Pentecost 17 – 2022
In the name of God – Source of all being, Word of Life, Holy Spirit. Amen.
Apparently the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard said that “we need to forget all Christian language for 100 years”. It is a radical statement, but one that deserves to be taken seriously. There are so many “givens” that we now take for granted – especially when it comes to our biblical texts – that we are in danger of losing the original meaning of a text or of reading into a text what we expect to be there, rather than being open to what is actually there. Starting with a clean slate (abandoning inherited interpretations) would provide an opportunity to see our faith and our texts with fresh eyes and to glean a new – more accurate – understanding.
Today’s gospel provides one such example of the way in which we have read things into the text or used a text for our own purposes. This is because a) we approach the text from a particular viewpoint and b) because the literal translation of the Greek doesn’t immediately make sense.
The gospel this evening consists of two apparently unrelated texts – a demand for faith on the part of the disciples followed by Jesus’ example of the relationship between slaves and masters. Examining these texts anew and without the baggage of our existing understanding shows them to be closely related and makes it clear that they are less about the amount of faith one has and more about a life of faith as servants of God.
A traditional interpretation of our text is that if only we had enough faith, we could do astonishing – if extremely odd – feats. Doing the extraordinary – uprooting and re-planting mulberry trees, healing the sick or turning water into wine – has become, at least for some, a benchmark of the degree of faith that one has. Behind this is an assumption that faith is somehow quantifiable, something that we can measure, a benchmark that we should aim to reach. The implication is that it is possible to have too little faith, or that faith and the performing of miracles are intimately related.
Three things argue against this interpretation.
First is the context. The disciples’ demand to have their faith added to follows Jesus’ instruction to forgive. (Forgiveness might be miraculous, but it has nothing to do with the moving of mulberry trees.)
A second argument against the idea that Jesus’ saying has to do with the amount of faith one has is revealed by an examination of Greek text. When we do that, we discover that the translators have done what they often do – they have added words. This is because it seems to them that the original text needs additional words in order to make sense. The presumption seems to be – if the disciples have asked Jesus to add to their faith, Jesus response must be related to the size of their faith – which is what the English translation suggests. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” The Greek however says nothing about the size of a mustard seed. A literal translation of the sentence is: “If you had faith as a mustard seed.” Our translators have replaced “as” with “the size of” probably because the idea of a mustard seed having faith presents its own difficulties!
Finally, the fact that the author of the gospel has paired Jesus’ saying about the mustard with the example of the master and slave, suggests that his intention was that we read the two sayings together. Jesus’ example is image from everyday life with which Luke’s readers would have been familiar. In the highly structured culture of the first century, each person fulfilled their assigned role with no expectation that they would be singled out for praise simply for doing what they were meant to do. This interpretation is further strengthened when our attention is drawn to another translation issue.
The final line of the parable is translated as: “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Behind this assumption is the view that slaves would be self-deprecating, or worse that the early Christians (whom we assume to be the slaves) think of themselves as having little value in God’s (the master’s) eyes. We see Jesus’ example quite differently when it is pointed out that the word translated as “worthless” is actually the negative of the word “need”. The sentence could just as easily read: “we are slaves without need.” In other words, the slaves do not need to be thanked for carrying out their role because fulfilling their role is sufficient reward.
In the light of these three points – context, translation, and pairing – it becomes clear that Jesus is not childing the disciples for their lack of faith, rather he is chastising
them for imagining that faith is a commodity – something that can be owned, measured and used. A mustard seed has no choice except to fulfill the purpose for which it was created. A slave has little choice but to do what their master requires. Jesus seems to be encouraging the disciples to be satisfied with fulfilling the purpose for which they were created and with living out their God-given vocation.
He might just as well be saying: “Get over yourselves! Faith is not something to possess but a state of being – in relationship with God and in relationship with others. Be happy with who you are. Live out your vocation faithfully. Trust God to work in and through you and get on with living.”
Jesus says: “Have faith as a mustard seed.” “Be content with the person that you were created to be.”
Our response might be: “We are slaves without need.” “We will live our lives faithfully, allowing ourselves to be used for God’s purpose rather than striving to be what we are not.”