I don’t blame the disciples for saying to the Lord, ‘increase our faith’. He’d just given them a great challenge, after all. And his response to their request was the (almost) famous ‘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.’
So what was the great challenge for which the disciples felt they needed more faith? It wasn’t to raise someone from the dead, or to walk on water. It wasn’t even the challenge to go out and proclaim the good news. The challenge was this.
Jesus said, ‘Be on your guard! If another disciples sins, you mus rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.’ (Lk.17:3-4)
So the challenge that needs more faith is forgiveness – or at least, the ridiculous, excessive forgiveness that Jesus commands. But then, Jesus seems to think that it’s not about the amount of faith at all – if we have the smallest grain of faith, then this demanding standard of uncounting, patient forgiveness will come to us. Perhaps it’s because part of that faith is to know that we have been forgiven – so we will instinctively, naturally forgive as an approach to life.
Forgiveness is never about pretence – pretence that something didn’t happen, or that it didn’t matter. It is all about not letting the past dictate the future. It starts (as does Jesus’ command here) with a recognition that there is sin, and a challenge to the sinner to repent. Without the willingness of another to change, then the scope of forgiveness to transform situations is limited, and this command for repeated forgiveness is linked to the reality of repentance. We are called by Jesus to give to a sinner who recognises their sin and seeks change the opportunity that he gives to us when we repent – the opportunity to begin again. And again. And again.
And in forgiving others, we find the freedom ourselves not to let the past hold us back – I’ve seen too many people whose lives are stunted by old animosities and grudges. Forgiveness of others doesn’t just free them to try again, it frees us to begin to live without the burdens of what’s been done to us in the past. That doesn’t make it easy.
That needs faith – but perhaps, if we think that a bit more faith would make it possible, then like the disciples we have forgotten that faith is a direction of life, not a substance we can measure. Faith knows that I have been forgiven without deserving it. That makes it hard to hold someone else’s repented sin against her or him.
Or, at least, it should.