Sermon: A Little Faith and A Lot of Obedience


Jesus’ story of the mustard seed and faith might mean something different than we’ve often thought.  I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow, from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 17:5-10.

A Little Faith and A Lot of Obedience

Luke 17:5-10

5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

6He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

7“Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ”  -Luke 17:5-10 NIV

Two Warnings And a Plea for More Faith

As we gather at the Lord’s Table today, we encounter this passage from the Gospel of Luke.  It’s a familiar story, but usually we read the story from Matthew’s Gospel because Matthew has Jesus saying that if you have faith even as small as a mustard seed, you can command a mountain to be thrown into the sea.

Here in Luke’s Gospel, however, Jesus uses a slightly different image.  He has just given the disciples two warnings about the life of faith.  In the first warning Jesus says, “Sin comes into people’s lives, but don’t be the person who causes others to sin, especially children.”

Then, Jesus spins his teaching in the opposite direction by saying, “And if someone sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him.”  Now that sounds logical enough, but then Jesus adds, “And if he sins against you seven times in one day, and repents, then you are to forgive him all seven times.”

In other words, don’t cause people to sin, especially children.  And, don’t prevent others from turning from sin by refusing to forgive them.  Even if they sin against you seven times in one day, you’re to forgive them all seven times!

At those words, the disciples seem to throw up their hands in resignation, because Jesus has just laid out two scenarios that outline our responsibility for the spiritual and ethical lives of others.  We are  not to lead them into sin, especially those who are the least mature and most vulnerable.  And, we are to forgive those immediately and repeatedly who struggle to break free from the grip of sin.  That’s a lot of responsibility, and it ran counter to the idea that righteous people have no responsibility for others.

Remember the story Jesus tells about the righteous man and the publican.  The righteous man lifts up his eyes to heaven and tells God, “I’m glad you didn’t make me like him!”  Obviously, he felt no responsibility for the humble publican beside him who lowered his eyes and prayed, “God have mercy on me a sinner.”

But back to our disciples.  They seem both desperate and exasperated, and they respond to Jesus’ teaching by saying, “Okay, Lord, if that’s what you want us to do, increase our faith!”  Literally, they were saying, “Add to our faith.”  In other words, “We need some help here!”

Jesus’ Impossible Reply To The Disciples

Now we get to the part we think we know very well.  Jesus replies by saying,

“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

Matthew’s Gospel records Jesus’ reply in a similar fashion, but instead of uprooting a tree, Matthew records Jesus saying you can move mountains!

It was believed that prophets would “uproot mountains” which is exactly the image Jesus uses in Matthew’s account.  But the idea of uprooting is also present in Luke’s account.  But a little faith uproots a mulberry tree instead of a mountain.  Both, however, get cast into the sea.  This is not a small feat by any means, and a little faith is the key to it.

It appears that Jesus is setting up an impossible goal for the disciples.  None of them have even “mustard seed” faith apparently because there is no record of trees, much less mountains, being flung into the sea by the disciples, or anyone else for that matter.

Here’s the way we usually handle this passage.  We act like Jesus is saying something that is achievable, but of course, he doesn’t mean it literally, we say.  Rather, Jesus means that even a little faith can move mountains — obstacles that might be in our way.  “Mountain-moving faith” we call it, or “mustard seed” faith.  Remember when you could buy necklaces and bracelets that had a single mustard seed incased in a ball of plastic that magnified its size?  A little faith accomplishes big things!

But suppose that’s not what Jesus means here. Because it never happens.  The disciples never exhibit that kind of faith, as though faith were a superpower like super heroes possess.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t telling them they needed more faith, maybe he was telling them they already had enough to do what they needed to do.

Why do I say that?  Well, suppose Jesus is saying, “You want faith.  Let me tell you how powerful faith is.  Just a mustard seed amount of faith can uproot trees (or mountains).”

But Jesus hasn’t asked them to uproot trees or mountains, or even to accomplish the impossible.  He’s just told them not to cause other people to sin, and when others do sin, to forgive them.  That is not mountain-moving by any means, or even tree-uprooting for that matter.

We Have Enough Faith To Be Faithful

I really think that what Jesus is telling the disciples is this — “You have enough faith to be faithful.” In other words, he is saying, “You don’t even need a mustard seed size faith.  The little bit of faith you have is enough for you to do what I’ve called you to do.”

Why do I think that?  Because of what Jesus says after the mustard seed story.  He gives an example of a servant, a story that seems to have nothing to do with faith, or with the question the disciples just asked.

Jesus says, “Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’

So, Jesus turns from an example of faith to an example of faithfulness to illustrate his point.  Probably Jesus and the disciples are outdoors, walking along.  Jesus has already pointed to a mustard plant, and a mulberry tree.  Now he points to a servant plowing a field, and another looking after sheep.  Both were very common practices in that day, and visual examples were easy to spot.

Then Jesus weaves a little story around the servants.  “Suppose your servant comes in from the field.  You as the master don’t say to him, ‘You look really tired.  Come, sit down and eat, and take it easy!’

“No, the logical thing is that when the servant comes in, before he can eat, he has to prepare the meal for his master.  Only after he finishes all his chores, can he then eat.  And, at the end of the day, he doesn’t get special praise because he’s just doing what a servant does.”

Then Jesus brings the point home —

“So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ “

We’ve just done our duty, we haven’t done anything extra.  We’re God’s servants.  God has given us all the faith we need to serve him, to live our lives as we should.  And that’s all we have to do — do our duty.  Be faithful, live like we’re supposed to.  And none of that takes a supernatural amount of faith, only a little faithfulness.

I read somewhere that when men help around the house, they expect some kind of recognition.  So, when we’re finished vacuuming, or folding the clothes, or with some other chore, we men want our wives to see what we’ve done and give us some reward.

“Honey, did you see how great the carpet looks after I vacuumed it?”  Or, “Just look at those windows, I did a great job cleaning them, don’t you think?”

Women, I am told, just go about their business doing stuff for which they do not expect, or receive, recognition.  That’s what Jesus is saying here.  Even if you’ve done a great job of serving God, of not leading others to sin, of forgiving others when they do, you’ve only done what you were supposed to.

The Good News About Faith

So, the good news about faith is, we’ve already got enough.  We have enough faith to be faithful.  And so as we gather at this table today, we gather encouraged that we don’t have to demonstrate mountain-moving faith, or even tree-throwing faith!  We don’t have to be a spiritual superhero to serve God.  We have all the faith we need to be faithful.

It is interesting that at this table, Jesus has done it all.  In the account we will read in a few moments, Jesus has all the action verbs.

Jesus takes the bread.  Jesus blesses it.  Jesus breaks it.  Jesus gives it to us.  And with the cup it’s the same.  Jesus does it all.  He gives us his broken body, his shed blood.  He does what we could not do for ourselves.  He both becomes and offers the sacrifice we need.

He gives us all we need, including faith, to be faithful to him.  As we come to this table today, let’s examine our own hearts, because even if we have done everything we were supposed to do, we are still just doing what servants do.

9 thoughts on “Sermon: A Little Faith and A Lot of Obedience”

  1. “We are not to lead them into sin, especially those who are the least mature and most vulnerable.”

    Critical advice in this day and age where so many – claiming to be Christian, seem to be content saying anything that supports their opinions on the issues of the day.

  2. “So, the good news about faith is, we’ve already got enough.”

    So few are saying this today. Christ is our sufficient means. In him God has given us all that we need.

  3. Everything that you said here that is true will be ruined by the one paragraph that is hear say even from your own admission. The paragraph about the alleged difference between men and women is insulting to men. Do you believe this huge generalization that has no basis in fact? Do you want men to respond to your ministry or write it off as one that hands out baseless insults? Why would you put in a paragraph like that?

  4. It’s a joke, Tim. But, if it makes you feel any better, I forgot to include this last Sunday. BTW, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m a man of the male species. (I actually think that what I wrote is probably true, but I still intended it for the obligatory comic relief.)

    1. It does not read like a joke at all. Thank God for supernaturally placed forgetting. I am full aware of your maleness but I’m not sure you are aware of widespread tragic realities of the clergy/laity split in the household of faith that leaves men severely dumbed down from what God has designed them to be and do when the saints gather. There are plenty of men out there who are more than willing to play the self-centered immature role and excuse it as “that’s just normal for me, even the preacher says so and thinks it’s funny.” I enjoy laughing but not at tragic realities.

  5. Pastor Warnock,

    I agree with your main point, that God has given us all the faith we need to serve him, to live our lives as we should.

    But about your conclusion that “even if we have done everything we were supposed to do, we are still just doing what servants do.” What about passages like John 15:15 and Galatians 4 that call us as “friends” and “sons of God”? Is this what our relationship with God boils down to… mere servanthood? Is this what Jesus died for, to make us servants?

  6. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

    If he who is our master has called us his friends, and a servant is not above his master, and the master has become a servant, then how much more so should we? So yes, Christ died to make us servants. Indeed, the whole world refuses to serve. That is what distinguishes the sheep from the goats. Christ, Philippians says, did not consider that even being very God was a thing to hold onto. Rather, he takes on the position of an unworthy servant. This mind should also be in us, that when we have done all, we are to consider ourselves unworthy. Because of his voluntary servility, God has highly exalted him. To us, Scripture adjures, humble yourself and God will exalt you. Of this path, the way of the servant, Christ said, take up your cross and follow me and so he girded himself with a towel and taking a basin washed the feet of his disciples.

    Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

  7. You only answered part of my question, Did Christ die to make us servants? What about Galatians 4:1-7?

    What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. (Galatians 4:1-7, italics mine)

    Or Romans 8:17?

    Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ…

    If Jesus died to make us servants, why did Paul and other N.T. writers speak so extensively of our sonship? (See Rom 8:14-23; Gal 3:26; Eph 1:5; Heb 2:10-14, 12:5-8; 1 Jn 3:1-2.) Yet they mention our servant-hood only in passing? (See Phil 1:1; 1 Cor 3:5, 4:1; 2 Cor 4:5, 6:4, 11:23; 1 Pet 2:16.)

    Furthermore, in Luke 17 Jesus was not speaking to born-again, Spirit-filled believers – he was speaking to people who were still under the Law. The night before his crucifixion, he told his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends.” This and the other verses I mentioned must certainly be taken into account when interpreting Luke 17.

    How can I be an “unworthy servant,” “no longer a servant,” and “a son and heir” all at the same time? If you are saying that, before people, we ought to lay down our “rights” as sons in order to serve them with humility, as Christ did, then I agree. But if you are saying that our primary identity in God’s eyes is that of a unworthy servant, then you are ignoring the entirely of Scripture on this matter and painting an inaccurate picture of our who we became when Christ died for us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s