Mustard Seed Faith
Mustard Seed faith doesn't come from exhorting you to believe, demanding you just have faith,' or threatening you if you don't. Mustard Seed faith is a miracle. Only God does miracles.
Mustard Seed faith is in a God who uses cruel and unusual punishment. That's what that is right? Tie a millstone, it's the word for the smaller millstone turned by hand not by an animal, around a person's neck and throw him into the sea is cruel and unusual, isn't it? There are Muslim countries who still lop of hands for stealing, but do you know any that use drowning by millstone? Only mobsters, only criminals give someone a pair of cement shoes. Yet here is God in flesh and blood threatening just such a cruel and unusual punishment, and that's whom you are to believe in?
And this punishment isn't directed at murderers or sexual sinners or idolaters specifically. It's directed at anyone who causes people to sin. That's what our insert says, but that's not what the Greek says. What is bound to come is literally skandala, and you can hear in that Greek word our English word scandal. But the Greek is more pointed than what our English has come to mean. The Greek word denoted the part of an animal trap which sprung the device. One commentator translates "deathtrap" (Lenski, 863). So this isn't about causing someone to sin; it's about causing someone to die and not physically but spiritually, not once but forever.
Still it seems cruel and unusual. But in the spiritual rebellion of Korah the Lord caused the ground to open and swallowed them, their tents, their wives, and their little ones (Numbers 16:27). The 10 plagues were no cakewalk. In the last, the firstborn of every Egyptian - royal, slave, imprisoned - and even of cattle was slaughtered by the angel of the Lord and a collective wail went up from the land (Exodus 12:29). I could go on. There was the Flood that drowned an earth full of people and every living thing that walked on the land or flew in the air. There was the hellfire and brimstone that rained down on the five cities of Sodom killing everyone. It seems God doesn't care if we consider something cruel or unusual.
If you read the text carefully, it doesn't actually say God would do the cruel and unusual thing of tying a millstone around a person's neck and pitching them into the sea. He says for the person who was going to be a deathtrap, it would be "better for him" if that happened. Furthermore, God actually did far worse than this to His only beloved Son.
The Assyrians started impaling, but the Romans perfected crucifixion. It was designed by them to be cruel and unusual. It was meant to inflict maximum pain for the longest amount of time possible: to hurt but not kill quickly, to torture slowly. And this is how God selected to put to death His only Son? He selected it even before it existed. In the Law of Moses, God revealed that cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree. And that right there is the real punishment: the curse of God. Millions were crucified, but only One died under the full weight, full wrath, full pain of God's judgment against sinners, and it wasn't someone with a millstone around his neck sinking to the bottom of the sea. It was Jesus screaming in agony, "My God, My God why hast Thou forsaken Me?"
Mustard Seed faith is in the God who threatens cruel and unusual punishment for those who would lead others to hell, but who actually damned His only Son, and Mustard Seed faith is in a God who does the impossible. Jesus commands the impossible here. He says "If your brother in Christ sins, you must rebuke him," and should he repent "you must forgive him." You know how impossible the first is in a live and let live society? You are not permitted to confront let alone rebuke anyone. And what's even more impossible still is forgiving the person who repents. Sending away what hurts you so badly.
Now if you're thinking, "I got this." Then you're not hearing the impossibility of this. The apostles did. Notice how the command to rebuke and forgive was given to all Jesus' disciples, but only the apostles say in response, "Increase our faith." That's a straightforward request, and seems like the right one when you're confronted with the impossible. So how to do we get from here to the mulberry tree?
You do know it was impossible for anyone in their day to uproot a mulberry tree? It is a sizeable tree with as much of it below the ground as above. And even if you think that was possible, you know the second part can't be. Jesus doesn't say the tree is merely thrown into the sea. It's planted. A hole is dug; it's put in the hole and it's planted to grow. That's impossible.
Yes, it is. And it was impossible for David who had been in his sins of adultery and murder for a year to repent and be forgiven, but he did and was. It was impossible for King Manasseh who set up idols, worshipped the host of heaven, offered child sacrifice, and practiced witchcraft, to repent and be forgiven, but he did and was. It was impossible for Peter who had denied His Lord 3 times to repent and be forgiven, but he did and was. It was impossible for Paul who zealously murdered Christians to repent and be forgiven, but he did and was.
The thing that planting the mulberry tree and rebuking and forgiving sin have in common is God's Word. The only proper object of faith, of trust, is God's Word. My opinion, your opinion, conventional wisdom, or scientific "facts" aren't proper objects of faith. God's Word is, and a little faith not coconut size but mustard seed size - in God's Word can move mountains or plant mulberry trees in the sea, if God's Word has given the command and promise to do it. There is no command form God for mulberry trees to be uprooted and there is no promise that they can be planted in sea, but there is a command and promise attached to rebuking and forgiving sin. The latter two are no less impossible than the first two. The only difference is we have a Word from God to do them.
Mustard Seed faith is in a God who inflicts cruel and unusual punishment, does the impossible, and it's in a God who does the opposite of the parable. Jesus is right; no earthly master has his slave eat before he does. But that's precisely what Jesus said He would do just 5 chapters earlier. The Holy Spirit doesn't think you've forgotten that. In Luke 12:37 Jesus says that when He returns, "He will gird Himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them." Hear the close verbal parallel to our text? Jesus says the master will not say to the slave, "Come immediately and recline" but instead the master will say "gird yourself and wait on Me."
We are meant to hear both. When we're on the tenterhooks of the law being hooked and poked at all we are not doing, we need the picture of the Lord coming to wait on us as He really does at this Table. But when we're tempted to put merit, worth, or deserving on what we do for Jesus, we need the picture in our text. No matter how hard you work even as an apostle plowing the field of the world and shepherding the sheep of the Church, you can never ever deserve grace.
You would get that point if the insert translated literally. Jesus doesn't say, "Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?" The word is not thank' but grace. It's literally, "Surely he doesn't have grace toward the slave because he did what had been commanded?" Of course not. God doesn't have grace toward you based on how well you rebuke sin or how well you forgive it. God has grace toward you solely for Jesus' sake. Jesus is the One who always did what was commanded of Him. Never rolled His eyes, never muttered a protest. He was the perfect Person, man, woman, child. Yet, He was sent to the cruel and unusual punishment of the cross to pay for all the commands we fail to do and all the promises we refuse to believe. And He was punished there till He had put out the fire of God's wrath against sinners and sin.
Grace is in God's heart for the sake of Jesus' perfect life and His cruel and unusual death. But it doesn't remain in God's heart. God's grace for sinners is found today in the Means of Grace. There is grace in every Bible passage you read, sing, hear, think on. God's free grace which accepts and serves sinners is in every drop of Baptismal Water and it's in every morsel of Jesus' Body and every drop of Jesus' Blood in Communion. Well did John say that in Jesus we receive grace for grace. When we're not reading His word, we're walking in our Baptism. When our Baptism appears to be drying up which it can't do grace revives us at this altar.
Mustard Seed faith does not spring from bold, confident Christians high on self-esteem and certainty of believing. At least it doesn't according to this text. Mustard Seed faith that trusts a God who uses cruel and unusual punishment to punish sinners and to save them; Mustard Seed faith that trusts in a God who does the impossible, sprouts from slaves who know they are worthless to God and our ever indebted to Him.
Can you feel faith sprouting in this rugged terrain? Faith ever and always cries to God for grace for Jesus' sake. Faith never says I am worthy of this, but like the centurion says, "Lord I'm not worthy for You to come to me." And worthless slaves are ever indebted to God. The last line literally says we have only done "that which we owe to do." Are you ever indebted to God? I am. I'm indebted to God for finding me when I sought Him not; I'm in debt to Him for doing far more than I have ever asked or even thought. I am in debt to Him for in wrath remembering mercy, for not rewarding me according to my iniquities, for sending my sins as far away from me as east is from west.
You no more need an increase of faith than the apostles did. The tiniest faith in the God who does the impossible thing of serving worthless slaves at this Table which service was bought and paid for by the cruel and unusual punishment of His Son receives all of the blessings present here in His Son's Body and Blood. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (20161002); Luke 17: 1-10