In the reading taken from the Gospel of Luke (17:5-10), the disciples say to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” There is nothing new about such a request in the gospels, especially coming from the group of followers whom Jesus had chosen, for they seem to struggle with having faith in Jesus throughout the whole of Jesus’ public ministry. But as I prepared this reflection, I thought I should look at the previous Sunday’s reading to see why it was that the disciples were making such a request at this moment in the gospel. It turns out that the previous Sunday contained the gospel story of the rich man Dives and the poor man Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). I was a bit puzzled with this discovery and began to think that the disciples were making such a request because of the reversal of fortune that left them so uncomfortable. But then I thought I should look at a Bible, since the lectionary does not always follow story upon story. What I discovered absolutely amazed me. It turns out that the lectionary left out four verses between the gospel selections of the 26th and 27th Sundays in Year C, the year in which Luke’s Gospel is read. Here are the omitted verses:
He said to his disciples, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.” (Lk 17:1-4)
No wonder the disciples asked for an increase in faith! Jesus had just indicated that they were to forgive people who have repented seven times in one day! Seriously, I have a hard time forgiving anyone once a day, even if they are really sorry. Imagine even something small, such as someone forgetting your name several times at a conference or a party. Even if he were sincere in his apologies, I would find it difficult to forgive him and would probably carry that with me, not only in my thoughts, but probably also by talking badly about this person to others until I got it out of my system. Forgive him? Okay, once, maybe twice, but not seven times. As an indication that Jesus knows the challenging nature of this teaching, he begins by stating, “Be on your guard!”
This brings us back to our Lukan passage where the disciples cry out for an increase in faith! The revelation by Jesus about God’s compassion and forgiveness seems impossible to us. No wonder, then, that Jesus responds to their request for more faith by saying, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Lk 17:6). From our perspective, forgiving someone seven times in one day, even if she is sorry, is no more possible than telling a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. Both actions are equally impossible in our eyes. What Jesus is trying to teach us, however, is that a little faith can do the impossible. With a little faith, we can stop loving in the flawed and narrow way of a human being and start loving as God loves. With a little faith, we can conform ourselves to Christ, allowing God to work within us, discovering as St. Paul did, that “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).