Ordinary Sunday 27 (06-10-2019)

Read Luke 17:1-10

“And he said, ‘Unleash the faith you already have.’”

When I lived in the Southern Highands of NSW, I met Hugh Macaky,  a social commentator, author and columnist. In one of his columns he wrote: “A survey published… by Edith Cowan University has revealed the depth of the Australian paradox.  See how chirpy, sports mad and easy going we all are?  Well, yes, but see how anxious and insecure we are, too”. (Sun-Herald, 26 Sept. 2004. Pg: 82).

Business is not unaware of the power that comes their way when they create a problem for us to worry about, e.g. bad breath, and then offer to sell us a product to ease our anxiety.  You will remember the ad some years back for the toothpaste that provided the user with a “ring of confidence.” 

Also, politicians wanting to be re-elected have at the core of their campaign strategy, tactics that play on our sense of anxiety. Indeed, they count on us seeking security and comfort, allowing them to protect us, rather than risking the so-called stresses and challenges of change.  Be it about so-called illegal boat people, the economy, work-place relations or taxation reform, one party will claim that they have the path to salvation, whilst the other party will lead the nation to oblivion.

Similarly, Luke has the disciples of Jesus in the first part of today’s reading, making a ‘comfort’ or ‘security’ request of him: make our faith greater.  But Jesus replies: “unleash, expend, use… the faith you already have.”

Mustard bushes

Faith is a style by which life and work are done.  It’s not a commodity that can be hoarded and marketed.  It’s a way of seeing and a way of being.  It’s an attitude toward life.

Many understand faith as a set of beliefs, affirmations or Bible verses committed to memory.  They believe that to build up ones faith, one strives to learn more about Jesus and intentionally try harder to believe it; some of it far too unbelievable for comfort.

Fortunately, for those that seek and question, faith evolves and grows until it sheds its beliefs, even beliefs about God, and as Henry Nelson Wieman wrote, faith becomes “not a verbal statement.  It is a way of life”, thus taking faith out of the arena of propositions to be believed and into the field of action.

And then there was Andrew Greeley, poet, priest and sociologist, who wrote:  “There is no such thing as a little faith anymore than there is a little pregnancy. Faith is an overwhelming power no matter how weak it may seem”.

These and other great thinkers didn’t say anything about a set of beliefs or affirmations, even though honest theological thinking is important.  They didn’t say anything about providing answers to a set of questions, even though an intelligent religion is more healthy than an unbelievable one.  They didn’t say anything about shooting God into the hearts of others, as we so often experience in the words of many evangelical Christians.  Rather, their comments invite us to recognise and acknowledge the presentness of God already there!

From a study of the historical Jesus, it seems he recognised the presence of faith in the most unlikely of places. As faith is an action rather than a commodity, it is visible to any with the eyes to see. And in most cases, it is easily seen, because it is an action, a launching out, a moving on against what appears to be overwhelming odds.

Faith is action in the face of doubt.  Indeed, by definition, doubt is always a part of faith: two sides of the same coin. I like New Testament scholar Brandon Scott’s comment: “Theology can never begin by assuming that it already has the answer. Any theology that does not begin with radical doubt is basically dishonest.” For where there is radical doubt, there is also the possibility of new beginnings, of imagination, of hope. Where there is no doubt, there is no need of faith.  And where there is real faith, the changes that free one to live becomes possible.

But this is only the first part of today’s story.  The second part – the bit about slaves or servants – jars our 21st century sensibilities.  Indeed, this saying by Luke reflects the social conservatism of Christianity around the end of the first century and the beginning of the second. For it is also from this same period that we get the psuedo-Pauline Pastoral Epistles, Timothy and Titus, with their household codes that exhort Christians to reflect proper respect to those above them in the social order: wives to husbands, children to fathers, slaves to masters.  How anyone ever believed that Paul wrote these letters is beyond me, for they were totally contrary to the freedom in Christ about which he actually did write.

In these collections, as in today’s passage from Luke’s gospel, the radical vision of Jesus has given way to the collective instinct that traditional values should not be challenged.  This is mirrored in the contemporary call of politicians wanting to be re-elected, with their claims for ‘family values’ and faith-based engagement in party politics.

Greg Jenks, Australian biblical scholar, asks: 

“Are Gospel values to be found in historical expressions of human society embodied in religion, OR in a prophetic critique of any and every human institution that claims ultimate value?… 

…The Bible does not fit neatly with our cultural assumptions. The immense spiritual value of the Bible may lie more in its capacity to empower our human quest than its ability to (re)solve our immediate challenges.”

We find out what life is all about through the living of it, empowered by the Bible, but not constrained by it.  Inspired by it, but not slaves to it. We are always becoming. To be alive is to be becoming.  And the engine that drives us is faith.  This is what faith is all about: a way of living, an attitude, a vision, that re-creates us daily. Even if your faith is like a small seed particle you have within your grasp a potent life force. Unleash it!

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