Sabrina Pasterski got her pilot’s license, rebuilt the engine and body of a Cessna 150, then finally flew it two days before she turned fourteen. She graduated from every level of her education with perfect grades, including a Physics degree at MIT and a PhD in Theoretical Physics from Harvard. (For those of us not familiar with the concept, that’s one hundred percent in everything, all the time, her whole life.) Her paper about asymptotic symmetries and electromagnetic theory is part of Harvard’s graduate school curriculum.
Sabrina has won more academic awards and written more research papers than I can fit here. She is known as Physics Girl and she regularly writes and lectures around the world. She is continually engaged in numerous research projects.
Hey Brian, tell us about your accomplishments!
Me? Well, shucks … I do have a few of my own. I didn’t have any perfect grades but I did successfully sit in the back row of 100% of my classes. I learned to make grilled cheese in my early twenties. I’ve pretty much mastered how to cut-and-paste. I cut my own hair. I can drive in Toronto. As if that’s not enough, I also blog each week on a website for less than no pay.
So Sabrina and Brian are examples of people with different abilities who are traveling at different speeds and going to different places. Yet we are successful both because of our ability and in spite of our ability.
In popular Christian culture we often make the mistake of admiring high achievers or rewarding end results. Obvious, exorbitant spirituality is seen as the best kind. We admire the God-given talent of gifted preachers, talented musicians, beautiful singers, expressive prayers. We respect those who build big religious organizations or argue compellingly for some Christian ethic. We suppose them to be people of great faith and they help us feel good about our lack of it.
The problem is, that kind of thinking is wrong-headed and backwards to what Scripture teaches. We are all gifted differently in talents but God prefers our faith to be simple obedience. In other words, you already have enough faith to do what God expects of you.
Today’s Lectionary readings are all about trouble in life and the goodness that can eventually flow out of trusting God. Faith in God is common throughout. However the gospel reading from Luke has always been a puzzler.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Show us how to increase our faith.”
The Lord answered, “If you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘May you be uprooted and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you! – Luke 17:5-6 (NLT)
In the context of a discussion about sin and forgiveness, Jesus’ disciples ask him how to increase their faith (a good request, right?). He responds with an exaggerated metaphor of a tiny seed of faith that can uproot a large, tangled tree, toss it in the ocean and re-grow it there. Hmmm.
This illustration is often used by Christians for both motivation and hope. If we had a bit more faith we could change this, fix that, heal so-and-so. Keep praying – it can happen if you only believe!
However, I’m not aware of anyone who has ever had a mustard seed faith. No one. Ever. Oh, a few amazing events might happen, God might move in life situations, a statistically random healing might occur, but reliable, regular, uprooted-tree moments are extremely rare. We keep telling ourselves that it’s possible, that we need more faith, and keep feeling inadequate that we don’t.
I think this is an example of why study and reflection are preferable to literal readings of Scripture. Look at the context and wording of the passage – Jesus isn’t saying we need to somehow grow more faith. Instead he seems to be saying that quantity of faith is not important, that we already have enough faith to disciple and forgive others.
Or to simplify even more, the little faith you have is enough for you to live faithfully.
But Jesus doesn’t leave it there, he opens up another discussion when he uses the example of an obedient slave. Again, a literal reading of this can be confusing, even dangerous. Is Jesus saying that slavery is okay and that we should expect them to be totally obedient?
“When a servant comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, ‘Come in and eat with me’? No, he says, ‘Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later.’ And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do? Of course not. In the same way, when you obey me you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.’” – Luke 17:7 – 10 (NLT)
It is helpful to understand that the culture they were in was built on the assumption of slavery. Slaves in the ancient Roman world were typical and considered necessary to most. Jesus is simply using an example that would be understood. (Of note: the early church began to treat slaves as equals almost immediately.)
Second, we are reminded that a slave’s role is simply to do what needs to be done. In this case the slave isn’t even a very good one. Nevertheless a slave doesn’t do their work out of hope for great reward or accomplishment but simply because there is a task that needs to be done. Jesus here again reinforces that faith isn’t about accomplishments but simply about trusting God with the tasks we find in front of us.
We live in a culture that idolizes accomplishments, even spiritual ones. Jesus seems to be reminding us that the main purpose of faith is not to perform miracles or move metaphorical trees but simply to trust him. He reassures us that our smaller-than-a-mustard-seed faith is exactly the amount we need to please God.
Repeat after me: I already have enough faith to do what God wants me to do.
That’s good news for me in particular because I’m no Sabrina Pasterski.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
On the subject of faith, Cheryl and I have been on a bit of a journey for the past year and a half as we have been searching for a new place to call home; a place to call our own as a new couple. With no idea where that might be, our preference was a location in the country that would also be more central to our children. While it’s very much a ‘first-world’ problem to have, nevertheless we trusted that God would walk with us.
After much searching and hand-wringing and wondering if it would ever work out, we have finally settled in to a plan to move to the Northumberland area.
Because of this, you have perhaps noticed that our posts have been a bit irregular recently. We’re hoping to settle back into a normal rhythm but we appreciate your patience as we are trying to manage the transition.
In the end we have reconfirmed that God is good.