Luke 17:5-10, "[Since] you have the faith of a mustard seed . . . "
It is not always easy to read the bible. This is why we have so many translations, because one person reads it this way, another a different way. So sometimes you end up with something that is not as clear to us as it would have been to the original readers or hearers. Sometimes what should be clear, is just not.
A part of most good seminary training is to learn how to read Greek and/or Hebrew. You ask most seminary graduates, most pastors if they still read out of their Greek Bibles and most will show you that text sitting on a shelf somewhere, that few if any ever pull down.
I’m not any different than that. You tend to find a translation that you like and stick with it, trusting that the way it reads, is what was written, that the translator has given you not only the words in English, but the sense of those words, of that sentence.
I read my first Greek sentence at the University of Georgia, not seminary. Knowing that I would be going to seminary, I went ahead and took Greek thinking I could test out of it or skip it entirely when I got to seminary. I was partially right on that one.
But when I took Greek at UGA, the professor I had was a man by the name of Edward Best. And Dr. Best is one of those rare birds who reads his Greek Bible over breakfast each morning, so he told us. Dr. Best had to be about 80 years old. He liked to stand in front of us with his hands on his hips, his brown-colored hair sort of waved back like either Donald Trump or a Pentecostal preacher.
And Edward Best knew his Greek . . . and he wanted us to know our Greek.
I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t know whether I was going to make it out of that class. Greek was not easy. In a real way as I studied under this dynamo of a 80 year old Greek teacher, there weren’t enough hours in a day to study, not enough times that I could repeat over and over about how the Spartans warred against the Athenians and how many soldiers Xerxes had or reading the very first paragraph of the gospel of Luke. That passage from Luke is hard Greek, precise Greek, the kind of Greek that Plato wrote in.
I had flash cards; I recited Greek whenever I drove here or there, and then I’d show up every weekday at 8:00AM to sit in a class with about ten other students and be absolutely terrified that Dr. Best was going to decide that it was MY day.
You know teachers that are like this right? They decide that it is your day . . . and watch out. You prepared every day as if it might be YOUR day because you never knew. And when it was YOUR day you wanted to pray, to shout out to God, “Increase my brain!”
It is sort of like the disciples’ plea of “Increase our faith!” It is the kind of cry that says, “I’m not sure I can do this. I am struggling. I don’t know that I have what it takes. This morning I just can’t tell you what the tense of that verb is Dr. Best or what precise kind of clause that is."
But you never said that; you struggled through because that is what you were supposed to do. Because eventually, eventually, you would get it.
The disciples were crying out that their faith needed to be increased because Jesus is teaching them about forgiveness, and about how hard it is to live in community with other people, about how the life of faith, life as a disciple of Jesus is not easy.
It can be hard . . . and sometimes we are just not sure if we can do it or not. I have wondered sometimes whether I can do it; there are just times in our lives that try us, that push us and pull us, this way and that. There are times where it feels like it is “your day” and nothing is exactly going right . . . and we struggle through . . . because that is what we are supposed to do.
“Increase our faith!” the disciples beg of Jesus.
And Jesus says to them as we read it in our Bibles anyhow, Jesus says, “If you had a faith that is even as small as a mustard seed, then you could command that tree to uproot itself (something that would have seemed impossible) and tell it to go plant itself in the sea (something that would have seemed absolutely absurd).”
Jesus is telling them that even with the smallest amount of faith that they could do things that would seem impossible or absurd . . . but that they could.
But I know how I would have felt had I been them that day.
When someone says “if you had this or that”, I assume that I don’t.
That when Edward Best told me that if I could just learn this one declension, this one set of rules about the Greek language, that I would have it. And in my mind I thought immediately, I don’t even have that.
It’s where our mind goes sometimes . . . not to what we have but to what we think we don’t have . . . maybe that’s human nature.
It is what the disciples did too though, thinking that what Jesus was talking about was something that they did not have. We imagine it too. If we had that mustard seed, that small little bit, then we could do it . . . and we assume we don’t have it.
I went looking for it this week, well one of the things I went looking for was some more information on this passage, another translation, another look. One of the commentaries that I go to again and again is this one by a fellow that used to teach up at Emory. He’s a New Testament scholar by the name of Fred Craddock, but he’s also one ofthe best preachers you’ve ever heard. He knows how to tell a story and to leave the ending for you to figure out . . . it takes quite literally that being a disciple means working and serving and thinking and in a real way that means that part of what happens in a sermon is your part, not the preacher's; it is you and God working some of this out together.
Well, I went to Craddock’s commentary on Luke this week, doing some of that work . . . and Craddock started writing in Greek, well about the Greek anyway. And he writes about how this statement by Jesus could be clearer, if we translated it a bit better, helped people get the sense of it.
Jesus says, “If you had a faith the size of a mustard seed,” it is a clause, but a special kind of clause in the Greek. We might assume that Jesus is really saying that the disciples don’t have it, this faith the size of a mustard seed, the same way that we assume that we don’t either, that if we did we could do more, give more, serve more, grow this church more, invite more people to church, serve our community more.
But the kind of clause that Jesus is using here actually means something wholly different. It is kind of way you talk about something when you assume that the “if” is in-fact true!
That’s different; that’s very different.
That’s like saying well “if we are coming to the Lord's table later in this service (and we are), then we will be able to take the supper of our Lord.”
“If we continue to grow this church (and we will), then we will be able to be a place of love and hope that shares the good news about Jesus in this community.”
Craddock writes that this “is not a reprimand for an absence of faith but an affirmation of the faith they have and an invitation to live out the full possibilities of that faith.”
But we assume we don’t have what we really do. Jesus is telling the disciples and us that we do. We assume that we cannot do what we really can. Jesus is telling us that even things that we might think are impossible or absurd, we can do them.
And then Jesus tells this story about duty, about a slave who does what they are told to do, that does not question why they are doing it, that does not say when they have done part of what has been required that they should be praised for that part. Jesus describes one who simply does what they are supposed to do, who asks for no thanks or glory for simply doing what was supposed to be done.
I think of the firefighters and police officers on September 11th. I think of our troops out in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan. They all serve nobly and all seem to say the same thing, in nearly the same way, “I was just doing my job.” I was just doing my job.
And our job as the church is to seek and save those who are lost and lonely. Our job is to be that place of hope and love and to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Our job is to be the church in this place . . . and it is not a job that we seek acolades for, pats on the back; it is simply our duty being the followers of Christ that we are.
And as we come to Lord's table in our congregations, we should take a moment to pray, not that you would have that mustard seed of faith; this is usually not the problem. But perhaps we should pray that we would hear the words of Christ to us that we do have what we need, that we as the church in this place can do what God wants us to do here.