard seed, and we can uproot trees and toss them into the ocean. In Matthew’s version, such a tiny faith is capable of doing something even more incredible: It can move mountains!
Seriously? Mustard seed? The largest of the lot measures all of two millimeters! Either the Lord is being hyperbolic–or my faith is, in the Lord’s eyes, really just miniscule!
To make matters worse, the Lord doesn’t quite explain himself. He simply moves on to relate a disturbing mini-parable about what can best be described as the ungrateful master: A servant comes home after working hard all day out in the field, but the master does not invite him to a place at dinner. He’s not supposed to! On the contrary, the exhausted servant is asked to put on an apron and wait at table. What’s more, he’s actually expected to be grateful for yet another opportunity that he is given to serve his master!
As if to rub it in, the Lord says: “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do’.”
The parable is a call to humility–a lot of humility, indeed a servant’s humility, a humility that is stripped of any sense of self-entitlement, one that keeps us not only on our toes, but also in our proper place.
So, what’s going on here? Didn’t this whole episode begin with the disciples asking Jesus to help them “increase their faith”? My question then is: How can an apparently exaggerated claim about faith on the one hand and an apparently unrelated lesson about humility on the other point us in the right direction? Perhaps the Lectionary editors of the Church made a mistake in jamming these two in one reading–or they felt the need to cram them into one.
I kept wrestling with this question until it hit me: the mustard seed! Is it possible that when the Lord compares our faith to a mustard seed, he is not saying that our faith should be at least that size, but that it should precisely be that size and no bigger? Of course our Lord can’t possibly mean that our faith should be small, but perhaps he means that our faith should be humble–humble in its conviction that if any tree is to be transplanted or any mountain is to be moved, it will certainly not be by virtue of my faith, but by the virtue of him in whom I place my faith.
For us to increase our faith, therefore, we need to take the road of humility. We ought to be humble like the servant who serves his master eagerly and who knows it is not his place to demand or deserve anything from his master. Like this servant, we are invited to be grateful for every opportunity for us to serve and stand in the Lord’s presence because that is truly gift enough. We need to believe in the Lord, trusting that it is He, not ourselves, who knows and wants what is best for us. If there’s any transplanting of trees or moving of mountains that’s going to happen, it won’t be because of us, but because of him.
This call to a humble faith–it’s not easy! Whenever we find ourselves in a situation that we think is wrong, our immediate impulse is to fix things. That is a good thing, of course, but only in general. Whether we like it or not, there are occasions when we can’t fix things on our own because some things are simply too complex and are beyond our control–or because fixing things may hurt other people or may entail taking easy shortcuts that are not exactly moral. Humble faith means not insisting on taking things into our own hands–even and especially not the law–even if it might be faster and more efficient.
To nurse a humble faith means doing not only all the best that we can do, but also all the right that we can, but ultimately depending on God to do the rest, believing that He will do His part and He will do His best. St. Ignatius of Loyola is credited for this counter-intuitive, but wise saying: “Pray as if everything depended on you, and work as if everything depended on God.” In other words, while we obviously should rely on God during our prayers, we ought to push ourselves to exert every possible effort to show up before the Lord and keep our attention on him during prayer. And while we certainly should rely on our own abilities and effort when we are working, we ought to restrain our Pelagian tendencies to get carried away and remind ourselves that ultimately it is the Lord who will choose to bless our work with success.
In short, for such miracles as the transplanting of trees or mountains to happen–not to mention transformation of lives or nations–it will only be through a humble servant’s faith in his Master.