Back in 2007 in this country, we marked the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Churches were at the forefront of marking that anniversary because much of the credit for the Act rests with William Wilberforce; with the strong convictions he had, born out of his Christian faith, that slavery was morally wrong; and the support his long campaign received from churches. One of the things that happened around that anniversary was that we looked again at slavery and found that, although illegal, it is still flourishing, even in our own towns and cities and countryside. We tend to call it people trafficking now, but it is essentially slavery. There are slaves in Scotland, in England, all over Europe, all over the world. There are slaves working in brothels, doing domestic service, working in agriculture. Did you know that many people who work in car washes are, in fact, trafficked? A lot of the people working as old job handymen, the sort who offer to re-lay a driveway, or cut down trees in your garden, are people who have been trafficked. You can’t tell they are slaves just by looking at them. They’re not wearing chains. But there are people living in slavery, who are kept as slaves through threats and intimidation, whose passports have been illegally removed from them, whose bodies are being exploited, who are not being paid for the work they are doing. There are people from overseas who have been trafficked into Scotland, people from Scotland who have been trafficked overseas, people from Scotland trafficked within Scotland and the rest of the UK. And the traffickers constantly keep them on the move, to keep them from getting to know people who might help them.
Slaves, now and in times past, have always been treated as both valuable and worthless, their value being measured in the economic return they can produce for their owners and masters, everything else about them being considered worthless. But worthlessness is not a feeling confined to people in slavery, to victims of human trafficking. I read an interesting article about fashion magazines recently. I’m not a regular reader of such publications so I didn’t know that basically they are pretty much all advertisements. And the message of the advertising is this: your life will be better if you wear these clothes, use these cosmetics, follow these ten tips for a better sex life, never eat these six fattening foods, and look like these models in the pictures. That one is particularly cruel because hardly any of the women in the pictures actually look like that in real life, such are the wonders of digital image manipulation producing longer legs, unblemished skin, narrower waists, fuller breasts, shinier hair. In effect, when you buy a fashion magazine, the message is this: you’re the wrong shape, you’re ugly, wear the wrong clothes, and have a rotten sex life. Nobody needs to be told any of this, especially not women who, for generations and generations, have been told they were not as good as men. And still are. Misogyny is the basis of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. It is a feature of some parts of British politics too. In business, sport, broadcasting, churches, schools, workplaces of all sorts, sexism and misogyny are daily occurrences. Women and girls are constantly being given the message that they are worth less than men and boys. And we see the results in self harm, eating disorders, mental illness, and in unfulfilled potential.
All of these things make this passage from Luke’s Gospel a very difficult one. It is a passage about faith, but to modern ears, it seems to characterise a faith which is, at best, strange and irrelevant, and at worst, misleading and dangerous. When the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, he tells them that even the tiniest amount of faith is enough to perform miracles, and then tells them to think of themselves as “worthless slaves”. To our ears this sounds dismissive, dangerous and dehumanising.
So the first thing we probably think is this: since we are not replanting trees by faith alone, we must clearly have a wholly inadequate faith. And then that word “worthless” seems to confirm that, while the idea of slavery would seem to strip away even our humanity. What is Jesus playing at?
Well, he could just have been having a bad day, but that’s not a good explanation. It is a difficult passage, this, but we mustn’t just reject it. Instead we ought to be asking about the nature of the faith Jesus spoke of.
The problem arises if we think of faith in the wrong way, if we think of faith as something that is ours, as if it is something we do, something we possess, something which is somehow separate from the One in whom we have faith. If we go back to the question the disciples asked Jesus, we can see that they, perhaps intuitively, understood this. They didn’t say to Jesus – tell us how we can increase our faith ourselves. They asked him to increase their faith, acknowledging that faith is a gift, that it comes from and cannot be separated from Christ, the One in whom we have faith.
As Jesus often did, he provided an answer with an arresting and memorable image at its core. We often read Jesus’ words as if they were admonishing us, scolding us. But why would he do that? Why give the gift of faith to disciples and then tell them that they didn’t have enough? Why build up just to knock down? Why give just to take away? That’s not Jesus’ way. Rather than scold the disciples, Jesus is telling them, and us, that even a tiny amount of faith enough to do whatever is required of us. Because what is faith, but simply trusting in the one for whom nothing is impossible.
So the message of the first part of this passage is this: we’ve got enough faith already. So, no excuses, Jesus goes on to say. There’s nothing holding us back from getting on with living our faith.
And that’s what the second bit is about. Having faith is nothing for which we should be admired. Faith is not our possession. It is not an end in itself. It is something to be lived, to be active in the service of God. There’s a real sense that the life of faith is just something we should get on with, dutifully, willingly, obediently, and not looking for personal reward or commendation. These words of Jesus are confusing, because they use images with which we are unfamiliar and rightly uncomfortable, and he is certainly not commending or condoning slavery, but they should also be words which are strengthening and encouraging. It is all too easy to think we’re not ready, we’re not well enough equipped, that we somehow need more before we can do things in the service of God. But that’s thinking Jesus is taking issue with. All of us, he is saying, have faith at least the size of a mustard seed, and that is more than enough. So what’s holding us back?
Our life of faith should be willing, dutiful and obedient because our faith should not be separated from the One in who we have faith. In all things, Christ is our example. As he was willing, dutiful and obedient, so should we be. Like he said to the disciples, our concern should not be with quantity of faith. Quantity of faith is really rather a meaningless concept, for how could you ever measure it? Jesus’ words guide us to think about the purpose of faith – what faith is for. And through the image, and the story, he tells us – we already have the faith we need. Now, fulfil its purpose. Live it in the willing, trusting, cheerful service of God.