Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Jesus Asks: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Luke 18:8)

This is the 19th post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's rich book, 50 Ways to Pray. You can find the start of the series here and last week's post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to the present prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament.

Q: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Luke 18:8)

I fell of the blogging train a couple weeks ago, but I'm back :)

First, let me just think about what Jesus is asking here. Will he find faith on earth? My knee-jerk reaction, habituated from years of defining faith as holding to certain truths/doctrines, is to do a quick self-assessment: Do I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, God himself incarnated, born of a virgin, tempted in every way humanly possible yet without sin, having been put to death on a cross where he served as propitiation for the sins of humankind, having resurrected on the third day, walking out of the tomb and appearing to his disciples before ascending to the Father, now sitting at the right hand of God's throne while simultaneously moving on earth and in humans as another Comforter, the Holy Spirit, indwelling the human spirit and supernaturally empowering those who believe and receive him to walk worthily of their calling? Check. Check. Check-check-check-check-check. Check. Ok. I'm good. Am I good? 

First, let me just say, the gospel is good, so, so very good. So simple, so powerful and so transformative. And I believe receiving the above good story opens a door to initial salvation. But to quote James, "even the demons believe this" (James 2:19). And if you simply believe the truth but the truth has not activated Jesus-like actions and behavior, then that faith is "dead and useless" (2:17). 

The fact that Jesus had to ask this question... seems to say he's looking for more than people with an approved belief check-list, be it a creed crafted over years of searching scriptures, prayerful pondering and fellowship, or a hasty, foggier list they've casually adopted from their church's website. Jesus' question seems to hint that the kind of faith he's after might be harder to find than a simple "certainty = faith" equation might suggest. And a robust, vibrant faith might be more precious and rare to him than we'd imagine. 

I want very much to just run with the apostle Jame's idea that there's no dichotomy between faith and works, but that true faith can be found in the works (not, in my case, in the wishful thinking). 

In marriage conferences, I've heard love is a verb. Well, according to James, faith must be like that too. Both love and faith are expressed through actions. I want to dwell here, and not worry myself with other interpretations of faith, but there's more to the story.

I think most Christians would say Jesus wants more than a mental affirmation of various points of doctrine. But I can't completely discount the power of holding firm to some beliefs. After all, isn't faith in the book of Romans all about believing? Isn't what sets Christianity apart from other major world religions a de-emphasis on good works? Isn't Christian salvation one that grows within the love relationship between the Creator and the created? And throughout the gospels, doesn't Jesus often talk about faith in a way that indicates belief and conviction are the measure of our faith's strength? 

For example, He praises people who show conviction, like the woman with the period from hell who believed brushing the hem of Jesus' garment could cure her. Or like the centurion who only needed Jesus' word of healing from afar. Or the Gentile woman who didn't flinch at being called a dog, and said she'd eat crumbs from the floor if she wasn't worthy to have a place at the Israelite's table. All of these stories seem to uplift characters whose faith looks like conviction that Jesus will do a miracle for them.

I don't have a pat answer to Luke 18:8. Or to the question "What exactly is faith?" Like most of the good stuff in the universe, faith seems to be nuanced and dynamic. In light of this, come with me while I pick through Luke 17 and 18, the context of the question in question :-).

Maybe it has more to do with Luke's writing skills than with Jesus, but this chapter makes the Man seem all over the place with His messaging. He opens with a cautionary tale about those who tempt little children deserving a watery death by millstone. Perhaps sensing that some of the disciples were thinking judgey thoughts about whose neck to tie to the stone next, Jesus abruptly switches gears and urges compassion and forgiveness... even if someone wrongs them seven times a day. To this, the disciples ask Jesus to
"Show us how to increase our faith." (Luke 17:5)
Those who had trouble sinning and those who had trouble forgiving sinners responded by asking for more faith. If this faith would help them not sin against others and God, then it seems to be more than just a system of beliefs. It's something that has the power to change people's inward heart and outward actions. In response to the disciples' plea, Jesus delivers a mini-parable that echos the millstone drowning:
If you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'May you be uprooted and thrown into the sea,' and it would obey you!
No sooner is the mulberry bush adrift, Jesus shifts to another parable about how a servant's obedience to his master is his expected, daily duty. No special thanks or reward required. In case it isn't clear to them who's who in this picture, Jesus says:
In the same way, when you obey me you should say, 'we are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.'
From these two seemingly disjointed metaphors, I gather that even tiny faith, expressed in unremarkable, humble, daily obedience to Jesus, is the seed that can eventually uproot our urge to live like unbelievers.

But the "find faith on the earth" question actually appears at the start of the next chapter, almost a dreamy footnote to another parable, this time on the importance of persistence. There's little mystery behind the lesson of the parable of the maltreated but persistent widow who tests the patience of a corrupt judge until he gives her justice so that she'll shut up and stop pestering him. 
One day Jesus told his disciples a story to show that they should always pray and never give up. (Luke 18:1)
At the end of the story, which you can read in Luke 18:1-8, Jesus equates faith with persistent supplication for justice.
Don't you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly! But when the Son of Man returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith?
Here I have to pause. I like this parable because it's humorous and has a happy ending. And I like Jesus' closing admonition, because he's advocating for continual contact with God. He's letting us know it's not only OK, but expected that we ask God to supply our needs. Yet, what unsettles me a little is that I could easily see this as saying "You don't really have faith if God doesn't answer your fervent prayer. And you don't have faith if you don't persist in asking over and over and over until He grants your request." 

Now, the typically churchy answer to my protest is that God answers our requests in different ways. Sometimes God's answer is "no." Yet, this story seems to speak particularly to instances of injustice— like the heart-rending devastation of a child's terminal illness or the appalling abuse faced by a woman kidnapped into sex-slavery, or the life-threatening shunning of a new Christian in a Muslim community. Jesus seems to say that if we ask hard enough and long enough, God will grant justice quickly. But what happens when the injustice is real, the prayer is desperate, and the miracle doesn't come? 

As I wait in hope for the Son of Man's return, this question plucks at the roots of my faith.

Next time: Jesus asks, "Why do you call me good?" (Luke 18:19)

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