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In the first verse of Luke 17:5-10, the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. Here is the full passage, in the New King James Version (NKJV):

5 And the apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith."

6 So the Lord said, "If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you. 7 And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and sit down to eat'? 8 But will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink'? 9 Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. 10 So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.'"

The beginning of Jesus' reply in 17:6 seems to be directly connected. But I am having trouble figuring out what 17:7-10 have to do with what was being said. This heavily implies I am not interpreting it correctly, as the Bible tends to make sense in context.

My interpretation of the parable is that God does not owe us anything because of what we do for Him. I just can't figure out what that has to do with the disciple's request for greater faith. There must be some commonly understood explanation for why Jesus used this parable as part of his reply to the disciples' request, but I have been unable to find any easily web-available commentary that addresses the subject.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Nathaniel, Lee Woofenden, Andrew, Matt Gutting, David Stratton Sep 3 '16 at 14:36

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12 Answers 12

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"Great Faith" is earned through lessons and hard work

Jesus was teaching them to do their duty first before they could start doing great things on their own. You cannot have great faith in a short time. It is through mistakes, trials, temptations and experience that faith is earned. It take years of experience in ministry that a man of God can have strong faith.

From Pulpit commentary

The little parable was to teach them that they were not to look to accomplishing great things by a strong faith given to them in a moment of time, but they were to labour on patiently and bravely, and afterwards, as in the parable-story, they too should eat and drink. It was to show them that in the end they should receive that higher faith they prayed for, which was to be the reward for patient, gallant toil.

  • Thanks. The other answers were good for the title and providing more understanding but you directly addressed my issue in the question itself. – trlkly Jan 11 '14 at 20:32
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    Faith is not earned "it is a gift from God." – Andrew Sep 1 '16 at 13:10
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Increase our Faith! = Make it Easier! (or Lighten the Burden!)

Just before the parable, Jesus says (paraphrasing, for brevity)

  • Don't be a stumbling block...or else!
  • Rebuke and forgive your brothers.
  • Forgive a brother even if he continually sins against you.

The disciples' response is, "Increase our faith!" (πιστις 4102, "trust" "belief" "conviction")

It sounds like the disciples want some help doing what Jesus is telling them to do, because he is not asking them to do something easy. They ask for faith, perhaps because believing better/trusting more would make it easier to endure the difficulties of the life to which Jesus is calling them.

In regards to doing good things, the disciples were at least occasionally at odds with each other about who was better. The parable about the servant is a way of saying that if you do all these good things, you are still only doing what Jesus has told you to do.

It's almost as if being a heroic Christian is the bare minimum. Increase my faith!

  • While I now better understand why the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, and see how verses 7-10 fit with the overall message of the passage, I'm still having trouble seeing the connection between verses 6 and 7. – trlkly Jan 11 '14 at 11:22
  • If the disciples wanted more faith, it was at least in part to do great works. Perhaps Jesus saw this as a problem in two ways: they didn't understand that it doesn't take much real faith to do a lot; and doing great works doesn't make one great. – mojo Jan 11 '14 at 19:49
  • Good comment, and you really helped me with this passage. Unfortunately, Mawia helped me with the part I was having the most trouble with, so they get the "answer" designation. Still, I did give both of you an upvote, now that I have enough cred to do it. – trlkly Jan 11 '14 at 22:54
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Not always can we understand the meaning of Scripture from a few verses or even from the contents of a single chapter, Some times we need to search many scriptures, in order to understand.

In this case we are going to have to consider many other things, The first thing we have to consider is in what situation Jesus made the statements;

Let's take a look at the whole situation, this conversation began with Jesus consorting with what was considered the dregs of society in that era.

Luke 15:1 and 2 KJV

1 Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.

2 And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.

In chapter 16 we find Jesus is talking about The unfaithful servant, and after that he is confronted by the Pharisees.

Luke 16:14 KJV

And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him.

There is a key to the rest of this exchange in the next verse:

Luke 16:15 KJV

And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.

So what does that have to do with his answer to his disciples in chapter 17? Let's compare the rest of Chapter 17. Since the Pharisees were regarded by the public as being very righteous and one of the two parts of the ruling Sanhedrin.

Jesus had just gotten through giving them four lessons in the form of parables, on having humility, and telling the Pharisees that God did not approve of their seeking the accolades of men and not giving their worship the proper reverence.

And in verses 1 through 4 he had just given them a lecture about how they should show others the same grace that God showed to them.

Verse 5 is quite telling in that it shows that they were confused. The Pharisees spent most of their day praying and doing the work of the Temple. Certainly what they were asking Lord make us able to have more faith than the Pharisees.

Luke 17:5 KJV

And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith.

In verse 6 he is telling them that the power of faith is stronger than the roots holding a sycamore tree in the ground, and that if they had a faith that even though it started out small it should grow until it was thousands of times greater.

Luke 17:6 KJV

And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.

In verses 7 through 10 Jesus is saying they expect their servants to take care of their master's needs before they take care of their own needs, so how unreasonable is it of God to expect that they do his will before the take care of their own. and not only that, but since they think that that is the way their servants should act, why not think they owe god the same duty.

Luke 17:7 through 10 KJV

7 But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat?

8 And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?

9 Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not.

10 So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

  • This extra context does help make the entire passage make more sense, but I'm still struggling with seeing how verse 6 connects with verse 7. – trlkly Jan 11 '14 at 11:18
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I think the pulpit commentary has things upside down. Faith is earned? Is that what the parable says or is it saying the opposite? Verse 10 very plainly says that the servants cannot sit at the master's table because they have only done what is expected of them. They could not earn the right. Now compare that with the expectations or demands of the law. No one could keep it. That is what the disciples plainly understand when asking for more faith. Jesus reinforces their notion that they cannot obtain a place at the Master's table by telling them that even if they kept all law they would only be dutiful servants, not guests or sons. We cannot earn faith or a place at the Master's table. The disciples rightly ask for faith to be given for they recognize a need for grace.

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Meaning of the parable in Luke 17:7-10

The essence of Christianity is our faith (trust) in Jesus. The disciples knew from the personal experience of living with Jesus how important a living faith is. Even the in Old Testament it was written that the just shall live by faith. The disciples asked for more faith in Luke 17 and were told a parable (7-10) that almost seems to blow them off.

Luke 17:5-10 And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith. And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you. But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

If we take a look at faith I think we can see that there are things that God does and there are things we are supposed to do.

Romans 10:17 So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

John 6:44a No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him

Hebrews 12:2a Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith;

Luke 7:9b I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.

Matthew 8:26a And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?

The Father creates in us something which leads us to Jesus (possibly a desire for truth). When we hear of Jesus (who is truth) we find faith (that in which we can trust). Faith can be measured as great or little. While Jesus originates our faith and completes it, we need to think about what we should do to make our faith stronger. Consider the rich young ruler;

Matthew 19:21-22 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.

Jesus didn't say, "Isn't it too bad God didn't give him more faith". Instead he said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. We know that riches can be a barrier to faith (since we live in the most prosperous time in history, this should also be a warning for us).

Jesus really can't give universal instruction for more faith because we all have different things to which we cling, (riches, retirement account, health, family, schooling, employment, social position, or plans for the future).

We do have an example of faith similar to a poker player who goes "all in".

Matthew 19:27 Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?

Jesus is the example of perfect faith

John 5:19 Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.

John 12:49 For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak.

One might conclude that an increase in faith is our responsibility and is a result not so much of that which we acquire, but of that we relinquish.

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The disciples were asking for increased faith but they wanted what we all want . . . a magic wand to give it to them. Faith is absolute, it is a standard. You either have faith or doubt. The second part of the parable is directly connected to the first.

What did Jesus say? He said say to the tree, not pray to the father, speak to the tree and IT will obey you, Didn't the fig tree obey Jesus? Didn't the wind and rain obey Him? He spoke to them both. Faith is near you even in your mouth. The second part is telling them, "Do exactly what I tell you to do the way I tell you to do it!" He said that the things He did we shall be able to do and even greater things shall we do.

If we don't try to over-spiritualize the Word of God and take it for what it says, we too will be able to do what He did (as a human being).

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  • Faith is not absolute. The positive result from it might be. If it were, Jesus would not say "Ye of little faith", and also mentioned "great" faith. Faith is like a muscle that we must exercise to grow from small to great. In fact, as James alludes to, our works show what quality of faith we have as well. Matt 10:10 says "He called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness." That's most likely what they were doing when Jesus was on the mountain in Matt 17. Some they cured, some they couldn't. – James Wilkins Sep 20 '16 at 2:34
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This is how I connect the request of the Apostles. As I see it, Jesus said something very harsh to the disciples.." It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones (believers, maybe those young in the faith) to stumble." Jesus went on to tell them to forgive every time a brother/sister ask for forgiveness (remember Jesus said to forgive even if it was 70 x 7 times). Maybe these things seemed very hard for the disciples to do. They may have felt inadequate in the face of the high standard Jesus set for them.The Apostles then asked the Lord to increase their faith since that was the case, in order for them to make it work.

So going beyond the call of duty may seem hard but obedience to God of a believer should be priority. Luke 17:10 "So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done."

John MacArthur said "the point of the parable was that a slave, or servant should expect no special reward for doing what was his duty in the first place. The demanding standards Christ set (verses 1- 4) may have seem too high to the disciples, but they represented only the minimal duties of a servant of Christ. Those who obey are not to think their obedience is meritorious."

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With all due respect, I think all of the answers given so far miss the mark as to how Luke 17:6 relates to the rest of the passage.

What is understood here is that, having accomplished great things by faith, one must not begin to be puffed up and begin to credit their accomplishments to themselves, rather than to God. There is a shadow of this in the Old Testament, when Moses and Aaron take credit for for the miracle of the water from the rock in the desert of Zin (Numbers 20:10).

Cyril of Alexandria explains the passage:

But which of you having a servant ploughing or feeding cattle ...

In the verses which precede a long and important discourse has been addressed to us by the Lord, to shew unto us the paths which lead unto honour, and to manifest the glories of the blameless life, that making progress therein, and advancing zealously unto whatsoever is admirable we may attain unto “the prize of our high calling” [Philippians 3:14]. But since it is the nature of the mind of man ever to be carried away unto vaingloriousness, and to be afflicted most readily with a tendency thereto; and since a pretext for this fault is often given by the being distinguished before God for some of the noblest virtues; and since it is a sin grievous and hateful unto God:—for the serpent, the author of evil, leads men sometimes into such a state of mind, as for them to imagine perhaps that God even owes them the highest honours, when their life is glorious and distinguished:—to draw us away from such passions, He sets before us the purport of the lessons which have just been read, teaching us thereby, under the form of an example, that the might of sovereign authority demands everywhere of its slaves subjection as a debt. For the lord, He says, will not acknowledge any gratitude to the slave, even if all that is due be done by him, according to what becomes the condition of a slave.

- A Commentary upon the Gospel to Saint Luke, Sermons CXIII-CXVI

This same interpretation is echoed by John Chrysostom (Homily on Genesis XXXI.4); the later Byzantine commentator Theophylact of Ohrid (Explanation of the Gospel According to St. Luke); as well as in the Protestant commentaries of Benson, Matthew Henry, and Meyer.

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Looking to the earlier verses in Luke 17, the difficultly that requires a miracle is forgiveness, not landscaping, though after hauling 6 tons of gravel to redo my landscaping this summer in 94 degree heat, I would have loved for the rocks to move themselves.

Next, consider the elements of the parable. The mulberry tree is not being disposed of, like being tossed in a landfill (or behind my shed, where I dump all my lawn clippings and leaves). The tree is being replanted in the sea. The sea is salty, not a good place to plant a tree. The miracle is that the tree will grow in an inhospitable environment, just like the human heart is naturally an inhospitable place for feelings of forgiveness to grow.

Moving on to the connection to the next verses, observe that in the first parable the faithful disciple can command the tree and it will obey. In the next parable, the disciples are the servants who are being commanded by their master, who is figuratively Christ.

The earlier verses deal with the impossibility of forgiveness on the scale that Jesus commands - it takes a miracle. The later verses deal with the attitude of the one doing the forgiving - humility. If forgiving is hard, doing so regularly and without pride is even harder, and it is expected.

However, to see the full meaning of the parable, you need to recognize that in the gospels, Jesus tells FIVE parables involving mustard seeds:

Matthew 13:31-32
Matthew 17:14-21
Mark 4:30-32
Luke 13:18-19
Luke 17:1-10

I leave it as an exercise to reflect on all of them, because they tie together marvelously, and in them one can find the seeds of the entire gospel. In a chapter titled "The End of the Hunt" in my book The Endless Hunt, I conclude with the following summary:

If we combine all five parables of the mustard seed together, what can we learn? God calls for us to repent, and is patient with us through our years of resistance. By his grace and initiative, God plants faith in our hearts. This faith then procures for us forgiveness. As forgiven people, our faith purchases for us safety, healing and deliverance from evil, which proves to us that God has the authority, power and love needed to give us eternal life and righteousness. And when he promises that he will make us shine like the sun, God is telling us something marvelous: he will share with us a measure of his glory. Yet Isaiah reports that God said, "I will not give my glory to another." Both Both of these truths cannot coexist unless God does the unfathomable: he must enter into our hearts and live in us. This brings to mind one of my favorite sayings of the Apostle Paul, when he uncovers:

"... the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to His saints. God wanted to make known to those among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:26-27 HCSB)"

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I believe the word "small" added in some versions in "as small as a mustard seed" is not in the Greek. So it should read "if you have faith [like] a mustard seed" ... you will do great things.

It is not saying you can do great things with a tiny amount of faith. Rather the mustard seed despite its small size it has great faith because it strives to be 10,000 times its initial size (with great faith you can do great things). It achieves this by working consistently everyday in its job of growing.

If we want to do great things we need to be faithful serving everyday doing what is next rather than not looking for recognition for past works. Serving takes faith when we are not rewarded immediately. We serve both out of thankfulness for what Jesus has done in the past and expectation of what he has promised in the future. Both these require faith.

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The first part talks about having faith. not an amount of faith, just faith. The poppy seed is the correct translation as it is medicinal and can help cure. The sycamore fig tree is unclean. Figs are used to feed pigs which for Jews are unclean hence prodigal son ends up feeding figs to pigs when he at the lowest level. Sycus was an unclean tax inspector who was relieved of his sins when he couldn't see Jesus so climbed a tree. Guess what sort of tree? A sycamore fig.

So this could be the superficial interpretation as above of direct understanding of the passage. But it could be that Jesus is putting you in charge of this servant. The servant is the unclean thing. That unclean thing could be a problem, an illness etc. are you going to let it rule you or you rule it. You may have to put it in its place as a servant not a master to you. Then the unclean sycamore fig tree can be defeated by the medicinal poppy seed.

So don't let problems overcome you. With faith you can overcome it.

  • Could you cite commentaries or other works that lay out these ideas? Without citing sources, it's hard to know whether these are just your own speculations or if it's accepted by mainstream Christian commentators and scholars. – Mr. Bultitude Mar 12 '15 at 20:04
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In regards to the forgiving another 70 x 7 times: I as a Holy Spirit filled Christian am seeing this as Jesus saying, “don’t shut off the grace valve between you and others no matter what.” ( He also said this in his lesson on, “when someone hits you on one cheek turn the other cheek…” (Matt. 5:39, Luke 6:29) In the perfect Christian scenario you don’t snap and start throwing punches to defend yourself. The martyr Stephen is a good example of the perfect Christian scenario. ) I am understanding as I read this that before the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples and apostles they would be astonished at the theme of grace Jesus is telling them they were to live by. In essence they are saying in response, “How are we to do this?” So they form their response saying, “give us the faith” so we can do this. We may, as we read this, substitute the word “power” for “faith.” They didn’t know at the time of this parable that God would bring power because they had faith. When the Holy Spirit was given to them the power to live the Christian life came. (It is good for us to study the giving of the Holy Spirit and why that was so important because the giving of the Holy Spirit is still a life changer in our day as we live the Christian life. Note too in your study that in Acts ch. 5 An angel upon freeing Peter said, “Go, stand in the temple courts," he said, "and tell the people all about this new life."(Acts 5:20) In essence the angel is telling Peter to speak about the Holy Spirit and how The Holy Spirit can allow the kingdom of God to come to man. The disciples and apostles were able to forgive and even to die without being angry. That is evidence of God’s Holy Spirit power that came as they had faith in Jesus. We too are able to do lesser noble things as we let God’s Holy Spirit live in us. Simply being patient and kind and encouraging others in their faith these are listed as fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Even we without praying and asking God into our lives would have difficulty and we do have difficulty with this command to forgive over and over. But the point is God wants to indwell us, we aren’t relying on our own power but ever looking at his grace toward we ourselves and asking Him to do the good forgiving using our mouths. We ask Him to change our hearts toward others and he does! He gives the grace as we allow Him to live in us. And lest we forget we continue to sin even when we are Christians yet God continually forgives us. To help people see God’s grace we model it by forgiving them over and over if that is what God brings into our life as our testimony. Then those who receive the grace from us say as they witness His grace through us, “wow God is grace filled, loving and kind!”

As I read the master servant part I see Jesus is yet again proclaiming that God’s ways are better than ours. In understanding this so we can apply it he is talking about the master being served first. As we serve God, such as when we forgive another person, we will be pleasantly overwhelmed by the good things that are happening and these good things will persuade us and remind us that living simply for human selfishness is never going to yield the kind of glorious results that come as we live for God. Yes God does serve us but we don’t live just to gratify our human passions. Corrie Ten Boom forgiving a Nazi guard she met after the war is an example of someone who initially had difficulty forgiving but the Holy Spirit came upon her and she was able. If she hadn’t forgiven the guard at that time she have fostered bitterness and it may have festered and slowly destroyed her, but the fact that she was able to forgive has gone global and become an eternal testimony of God’s good work in we who submit to him.

In regards to the lesson concerning faith. I’ll be honest I don’t know how God works in regards to the way he answers Christians prayers using the faith he puts in our hearts. I would suppose he would be looking at the big picture of people’s lives. He knows if a miracle will help someone become a disciple or not and base the asked-for miracle on that criteria. But he has the right to do as he wishes and we have to know it is good whatever that may be at the time. As I read the Bible there is no point in God doing a miracle and then having that person walk away untouched at the heart. It happened amongst the lepers of Jesus day and may happen now too. But we read that the miracles did happen to the lepers and so God may go ahead and do more of those. God knows the big picture and he knows in some cases years later people come to faith. We all have been touched in positive ways by God in one way or another and many of us only years later gave God credit for doing good things throughout our entire lives. Jesus tells us to keep asking in the lesson using the unjust judge and so being persistent seems to be a way God works according to that lesson. God may reserve the right to not follow a cookie cutter pattern in regards to doing miracles so that we stay close to Him, respecting his power and authority, ever listening and praying and waiting on him.

Imbedded in Luke 17 is a lesson about living the Christian life. Naturally we Christians aren’t going to go around and tell everyone that we forgave so and so, another human, five times in one day. The Pharisees were caught up in seeking the accolades of men and so they probably were verbally boasting about the good things they did so others could publicly hear and laud them for their works. As we keep our hearts focused on Christ we know there is nothing we do that is good we can take credit for or boast about. I tell my Christian friends in an effort to diffuse becoming proud, “If there is anything good you see in me, you thank Jesus for doing that in me because it isn’t me.”

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