When Jesus told his disciples, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you,” He was not talking about the power of faith at all. He was talking about the necessity of obedience.
For the biblically impaired, the backstory is this: Jesus is traveling through Judea, delivering some of his more famous if misunderstood parables, such as the Parable of the Unjust Steward and the Parable of Lazarus.* Then he gets to the matter of forgiveness among men and especially among his followers.
Now, I’m going to present the entire teaching below, but I’m going to lay out the gist of the conversation here so you can use it as an interpretive framework. Unfortunately, too many people divorce the teaching from its context, and so draw horrible lessons from it.
Here’s the framework, which is deceptively simple:
- Jesus: “Forgive your brother.” (Luke 17:3-4)
- Disciples: “We can’t do that.” (Luke 17:5)
- Jesus: “Do it anyway.” (Luke 17:6-10)
Jesus said, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' forgive him.” - Luke 17:3-4
Now here’s a pretty tough command. The idea here is that the brother is sinning against you personally - burning your house down, banging your wife, whatever. But it’s a sin that you must forgive, which means that you must let it go. You must release him from any sense of debt to you and you must give up any feeling of “getting him back” for it. It’s a hard saying. But it’s also how God forgives us.
How many times have you asked God to forgive you for theft or lust or drunkenness or whatever, the same sin you’ve committed for years, even decades? That’s how you need to forgive: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And, For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. It’s a hard saying, but if you ask it of God, God demands it back of you.
The Disciples were having none of that:
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" - Luke 17:5
Here’s the part that preachers ignore: the Disciples’ plea is a response to the command to forgive. They do not say, “Yes, Lord.” They don’t say, “OK, we’ll try.” They say, “Increase our faith,” as if it’s some kind of a religious shortcoming that they don’t forgive.** They want Jesus to do something about it, to make it easier, to push it off to people who are more holy. But it’s never easy. It’s not easy for us, and it’s not easy for God. The parallel is the point.
Cook their response how you wish, but it boils down to “We can’t forgive like that and it’s not because we choose not to. We don't have it in us.” It’s a pushing of responsibility off of themselves. To understand Jesus’ next statement, you have to understand it as a response to that claim.
And the Lord said, "If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea'; and it would obey you.’” - Luke 17:6
Whatever preachers preach about the power of faith, the fact remains that Christianity is not filled with examples of mulberry trees flying into the ocean. Jesus is not speaking literally, but metaphorically to illustrate a point. And the point is not the power of faith at all.
He is saying that more faith will not help them. They do not need greater belief in God or his goodness to do this. If even a little faith allows one to do great things, and they rebel at doing this little thing, then it’s obviously not a lack of faith that is their problem. He swats their objection away by saying that they have all the faith they need.
What their problem actually is Jesus then illustrates by the next 4 verses:
"Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come immediately and sit down to eat'? But will he not say to him, 'Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink '? [The master] does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.'" - Luke 17-7-10
And therein is the true answer and the teaching. God tells you, his servant if you are a Christian, to forgive those who sin against you. God is not going to thank you for doing that. He’s not going to praise you or give you a whizzo button. When you do what you are commanded, you are simply acting out your service. If you claim the forgiveness of salvation, as every Christian, every slave of God does, then you are commanded to forgive the same way. And when you forgive, you don’t get to be a martyr about it, you don’t get to claim a halo for it, and you don’t get to demand that God give you something more to help you to do it. You do it. Or not.
“As we forgive those who trespass against us” puts us under a debt to God. It sets a standard to which we hold God and he holds us. If you want to be a Christian, then you must forgive as God does. But if you want God to thank you, if you want God to praise you, if you want God to reward you for your epic forgiveness toward others, then out-forgive God.
Good luck with that.
* Which is more misunderstood than this section, if that were possible.
** After all, if they did forgive, they would have no need to ask for increased faith.