Have you ever noticed how often in the gospel Jesus tells people he’s helped, “Your faith has saved you?” We’d expect him to say, “I have saved you.”
Faith is obviously a big thing for the historical Jesus, so important that Mark tells us it limits his ability to do good things for people. When his hometown folk reject him in chapter 6, the evangelist remarks, “He (Jesus) was not able to perform any mighty deed there. . . He was amazed at their lack of faith.” Though Matthew later changes Mark’s “could not” to “did not,” people’s faith certainly has some effect on Jesus’ actions. And, as I frequently mention in these commentaries, the faith which Jesus’ earliest followers professed wasn’t as much faith in Jesus as it was the faith of Jesus. Imitating him implied they tried to acquire his faith.
Knowing this, the first part of today’s gospel pericope becomes very significant. “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith,’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had the 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.’”
For Luke’s Jesus, the amount of one’s faith isn’t as important as having or not having it. Even the smallest portion is able to work wonders. Yet from what follows it’s clear that faith is more than just something internal. It’s certainly a frame of mind; but it’s a frame of mind which drives one to act. Like servants caring for their master’s needs, people of faith accept obligations which others either don’t notice or reject. That belief seems to be behind the servants’ remark, “. . . We have done what we were obliged to do.”
Of course, real faith doesn’t mean one sits back and passively accepts everything God sends his or her way. Our first reading offers a more active response. Habakkuk is a prophet in the mold of his late 7th century BCE contemporary, Jeremiah. Both are known for frequently giving Yahweh a piece of their mind when things go wrong.
“How long, 0 Yahweh?” Habakkuk asks. “I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene.”
Though Yahweh expects people of faith to object to some aspects of Yahweh’s behavior, Yahweh also expects their faith to carry them beyond their present problems. “For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.”
The author of II Timothy presumes his readers will also accept the obligation to look beyond their present distress. Writing in the “persona” of the imprisoned Paul, he pleads, “... Stir into flame the gift of God that you have. . . For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power and love and self-control... Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.”
For our sacred authors, faith seems to be the power which enables us to do what God wants even though we live in a world that isn’t God’s ideal world. Perhaps this is why Jesus puts so much emphasis on that specific trait. Faith, not some divine intervention, is what will eventually cause this longed-for world to come into existence. When Jesus assures us, “Your faith has saved you!” he’s actually saying, “Your faith is the force which will one day bring about the perfect world you want me to create.”
It’s consoling to know he’s willing to settle for a mustard seed portion of faith. As long as we have some faith, and act on it, things will certainly change.