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We ‘Little-Faiths’


Matthew 6:30    14:31 ; 16:8

Several years ago there was made yet another bad film about the life of Jesus. The film was bad because it falsified our Lord. For instance, where Jesus says six times in Matthew 23, “Woe to you”,  the movie director depicted Jesus screaming in a rage; vindictive, venomous hostility. The impression created by the movie was that Jesus was bent on retaliation: “Just wait, fellows, you are going to get yours.” What the movie director obviously didn’t know was this: the word Jesus uses for “woe” isn’t a threat; it’s a lament. The word “woe” doesn’t express ill-temper or vindictiveness or denunciation; it expresses sadness. Our Lord’s heart is breaking for people who are confused themselves and can only confuse others. “Woe to you”, on the lips of Jesus, means, “Fellows, if you only knew how mistaken you are; if you only knew how wide of the mark you are; your situation is pitiable.” Jesus isn’t flaying them; he’s lamenting their blindness and its consequences for them and others.

The same sort of misunderstanding occurs in those situations where Jesus speaks of the disciples as “men of little faith”. Actually in the Greek text the word “men” doesn’t appear: “You midget-faiths”. Since boyhood I’ve listened to people read the gospel passages in a tone of sour contempt: “You jerks, you near-sighted nincompoops, you never get it right, do you. You can’t be counted on for anything.” The context, however, doesn’t suggest for a minute that Jesus is disgusted or angry or contemptuous. The context suggests surprise, amazement even: “Gosh, fellows, have you forgotten who I am and what I’ve promised? Have I ever let you down before? Haven’t you always found me true to my word? Why is your faith so tiny?” Our Lord speaks in a spirit of surprise, yes, but also compassion and gentleness and encouragement, not in a spirit of contempt or disgust.

Today Jesus Christ addresses you and me as “little-faiths”. He isn’t chiding us. He’s encouraging us. He wants our pipsqueak faith to swell until we know ourselves seized by his kindness and constancy. He wants our faith to expand as he both informs us and invigorates us.

Then what are the situations in which Jesus finds his followers, 1st Century and 21st Century disciples alike, to be people of little faith?

I: — The first is anxiety, anxiety concerning matters of everyday living: food, clothing, children, sickness, domestic relationships; responding to the demands of workplace, community, congregation; contending with incipient arthritis, failing eyesight and fading memory. In the Sermon on the Mount the Master says, “Don’t be anxious about life – what you will eat or drink or wear. Life, real life, consists in more than food or clothing. Therefore seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness; then the other matters will sort themselves out. Your Father knows what you need.”

“Nonsense”, someone reacts, “It’s pious nonsense. Whether our Father cares or not, the occasion of our anxiety remains. It could be that he cares; we’ll even assume that he does. Still, the difficulties in our lives remain difficult.”

I appreciate the objection.   There are people whose lives are riddled with such difficulty that telling them not be anxious would appear to be as effective as telling the wind to stop blowing. In fact most people are contending with much more difficulty than others perceive. Then most people are understandably anxious. We are anxiety-prone people just because we have reason to be.

One of the worst features of our anxiety is that it fragments us. We worry about this, worry about that. Mentally our imagination travels down this road, then down an alternative, then down another road again. Every time our mind moves down a road, heart and stomach follow. Before long it seems there’s part of us strewn along all of the roads we’ve been on in our mind’s eye. A hundred times a day we say “What if? What if this? What if that?” And every time we utter it another piece of us is broken off as we feel ourselves ever more fragmented.

We should note that our Lord doesn’t chide us, “Now, now; don’t be anxious; you know that you shouldn’t be anxious.” If this is all he said he’d be irritating and useless in equal measure.   Instead he reminds us that we are to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. We are ever to be oriented to his kingdom and his righteousness. Fragmentation isn’t overcome because we strain ourselves to suppress anxiety. Fragmentation is overcome as a new preoccupation captures us, even though our difficulties remain difficult. The new preoccupation is the King’s kingdom and the King’s righteousness.

The kingdom of God is that healed creation which Jesus Christ brings with him. It is discerned only in faith, to be sure, but it’s no less real for being seen only by the eyes of faith. Righteousness is what we do in light of the truth and reality we’ve recognized. Captured by the truth of the kingdom, and committed to doing the truth that we’ve recognized, our preoccupation here relativises the bundle of insolubles that always promotes anxiety.

In the year 1520 Martin Luther wrote a brief tract on Christian freedom where he discusses, tangentially, anxiety and its antidote.   Luther points out that trying to wrestle our anxiety to the ground simply renders our anxiety our preoccupation, with the result that our anxiety is worse than ever. Struggling to find within ourselves the antidote to our anxiety merely intensifies it. Therefore, says Luther, we shouldn’t try to live “in ourselves”; instead we must live “in another”. Specifically we live in two others: we live in Christ by faith and we live in the neighbour by love. To say the same thing differently, we live in the kingdom by faith and we live in the neighbour by acting self-forgetfully on her behalf. We seek first the kingdom and its righteousness – only then to find that our anxiety is displaced, relativised, shrivelled. We cease to be preoccupied with our persistent difficulties as we are taken out of ourselves and into these two others: Jesus Christ and the neighbour to whom he assigns us.

Please don’t think I’m advertising myself as someone whose faith has moved beyond “little”. My faith is little. I know it. And therefore if I strike you as someone whose fragmentation isn’t entirely overcome, so be it. I don’t claim to have made great progress on the road I’ve just described. I do know, however, beyond any doubt, that it’s the right road. It’s as we seek first Christ’s kingdom and his righteousness that faith grows and anxiety recedes.


II: — Another situation where our Lord recognizes our faith to be little and addresses us as “little-faiths” only to encourage us is the situation of fear. Paralysing fear. Fear of what? Fear of anything. For years now I’ve thought that there are fears peculiar to childhood, fears peculiar to adolescence, fears peculiar to maturity, fears peculiar to old age. What do people my age fear? Here’s one: we fear that the work we have undertaken on our Lord’s behalf and pursued doggedly for years; we fear it might dribble away leaving nothing. Here I have in mind anything we do in his name whether explicitly or implicitly; anything our commitment to him impels us to attempt; anything we do in church life or in community life on account of the profession we make. What if it all proves fruitless?

In a gospel incident that has long been one of my favourites Peter, caught up with the other disciples in a fierce storm, recognizes Jesus coming to him across the water. He cries, “Master, bid me come to you on the water”. He gets out of the boat and starts walking. Then he looks down at the waves around him and starts to sink. He starts to sink inasmuch as the waves now loom larger than does his Lord. Jesus catches him before he goes under and remarks, “O you little-faith, whey did you doubt?”

It’s easy to doubt. When I was newly ordained and began and appointed to my first congregation, I thought that unbelief would shrivel up noticeably, even dramatically, before the force of my ministry. Why, I was a gold medallist in theology; I could put words together; I’d be able to articulate gospel-truth so very compellingly that no sensible person would be left doubting or disobedient. But this didn’t happen. After a few weeks I found myself, one Sunday morning, thinking I must surely be stuck with a congregation of tuberculosis patients, because as soon as I started to preach they started to cough. I didn’t suspect a conspiracy; they hadn’t “packed” on me the way school children will “pack” on a supply teacher. They were simply unaccustomed to paying attention to the sermon, since they expected nothing to happen during the sermon: twenty minutes of vacant time to be filled up with coughing, nose-blowing, looking out the window, chatting with each other. I saw one man staring at the thermostat on the wall, minutes on end. When the service had ended I asked him why he was intrigued with the thermostat. “I saw a sunbeam moving toward the thermostat as the hour moved along”, he told me, “and I was waiting until the sunbeam hit it, for then the thermostat would turn off the furnace and the church would become cold.” The climax came one Sunday when I saw two adults in the back row passing a note like school children who think they’ve fooled the teacher. I stopped halfway through the sermon. I was on the point of saying what I’m everlastingly grateful I didn’t say. The moment was nothing less than a crisis for me, because I knew that if I terminated the sermon under those circumstances I was finished. I was a minister only because I had recognized the Master years earlier and said to him, eagerly, expectantly, “Bid me come to you.” He had bade me come to him. Now, however, I was looking not at him but at all the “stuff” around me that I was about to drown in. I knew that if I interrupted the sermon, I – not the sermon – I was finished.

Everybody knows that church life unfolds according to its own logic (or illogic). Church life is much more frustrating than the workplace or the service club or the professional organization. It’s easy for our frustration to mutate into anger, our anger to mutate into contempt, and our contempt to mutate into – our absence.

While the church is a more frustrating venue for our service and witness than is the world, very often the world is more vicious. It takes enormous persistence to honour integrity and insist on elemental decency and distance oneself from unjust favouritism and cruel exploitation and conscienceless cover-ups. It takes enormous persistence to remain resilient just because the price of it all is so high and the fruit of it all appears so meagre. Since we are people of little faith, we are tempted to capitulate.

While there’s every reason for us to capitulate, we must nevertheless ask ourselves if we are no more than children, no more than children who have to have instant results and instant gratification or they complain and quit. Are we going to allow not only the tidal wave but even the smallest ripple to have us sink? The One who calls us “little-faith” does so not to ridicule us and not to denounce us; he calls us “little-faith” only to remind us of the present truth about ourselves and to promise us a greater truth about ourselves: our little faith he will augment. And as he augments it we shall cease looking down at the turbulence around us and look more consistently ahead to him who is always coming towards us. At this point we can put our frustration behind us, and with it behind us, find that we can go on, cheerfully go on, unsoured and unembittered.


III: — The final situation exposing our little faith that we are examining today concerns discernment. The disciples have witnessed the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. A day or two later they complain that they lack bread. Jesus says two things: “Beware of the leaven of Sadducees and Pharisees;  you little-faiths, why do you say that you lack bread?” Through this pronouncement – “Why do you say that you lack bread?” – Jesus is reminding them, “I am the bread of life. You don’t lack bread. At the same time, be careful lest you absorb from the Sadducees and Pharisees what isn’t bread, what corrupts that bread of life which I am.”

We must be very, very careful here. For centuries too many Christians have read such verses in Matthew’s gospel and then concluded that everything about the Pharisees was bad; Judaism and Pharisaism are the same; therefore Judaism is bad and Jewish people can be ignored or despised or even mistreated. This is dreadful.

When Jesus appeared among the Jewish people in the year 4 BCE there were several different groups within Israel . The Sadducees recognized only the first five books of the Older Testament as scripture, and believed nothing about the resurrection of the dead. Plainly Jesus wasn’t a Sadducee. The Scribes recognized all of the Older Testament as scripture and ransacked it day and night, but weren’t particularly oriented to the Kingdom of God . Since Jesus was preoccupied with the Kingdom of God , plainly he wasn’t a scribe. The zealots hated the Roman Army’s occupation of Palestine . They were obsessed with assassinating Roman soldiers, fomenting revolution, and restoring self-government to the Jewish people. Plainly Jesus wasn’t a zealot. The Pharisees were teachers. They taught the Torah, that Torah which Jesus said he came to fulfil but never to deny. As a matter of fact there are may parallels between the teaching of the Pharisees and the teaching of Jesus. Jesus belonged to the Pharisaic movement. Therefore we must never see Jesus and Pharisees as having nothing in common. And we must never regard our Lord’s criticisms of his fellow-Pharisees as a pretext or excuse for disdaining Jewish people then or now.

Then what does the text mean? One day earlier Jesus had fed the multitudes. Now he is saying that his feeding of the multitudes is a sign of something more than himself as bread-maker. His feeding of the multitudes is a sign that he is the bread of life. His followers are to know it. As they come to know him in greater and greater intimacy they will find that their intimacy with him is self-confirming. Their intimacy with him will bring with it such conviction concerning its truth that they will need no other corroboration. Their intimacy with him will bring with it such confirmation and conviction that the kind of “sign” that some Pharisees sometimes asked for won’t be necessary for them, and in any case wouldn’t persuade people who aren’t intimate followers. “Signs”, so-called, are superfluous for those who know Jesus intimately and unconvincing for those who don’t. “Therefore”, says Jesus, “when the Scribes and Pharisees maintain that I can’t be who I am unless I provide a sign, understand that they’ve got it wrong. Your ever-deepening intimacy with me will provide you with all the confirmation and conviction and assurance you will ever need concerning me.”

Countless Christians have proved our Lord correct. That’s why they don’t look elsewhere. When people say to me (as many people have said to me), “But how do you know that ‘Christianity’ is true when you’ve never tried Buddhism or Shintoism? How do you know ‘Jesus is the Way’ when you’ve never probed the way of Hinduism?” I say to them, “When I came upon Maureen McGuigan and found in her even more than what I was looking for in a woman (since until I met her I scarcely knew what to look for); when I came upon her and knew that she was the one for me, I stopped looking.” Tell me, do you think I’d be more “broad minded” if I lived with a dozen different women and then concluded that while they all had their strong points, on balance I preferred Maureen?

Intimate followers of Jesus learn every day that who he is for them, who they can expect him to be in the future in view of who he’s been for them in past; such followers aren’t even tempted to look elsewhere. The profoundest relationship any human can have confirms itself with fresh force every day.

“Beware of the leaven of Sadducees and Pharisees”? Jesus means “Beware of those who tell you I can’t be who you’ve found me to be, on the grounds that I’ve never given proofs, signs, of the truth that I am.” Of course our Lord provides no such signs or proofs. In life, the profoundest truth authenticates itself. Nothing outside it can authenticate it.


And so it is with a smile on his face and an encouraging arm around his people Christ says to us, “Come on, you little-faiths:

Seek first the Kingdom and the Kingdom’s righteousness, and your faith will swell as anxiety recedes.

You are frightened of ever so much, frightened that the work you undertake in my name might turn out to be fruitless in view of the turbulence that threatens it? Keep looking at me, not at the turbulence and your faith will expand as fear evaporates.

You hear people telling you I can’t be Way and Truth and Life because no proof of this has                                    been given? Just go on living ever more intimately with me. Your faith will mushroom as you find your relationship with me mushrooming so as to leave you never doubting that you and have been grafted to each other.”


We are people of little faith. Our Lord doesn’t denounce us for it. He holds out greater faith for us, and will continue to hold it out until that Day when faith gives way to sight and we behold him face to face.


                                                                                                        Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                

June 2005