It has been a long time since I have had to do any algebra. So when my oldest daughter, Laurel, asked me if I knew how the distributive property worked, I drew a blank. I simply did not remember.
I had studied algebra in junior high and again in college, where it was necessary for my general education requirement. But it had been a long time since then, and I had found, as many school students complain about when they are learning algebra, that it had little impact on my life after college. I didn’t use it. And, as is said about many things, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
I did my best to help
So what does algebra have to do with Jesus talking to his disciples about faith? What it comes down to is, much like the New Math, Jesus had a New Faith equation that was different than the faith equation that the disciples had been brought up with.
In the verses in Luke that precede the gospel lesson, Jesus tells the disciples that they need to forgive people over and over and over and over again. The idea of forgiving people who may have just said, “Oh, sorry!” for doing something wrong, something that these people did wrong many times over, was hard for the disciples to accept. In fact, it seems quite unacceptable to most of us, doesn’t it? They couldn’t grasp it. It was a radical idea. Somewhere, they reasoned, there had to be a place where you could say, like the Soup Nazi on the television show, Seinfeld, “No forgiveness for you!”
But Jesus told them the disciples had to forgive many more times than seemed reasonable or necessary. They figured that they needed more faith to grasp this idea, because obviously they didn’t have “enough”. So they asked Jesus to increase their faith.
The disciples’ faith equation was the one that most of us mistakenly have, the one that is even flogged by many denominations who preach “health & wealth theology”. This is how it goes:
Me + Righteousness + Faith = God doing what I ask Him to do
It is a “just add water” type of theology, indeed, sometimes a “just add money” theology. All we have to have is “enough” faith, to follow all the rules, and we can move mountains. With this equation, the emphasis is on WE. WE move mountains because that is what WE want to do. It’s like making a movie: God’s the producer and puts up the money, but we are the ones directing the movie.
This is why, when Jesus challenged the disciples with the hard teaching on forgiveness, that the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith. But the disciples weren’t really asking for more faith. Their equation was really this:
Me + Faith + More Faith = Wisdom
This is what the disciples asked for. They thought that with more faith they would then understand why God wanted them to forgive…they would be wise like God and then it would become what THEY wanted to do. It would still be what THEY wanted, rather than what God wanted. Of course, this solution came with a nice bonus: God would agree with them. And so “enough” faith is really “enough” wisdom. And when you start to think that you can be as wise as God, your equation becomes quite unbalanced indeed. It becomes an algebraic equation:
Me + x(faith) = God doing what I want
With x representing “enough”, which is an unknown quantity. How much faith would be “enough” to make you as wise as God?
The idea that if we only have “enough” faith that God will do what we want him to is a big reason that some of us may lose the faith that we have. “I had faith,” we cry, “Yet God didn’t listen! He didn’t heal my child!” or “He didn’t save my marriage” or “He didn’t give me a baby or a promotion or a new job”…well, you fill in the blank! “Didn’t I have enough faith for Him to do that for me?” we cry. And then we either turn from God because we are angry that our faith wasn’t “enough” for Him because His standards must be impossibly high, much too high for us to reach, or we spend our lives blaming ourselves and sometimes our loved ones for not having enough faith. And our equation looks like this:
My faith < Enough faith for God
Me – Faith = Me - God
But real faith, as Jesus’ illustration of the mustard seed shows, is a highly powerful, concentrated thing. A little goes a long way. The kind of super-concentrated, new and improved formula that could cause a mulberry tree, a tree with a very large root system that makes it almost impossible to move, to move itself. The problem wasn’t in the quantity of faith that the disciples had. It was in the quality of faith that they had.
Jesus makes it clear that the equation the disciples were operating under, the same equation that the Pharisees, those sticklers for strict observance of the Law, had been teaching for years, was the wrong faith equation.
Jesus gives us the new faith equation in the gospel lesson when he says “"Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”
What does Jesus mean by that?
The clue is in the master/slave relationship illustrated in the parable.
When the slave does what needs to be done, the master doesn’t say, “Okay, now I’ll do what you want me to, since you did what I wanted!” The master does not say, “Well, what do you think you should do first, since you might have a better idea of what to do than I?” No. The master tells the slave what to do, because the master knows what needs to be done. The slave has faith that the master knows what should be done and does not expect anything extra for doing it.
When we think about the power and wisdom of God, about how He made the universe and all that is in it, the idea that we can know better than He does what is best for our lives is ludicrous, at best. We are certainly worthless in comparison to God. God is the Master and his will is to be central in our lives.
And so we see that Jesus’ new faith equation is:
Me + God’s will = Faith
When we center ourselves in the will of God, faith comes naturally. When we struggle to surrender our will daily to God, giving up our insistence that our knowledge is better than His, then we realize that whatever God chooses to do in our lives is what we really want.
And realizing that, when we pray, we stop asking for things from God as if we know what the best answer is to our problems. We start asking Him to take over, to do what is best. Instead of telling God what will bless us, we ask Him to bless us in whatever way He chooses. And sometimes what God chooses is the exact opposite of what we want. But what I have found is that it always turns out to be what is best for me and for the ones I love, though it doesn’t always seem like it at the time.
The most powerful prayer, the prayer that Jan Karon, in her series of novels about Father Tim Kavanaugh, says is the prayer that never fails, is “Thy will be done.” Because when we pray that prayer, we have that super-concentrated faith, the new and improved formula, the faith that moves mountains.