The Faith of a Mustard Seed. “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. One might expect Jesus to well receive the request for more faith, but the response seems to imply that the disciples do not (yet) understand the real nature of faith. The saying is grammatically complex in Greek. The first part of verse 6 is a construct that implies the disciples do have the faith, but the second part of the verse contradicts that positive assessment with the implication that the disciples have not yet scratched the surface of the real nature of faith.
The disciples assume that the have faith and they will need more to accomplish what Jesus as taught in vv.1-5. Jesus seems to be saying they don’t even have faith is the smallest quantity (hence the reference to the mustard seed). The point is not that they need more faith, but that they need to understand the faith allows God to work in a person’s life in ways that defy ordinary human experience. This saying is not about performing extraordinary miracles, but that with even the smallest of faith, God can help them to live by his teachings on discipleship.
[Note: other commentaries suggest that Jesus is affirming their faith – in other words, they do not need more. If they would believe and act on the faith that they already have, then they can rebuke and repent and forgive within the community, it will happen. In essence, he seems to imply that they don’t need more faith, but to make use of the faith that they already have. Why the difference? It depends on how one assesses the conditional primary and secondary clauses present in the verse.]
Graced Service. “Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? 8 Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? 9 Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”
This parable presents an opposite picture of the master and slaves given in Luke 12:37. There the master has been out traveling and when he returns home, he has the slaves sit down to eat and he serves them. There one hears the theme of the great reversals so prevalent in that portion of Luke. Here, Alan Culpepper expresses the meaning of this parable very succinctly: “The disciples can do what God requires – through faith – but disciples never do more than is required” (324).
Joel Green (The Gospel of Luke) writes about this word:
In this script, “thanks” would not refer to a verbal expression of gratitude or social politeness, but to placing the master in debt to the slave. In the master-slave relationship, does the master come to owe the slave special privileges because the slave fulfills his daily duties? Does the slave, through fulfilling his ordinary duties to the master, become his master’s patron? Of course not! Similarly, “worthless slaves” (v. 10) refers to slaves to whom no favor is due (and not to uselessness). [p. 614]
If the apostles have the increased faith, letting God work through them, they can do what is expected of them: stand up to temptations, not causing temptations, rebuking and forgiving those who have sinned against them, repenting of their own misdeeds. Still they have only done what’s expected of them. They shouldn’t expect any special favors from God for being such a good Christian. With such an attitude one would well count themselves among the little ones, and truly understand what it is to be a servant of God.
Culpepper continues his reflection:
Nevertheless, God owes us nothing for living good, Christian, lives. God’s favor and blessing are matters of grace — they cannot be earned. Therefore, when we assume that we can deal with God on the basis of what God owes us, we have made a basic mistake. We have rejected grace as the basis of our relationship to God and based that relationship on our own worth and merit. Grace, by definition, is a free gift. [pp. 323-324]
A Final Thought .These ten verses challenge Christians (a) not to be a hindrance to the discipleship of others, (b) to rebuke those who sin and forgive all who ask for forgiveness, and (c) and when you have done all this not to assume that you have done more than your duty. These ten verses are a reminder that faithfulness, forgiveness and humility are required of those who would be obedient to the Word of Jesus. Perhaps the first two are the most difficult to live, but the lack of humility is perhaps the more dangerous. It prevents us from experiencing the depth of God’s love and likely leads to a superior attitude and false spirituality that becomes an obstacle to the little ones and a barrier to being charitable in our forgiveness. Such a pitfall makes clear why St. Bonaventure wrote that humility is the guardian and gateway to all the other virtues.
Luke 17:6 If you have faith the size of a mustard seed: In Greek there is a “future conditional clause”: “If you were to have the faith of a mustard seed …” implying that you don’t have that faith now (Matt 17:20). There is also an “according to present reality conditional clause”: “If you have the faith of a mustard seed [and you do] …” (Luke 17:6). Luke seems to be affirming that they have the faith to do what is expected of them (the theme of vv. 7-10). you would say to (this) mulberry tree: Yet the construct of the second half of the verse implies, that in fact they do not have the faith to do what is expected of them.
- Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995) pp. 320-24
- Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 610-15
- Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 257-62
- Jerome Kodell, “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) pp. 966-7
- Leon Morris,. Luke: An introduction and commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 3: (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988) pp. 272
- K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007) p. 345
- Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com
Dictionaries – Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995, c1985).
- Stahlin, skándalon , 3:339-58
- Stauffer, epitimáō, 2:623-7
- Behm, metanoēsē , 4:948-80
Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. ©