Adapted from So You Can’t Stand Evangelism: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Church Growth (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1994)
In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus had an affectionate name for his disciples, oligopistoi. The first half of the term means a little, or a few, as in “oligarchy”, the rule of a few people or a small group, while the second comes from pistis, the term for trust, confidence, belief, or faith. So Jesus called his closest associates people of little faith, or people with few beliefs. In some passages, it is possible to conclude that Matthew meant the reader to understand the term as an insult, or at least a rebuke, but that does not seem to be the case when Jesus first used this name in addressing his disciples. He was nearing the end of a long discourse, known as the Sermon on the Mount, when he posed a rhetorical question:
If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-you of little faith? (Matthew 6:20)
At this point in the story, the disciples were just standing or sitting around listening to Jesus. They were doing nothing that could have prompted Jesus to use a derogatory term in speaking directly to them. From the context, Jesus’s name for his followers as a group seems to have been one of familiarity if not genuine affection. He apparently liked people for whom doubt was a more characteristic response than faith.
Oligopistoi has a kind of teasing or bantering quality that Jesus reserves for his most intimate associates. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus does identify at least two people as having great faith. Both of them are outsiders, and both immediately disappear from the story, never to be heard from again. One of them is a Canaanite woman who pesters Jesus to heal her daughter, and the other is a Roman centurion who insists that Jesus can heal his slave without even going to see him. Jesus commends them for their faith, but as far as the story goes, neither of them became followers.
Once we realize that Jesus called no one but his followers “you of little faith”, the designation has a different sound in the stories where Jesus is reprimanding them. In one of these stories, a sudden storm catches Jesus and his disciples out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee.
A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:24-26)
Even though waves are swamping the boat, Jesus sleeps soundly until his disciples wake him up, pleading, “Lord, save us.” Their behavior might not seem odd until you recall that the disciples were experienced fishermen who had spent their working lives on the sea and that Jesus was the only landlubber in the boat. His response betrays a little annoyance at having his sleep interrupted by men who knew a good deal more about sailing than he did: “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” In the context of Jesus’s developing relationship with his disciples, his question sounds more like teasing than scolding. What could be sillier than sailors asking a carpenter or craftsman what to do about a boat during a storm at sea?
The other time Jesus calls the whole group “you of little faith” occurs in a story about Jesus that may appeal to people who do not think of themselves as believers.
When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? (Matthew 16:5-9)
On this occasion, just as the disciples catch up with Jesus, who had crossed the Sea of Galilee ahead of them, they realize that they have forgotten to bring any bread. Ignoring their predicament, Jesus tells them to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Apparently confused, the disciples wonder if Jesus is talking about the forgotten bread. Then Jesus says to them: “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive?” He appears to be irritated because the disciples fail to understand that he is speaking in metaphors and not referring to the fact that they forgot bring any bread to eat on another boat trip. People of little faith need constant reminding that they are not to take religious teaching literally but to look for the symbolic meaning, but they can learn. In fact, Matthew seems to suggest that the people of little faith are the only ones worth teaching.
Matthew confirms this view in the only story in which Jesus honors a single individual with the title. He is none other than Peter, the disciple Matthew considers to be the leader of the community after the death of Jesus. The story is of Peter’s failed attempt to imitate Jesus by walking on water.
Jesus said, “Come.“ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt (distazo)?“ (Matthew 14:29-31)
As he is about to sink, Jesus offers him a hand, and addresses him by what we have now seen is a term of real affection: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” The story reflects what Jesus stands for in human experience. Some people occasionally experience a momentary sense of confidence, which is another word for faith. They take an uncharacteristic risk. They fail, but they are ready to try again. Jesus chose his followers from the ranks of those with inconsistent, faltering, periodic faith, not those whose faith was sure and steady. When those people were willing to act on what little faith they had, he was willing to lend a hand if they needed him.
Although Luke has Jesus call his disciples “you of little faith” only once-in the passage where Jesus is telling them not to worry about their lives, what they are to eat or what they are to wear-Luke seems to have the same attitude toward faith among the disciples that we have seen in Matthew. Luke’s opinion of faith comes through in a story that he alone relates.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “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. (Luke 17:5-6)
The disciples make what seems to be a reasonable request, “Increase our faith!” It is a request that many people both in and outside the church might make, because people who cannot believe easily often look wistfully at people with faith. If they knew how to acquire more faith, they would get it. The request of the disciples was reasonable because they probably thought that faith was a gift from God, but Jesus’s response was hardly sympathetic. It might even have been a bit unkind: “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.”
This saying has always attracted me. The neighborhood where I lived in Washington, D.C., has a great many mulberry trees because of a nineteenth-century misguided attempt to raise silkworms. The silkworms did not last long, but the mulberry trees that were planted to feed them not only flourished but spread through an entire section of the city and are a real nuisance. We had one in the backyard. I often thought it would be a fine thing to walk out one morning and say to the mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea!” It would be like a documentary I once saw about the launching of the space shuttle from Cape Canaveral: a great rumbling and roaring and a cloud of dust as the huge mulberry tree rises up and gains speed as it arches over Lincoln Park, adjusts its course, and heads out over Chesapeake Bay.
The reader of Luke’s story must ask, “Was Jesus being serious?” If it only took a little bit of faith, a bit so small you could hardly see it, to uproot mulberry trees and cast them into the Sea of Galilee, think what mischief people could do if they had great faith. I do not suppose Luke wanted the reader to think that Jesus intended his words to be taken at face value. In my opinion, Luke wanted to present Jesus revealing to the disciples that they had made a silly request. Instead of telling them directly that they had made a silly request, however, he gave them a silly answer. To make sure that the disciples did not misunderstand, Luke says Jesus went on to suggest that asking for more faith is as foolish as a slave expecting that his master will ask him to sit at the table and have dinner before the master and the family have eaten. Everybody knows that even though a slave may have put in a full day’s work in the field he will have to serve the master and the family before he can eat. To expect life to be otherwise would be ridiculous.
Then Luke moves on to other matters without bothering to relate how the disciples reacted, but I imagine they would have been disappointed and that their disappointment might have turned to anger. I think they developed an appreciation for what he had given them only after his death. Jesus had suggested that they did not need more faith, for they had all the faith they could ever use, all the faith they needed to face life and death. If they had any more faith, they might do something dangerous, such as uprooting mulberry trees and sending them flying to the sea.
Apparently Jesus did not care to spend much time with people of great faith but instead surrounded himself with those of little faith. He was so fond of little faith people that he discouraged them from trying to acquire more faith. At least that is the way the gospels according to Matthew and Luke present Jesus. Non-religious people might have much to learn from Jesus if they can see him as a friend to those who do not have much faith.