Proper 22C: The Apostles’ Retirement Plan
By: Ryan Young
My wife and I are, by all accounts, yuppies. We are young professionals who live a fairly comfortable life in the suburbs of Atlanta. We have two cars, a mortgage, and a dog; the only things that seem to be left on our checklists are 2.5 kids and a white picket fence. And a healthy retirement plan. And good life insurance. And a good investment portfolio (…should I know what a mutual bond is by now?). And a bit more recognition in our work lives. And one of those cars is a little old, so we’d better start shopping for a new one. And I would love for another week of vacation. And I guess we really ought to start thinking about kids; most of our friends already have children in day care. Oh my gosh, we haven’t even started looking into day cares in our area; I hear they start taking reservations for the one-year-old classes 2 years in advance! What if it’s too late to reserve a spot for our future kids, and then they start off without the best educational foundation? How are they going to get into a good college? College! How are we ever going to pay for that! We’d better get started saving now!
The above, apart from being a fun look inside my grab bag of neuroses and insecurities, is where I think the apostles’ heads were when they beg Jesus for more faith in Luke 17:5. Jesus has just laid down an incredibly difficult teaching in verses 1-4; not only is Jesus clear about how seriously he takes it when one of his followers causes someone else to sin, but he says that no matter how often someone sins against you, if they are repentant, a disciple is commanded to extend forgiveness. The demands that Jesus is putting on the disciples are exhausting, so they begin thinking of ways that would make following Jesus easier on them.
“If Jesus could endow us with a greater portion of faith,” they seem to think, “then it would be easier for us to fulfill these commands.” I’m not sure whether the apostles hoped that Jesus would respond to their plea by reducing his expectations of them, or by equipping them with a superhuman faith that would make his expectations easier to meet. Whatever their hope, Jesus responds in a way that I don’t think they anticipated; he comments, not on their need for more faith, but on their lack of understanding of the nature of faith.
In his commentary on Luke, Fred Craddock writes that the “if” clause in verse 6 is conditional according to fact rather than contrary to fact, and thus might better be understood, “If you had faith [and you do] the size of a mustard seed…” Jesus is then not rebuking them for their lack of faith, but explaining to them that the measure of faith they possess is adequate to the calling which he has placed on them. The absurd image of commanding a tree to uproot itself, walk into the ocean, and replant itself, conveys the idea that nothing is out of the realm of possibility for God; that God works through faith in ways that are contrary to human expectations. Jesus is telling the disciples that they already have the full measure of faith that they need to live up to his expectations and example, but I suspect they already knew that. I think that the disciples were acting in a way that I am so often guilty of; they were looking for an easier way.
This is the point at which I find the disciples to be the most relatable. I am always looking for the path of least resistance. I am always seeking that one thing, that once I attain it will make the other pieces of my life fall in line. We are people for whom ease and comfort are the primary goals. So much of our culture is geared toward this idea; we are driven to achieve not for the sake of the achievement or work, but so that on some distant day we might be able to rest comfortably on our laurels. We work hard so that eventually we will have enough in the bank and we won’t have to work anymore. Like us, the disciples are looking for the path of least resistance; if they have an increase of faith, the difficult tasks of loving and serving become easier. Perhaps they are even hoping that an increase of faith might speed them toward a time when their period of service ends.
It is to the desire for an easier way that Jesus seems to direct the parable in verses 7-10. A servant does not anticipate to be lauded for doing those things that are expected of them, nor does a servant ever reach a time when their duty is completely fulfilled; once they come in from plowing the field they know they must till and reseed it. Likewise, there will never come a time when the work of Jesus’ disciples is complete; the needy must always be served, the mourning must always be comforted, the hurting must always be loved, those who have aggrieved you must always be forgiven. There is no respite to the work of love, for love is always and everywhere needed in as great a measure as it can be given.
Ryan Young was raised in Charleston, South Carolina and grew up in The Episcopal Church. He joined the Methodist Church while he was a student at Clemson University (Go Tigers!). He earned my Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology in 2012 and has been in student ministry ever since. He currently resides in Roswell, Georgia with his wife Rachael and their dog Zooey.