What Did Jesus Mean By Faith?


A sermon preached on December 8th based upon Luke 18:1 – 8.
Jesus’ parable ends with the words, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  We use the word “faith” routinely in church in a range of ways.  When we ask the question, what is faith?  We find it is hard to give a precise definition.  Even Jesus himself did not define faith.  What he did was point to people who embodied faith and in Luke’s Gospel there are six times that he did this.
As I describe these six instances, perhaps you will recognize certain patterns.
Several people carry a paralyzed man on a stretcher to the house where Jesus is teaching.  How long has he been suffering this way?  Who knows? When they get to the house, there is such a crowd that they can’t get in the door.  Rather than give up, they climb up on the roof, where there tear open a hole, caring not that this just isn’t something people do.   They lower their friend down to Jesus.  Luke tells us that when Jesus saw their faith, he said, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”
A Roman centurion has a servant whom he loves that is sick to the point of death.  He overcomes the wall that stands been the oppressor and the oppressed to reach out to Jesus the Jew for help.  Not only that, he overcomes the barrier of his own pride and his humiliation in the eyes of his fellow Roman soldiers to humble himself in making this request, declaring that he is not worthy to have Jesus in his home, but confident in his authority to heal his beloved slave from a distance.  “I tell you,” says Jesus, “not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
A woman referred to as “sinful” goes to the place where she is probably least welcome in order to get to Jesus, crashing a men’s only dinner party hosted by Pharisees, because Jesus is a guest there.   She overcomes their condemnation in order to fall at Jesus’ feet, where she bathes his feet with her tears.  “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Similar barriers are overcome by another woman who has had been hemorrhaging for twelve whole years.  How she must have struggled with the temptation to give up during that time in which, Luke tells us, she spent all her money on doctors who did her no good.   The societal rules tell her that her flow of blood renders her unclean, and she does not belong in public, but there she is out in the crowd following Jesus, saying to herself, “if I but touch the hem of his garment, I will be made whole.”  She touches Jesus, and instantly she is healed.  “Daughter,” Jesus says, “your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
Jesus commands ten lepers who cry to him for help to go show themselves to the priest, and as they go, they are healed.  One of them, presumably the only Samaritan in the group, turns back to fall at Jesus feet and give thanks.  In doing so he overcomes the long standing animosity between Jews and Samaritans in which each was told never to associate with the other.  Curiously, he also overcomes the directive Jesus spoke to all to go directly to the priest.  Jesus marvels that only one, the Samaritan, returned to give thanks.  He says to the man, “Get up and go your way; your faith has made you whole.”
And finally, a blind beggar at the side of the road receives word that Jesus is coming down the road, making his way to Jerusalem.  In the midst of a large crowd of people he begins shouting, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”  The people around him tell him to mind his manners and stop shouting, but he shouts out all the louder, determined to be heard, which ultimately Jesus does.  Calling the blind beggar forward, he grants his request for healing, saying, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.”
In each of these six stories there is some kind of adversity or resistance against which the people of faith persevere in order to receive the blessing they seek.  Also, in each case there is some sort of back story almost nothing of which Luke tells us, but we can imagine, of a lengthy struggle that each person went through, that invariably involved times when they were tempted to simply give up.
So when we hear Jesus late in his ministry tell this parable we heard Bob read, we can’t help but think that the parable arose as a result of Jesus’ encounters with the people he had met who demonstrated faith in the particulars of their personal adversity.  Their stories are in this story of a poor, seemingly powerless widow who perseveres against adversity, until finally she wins the justice she seeks.
There is a puzzling, indeed troubling aspect to this parable and it is this: Luke introduces the parable by telling us that its meaning is that we should always pray and never lose heart.  If the widow is a stand-in for us demonstrating how we must persevere in prayer, is the unjust judge who finally grants her wish a stand-in for God?
Surely God is not like that perverse judge who cares not for people, and only responds because the widow’s requests become too irritating.
But sometimes, if we are honest, it can feel in life like we’re up against an unjust judge.  We can feel like a powerless, poor widow at the mercy of cruel forces that have no real concern for us.
Why does God allow there to be so much adversity as we make it along life’s way?
Why can’t life come easily, smoothly without all the obstacles and resistance we encounter on our pathes?
I know that if God gave me control over things, I’d get rid of all that adversity and resistance that gets in my way.
But God is God and I am not, and that is a good thing.
One thing the parable suggests is that there is a value to encountering these obstacles – a value we rarely can see in the present, but maybe further down the road.
This mystery we call faith, this mysterious quality God values so, only truly comes to light in the struggle to overcome adversity.  It is only in the process of struggling against the resistance encountered in life that we forge our souls and come to shine the light of Christ.
Nelson Mandela died this week.  He provided an example of this perseverant faith.  In the 27 years of his imprisonment his faith war forged.  He came forth from the prison cell with deep and radiant soul, capable of forgiveness and ready to serve as an instrument of national reconciliation.
It is striking that of these six stories in which Jesus commended people for their faith, not one of them involves a disciple.  Jesus finds faith in unexpected places, in unexpected people – a humbling thought for us within the church.   The only references to the disciples are of their lack of faith:  as in that night out in the boat in the storm when their fear overwhelmed them:  “Where is your faith?!” cries Jesus.
By chapter 17 the disciples can’t miss the fact that they of all people are strangely lacking in faith, so they cry out, “Increase our faith!” In response Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.’”
A curious image, faith the size of a mustard seed.  The tinniest of seeds in Jesus’ day — that’s not much.  The thing about a seed is that it can lie dormant in the soil, doing nothing as it waits for the right set of circumstances – a certain adversity really – to break open its shell and begin to sprout.
I find the idea that faith is like a seed comforting, because there are times in my life, and I suspect all of us if we are honest, when it feels like I have no faith at all.  But if faith is like a seed, perhaps at such times my faith is simply lying dormant, waiting to sprout forth.
There is another metaphor for talking about faith that I find helpful in this regard and it comes from the letter to the Hebrews where it declares, “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
The race of which the author speaks is a marathon, not a sprint. In a marathon, when fatigue overwhelms, you can stop for a time.   Feeling exhausted, you might consider quitting the race. But what matters is whether you eventually begin moving again, one step in front of another.  What matters is that you persevere.
I suspect that the poor widow in Jesus’ parable had her days when she wanted to give up, when, in fact, she did give up.  But the race was a marathon, so what mattered was that eventually she went back to that unjust judge once again and banged once more on his door.
There is one final reference to faith in the Gospel of Luke, and it comes at the end, at the last supper.  Jesus says to Simon Peter,
“I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
Jesus prays for Peter that his faith won’t fail, and yet shortly afterwards, Peter would appear to for all intents and purposes to altogether lose his faith.  That night he would deny Jesus three times; full of fear, he would abandon Jesus in the hour of his death.
But if faith is like a mustard seed, perhaps Peter’s faith was simply dormant.  And if faith is like a marathon, what matters is that Peter would at some point resume the race.  Which is precisely what Peter did, through the grace of God.  He “turned back” as Jesus predicted, and once he did, he was able to “strengthen his brothers” and sisters.
Here is a question:  If Peter hadn’t stumbled – if he hadn’t had his time of doubt and despair, his time of being overwhelmed by his fears – would he have been able to strengthen his brothers and sisters?
Because Peter had stumbled – because he knew what it was to feel doubt and despair, to feel like a failure, to look in the mirror and feel contempt for the image reflected back at him – he would speak as someone who had been there when he sought to comfort and strengthen his brothers and sisters.
Because Peter was humbled, like the Centurion he knew the power behind his ministry wasn’t his own power – it came from above.
That first story of faith – the friends carrying the paralyzed man to Jesus – provide for me one of the clearest images of what the Church is to be about.  It was the friends who had the active faith – not the paralyzed man himself.  His faith was dormant.  They carried him to Jesus for healing.  Maybe at some time later, he will carry one of those who carried him when they find themselves in a time of darkness.  We are in this together, taking turns in carrying one another.   And Jesus in the carrying, Jesus is with us.