Rev. Yme Woensdregt
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus calls his disciples by an affectionate name, oligopistoi.
The first half of the word means “a little” or “a few”; the second half comes from pistis, the word for trust, or faith. So Jesus called his closest followers “people of little faith”.
Sometimes that word is a rebuke, almost an insult. But the first time Jesus uses the word, it seems to be more affectionate.
Early in Matthew’s story, in the middle of the so–called Sermon on the Mount, Jesus poses 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 6:30)
The disciples are just listening to Jesus. They have done nothing worthy of a rebuke (yet), and the context suggests that this might have been simply an affectionate nickname which Jesus used for his followers.
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. 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.
“You of little faith” seems to have been reserved for his most intimate friends. There’s almost a bantering, teasing quality to it. To be sure, Jesus does use this word in some places as a rebuke. In the story of the stilling of the storm (Matthew 8), it’s quite clearly a reprimand: “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?”
The other time Jesus calls the whole group “you of little faith” occurs in a story when the religious leaders of the day ask Jesus for a sign. The disciples don’t get it, and with some irritation, Jesus asks, “Do you still not perceive, you of little faith?” He seems irritated because the disciples fail to understand what Jesus is all about. 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.
But in the Sermon on the Mount, the first time Jesus uses this affectionate for his followers, it is more a gentle nickname, not a rebuke. Jesus seemed to like people for whom doubt was a more characteristic response than faith.
Only once in Matthew does Jesus call an individual “you of little faith”. That was none other than Peter, whom Matthew considers to be the leader of the community after the death of Jesus. It happens when Peter tries to imitate Jesus by walking on water. Jesus invites him to do so, and Peter steps out on the water. When he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and started to sink. Jesus reached out his hand and caught him, saying “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
The key insight here is that Jesus entrusted the mission to those of little faith. We are not called to huge tasks, such as winning the city or the country or the world for God. We are called to simple acts of little faith — loving our neighbours; doing good in our everyday lives; seeking peace and justice; working for the healing of our community; living in shalom with all the world.
Later on in Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move”, and it will move.” In Luke’s way of telling the story, that is Jesus’ response to the disciples when they ask, “Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17). A little faith, it seems, is enough.
It’s not about acquiring more faith. It’s about learning to trust God to act in and through us, through our ordinary, everyday, little deeds of faith.
Apparently Jesus did not care to spend much time with people of great faith. He 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 present Jesus.
We have a lot to learn from Jesus if we can see him as a friend to those who do not have much faith.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook