In Luke 17:5 the “apostles said to Jesus, ‘Increase our faith.’” In context it seems to be their reaction to Jesus telling them never to cause a person to sin (verses 1-2), and to always forgive a person who repents of a sin against them, no matter how many times the person repeats the sin (verses 3-4).
It’s the usual story of Jesus setting the bar so high there is no way they can jump over it. It’s like hating one’s parents as the condition for becoming a disciple in Luke 14, or throwing everything they held dear to one side to find just one lost sheep or lost coin in Luke 15, or giving up one’s life of riches and comfort to feed the hungry in Luke 16, and now these two things in Luke 17 too. Some things are just impossible to do, but Jesus was expecting them to be done anyway.
The disciples reaction to making such impossible things possible is to ask Jesus for more faith. But Jesus’ rather surprising reply in Luke 17:6 is that it’s not an increase in faith they need, because even the tiniest bit of faith the size of a mustard seed could make the impossibly deep-rooted mulberry tree uproot and plant itself in the sea if they told it to.
So what was it the disciples needed instead to make the impossible possible and do what Jesus expected of them? Well, assuming the next few verses from 6 to 10 are also following along with the context of the last three chapters and these first few verses in Luke 17, it was recognizing who Jesus was and what their relationship with him was as his disciples.
Because Jesus puts the following three questions to them: “Suppose one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Would you say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat?’ Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink, and after that you may eat and drink’? And would he thank the servant too, because the servant did what he was told to do?”
Well, the answers to all three questions are obvious, because of the relationship between a servant and his master. A servant’s job is to serve. But who is Jesus telling all this to? He’s talking to his disciples, which really opened my eyes to my relationship with Jesus as his disciple, as have the last three chapters of Luke, which I can also see were meant for his disciples too.
Because for a disciple everything boils down to our relationship with Jesus, and in particular that we are his servants. And it’s not to get appreciation from him or a reward that we are his servants, it’s entirely because of his grace in calling us to be his disciples. As such we can never do enough for him, because it’s only by his grace and mercy that we can serve him at all. We were just blind outsiders without a clue what life was for before he drew us to him.
So it’s not favours from Jesus we ask for as his disciples, it’s serving him in response to his grace. That’s our job now; it’s to serve him. And that’s it.
Going back to the disciples’ request to Jesus to increase their faith reminded me of Paul’s request to Jesus to heal him in 2 Corinthians 12:8. But Jesus’ response in verse 9 was, “My grace is sufficient.” And that’s the bottom line for a disciple, isn’t it? If it wasn’t for “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ “ (2 Corinthians 13:14) we’d have nothing. Our response to that is to serve Jesus in whatever way we can, always considering ourselves “unworthy servants,” who are only doing our duty when we serve him (Luke 17:10).
The only “increase” we ask for is to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). In other words, help us get the point of what he’s done for us, so that we serve him for nothing more than that.
And as far as the “increase in faith” his disciples asked for, it wasn’t faith they needed, it was recognizing they were Jesus’ servants, and if that meant doing the impossible things Jesus expected them to do, then so be it, we do them, no questions asked, no excuses, and no reward or appreciation asked for or expected either. We’re just doing our duty in response to who he is and our relationship to him because of his grace and mercy that made us his disciples in the first place.