“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. 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 [a]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.’ “ (Luke 17: 6-10)
The parable of the unprofitable servant was the Lord’s answer to His disciples’ request to increase their faith. We can read it as saying that increased faith comes from increased obedience, but the context that we are given is far less straightforward than such a simple equation: real faith, even as tiny as a grain of mustard seed, will accomplish impossible acts. Even a tree that has no ears will obey a command that is given out of faith, when that faith is itself an obedient response to a command from Above.
Every believer wants to increase their faith, and we all long to command those mulberry trees to be planted in the sea. Whether we spiritualise the image or take it literally, we want to see God’s hand transforming our landscape. And all the while that this desire motivates us, we can be wrestling with another question: what is it that God has asked me to do, so that I can obey Him?
If we know our Bibles at all, we can quote any number of Bible verses that give us the answer, and many of them will be found in the writings of John: if we want to obey Jesus, we love one another. Simple. The trouble is that obedience to the New Commandment isn’t of itself a guarantee of progress along the pathway of faith: the imperative to love can be a guiding principle in the Christian life without being a requirement for mustard-seed faith, and while this guiding principle is fundamental – there is no Christian life without it – it is not enough alone to equip us to “be strong and do exploits” as promised in Daniel 11:32. Love is the only good ground where the seeds of faith will be fruitful, but the seeds have to come from the Sower as well. The question is, how do we get those seeds?
Again, many answers come readily to mind, because the Holy Spirit has been given to us, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and His sheep hear His voice in many ways. But about a week ago I said something to the Lord that I have never said before. It was this: “Lord, are there any jobs you want me to do today?” I suppose you could say it was the prayer of the unprofitable servant. And there was. It wasn’t a miracle on the streets, and no-one fell to their knees and said ‘What must I do to be saved?’ It was just (just?) a simple manifestation of our Heavenly Father’s lovingkindness. This is what happened.
I was on a birding mini-break, driving out of a pub where I had had lunch, and was flagged down by an elderly lady walking up the road who asked me if I knew how far we were from a certain village. I checked on Google maps and told her, “Two miles.” She was devastated: she actually lived there and had gone for a walk, but had taken a wrong turning and got lost. When I offered to drive her home her gratitude was palpable. I was able to tell her that I had asked the Lord that very morning if He had any jobs for me, and this was clearly one – so He was the one to thank for sending me to rescue her! She said “I will!” She was a Christian herself, and told me that she had been at church the previous day to celebrate Ascencion Day. We chatted a little more on the short journey, and she arrived home thoroughly blessed, and with a story to tell about how much the Good Shepherd cared for her by sending a “good Samaritan” (this is what she called me) to rescue her when she was lost.
I was so encouraged by this unexpected answer to my prayer that I asked the Lord the same question the following morning. “Is there anything you want me to do today, Lord?” I said. I was spending the day at RSPB Minsmere, which is a lovely nature reserve in Suffolk (Google it if you’re interested). I arrived early and saw no-one else around (birder’s bonus!) until I was walking along a path and saw a chap behind me looking with binoculars into a field that a rare protected species is known to frequent. I waited for him to catch up. “Did you see the stone-curlews?” I asked. “Nah,” he replied, and we fell into step and started chatting birders’ talk. We were heading for the same hide, and went in together. As we both watched the birds through our optics – me with my camera and zoom lens, he with his binoculars – we soon started chatting about ourselves. He was about 15 years younger than me, but looked fairly grizzled by life’s mill. We warmed to each other, beyond the pages of our field guides, and defences came down. His name was Bert.
Bert told me he used to be a new age traveller, living off-grid for years in the 1980’s. He was steeped in new age spirituality, actually calling himself a “born-again pagan.” Before I met Jesus in 1983 I too was a “new ager,” so we had many touching points in our pasts; and before long I was not only sharing the gospel in the context of my testimony in a depth of detail that he could identify with, but was suggesting that he should read the gospel of John and revisit the account of Jesus with fresh eyes. And all of this was happening as we looked out from the bird hide and shared what we were seeing. The conversation went something like this: “Look! Little ringed plover there on the mudflat! Actually my background is Catholic”– “Yes, got it! Look at him running along the water’s edge. I love those little birds. But if you read John you get the spiritual truth behind the packaging of religion. You need to know Jesus for yourself. There’s a black-tailed godwit by the reeds – have you got it?” “Yes, I can see it. Beautiful male. It’s Matthew Mark, Luke and John, isn’t it?”
And so it went on. It was one of the warmest and most authentic evangelistic conversations I have ever had, and by Bert’s question about the location of John’s gospel I know he was listening – please pray for him with me. You can read the story that I shared with him here, (scroll down the the section entitled “Which Yoke?” and you’ll see how significant it was in the context of that meeting; but the main point is that I had asked the Lord if He had any jobs for me that day, and that’s what He gave me to do.
I pray that prayer every morning now, and each day so far has been marked in some way by a fresh and unexpected unveiling of God’s purposes for my life in the path that I am walking. And what is more is that I am more aware of the reality of His Love and of that guiding principle of the New Commandment as I walk it, because I am looking out for the next job He has got lined up.
Try it for yourself. We are unprofitable servants. All you are doing is showing up for work, doing what it is your duty to do. The Sower will send the seeds.