Faith in what? I had a conversation a few days ago with a friend who wondered if Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus because of the lack of faith he saw in others. And I wondered, faith in what? In the synoptics Jesus is quoted often as saying something like “your faith has made you well.” Sometimes he “saw their faith.” At other times he said “according to your faith let it be done to you.” He also criticized people for having “little faith.” For what it’s worth, John doesn’t mention faith, at least by name. So the question remains, faith in what?
Faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the “I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior” kind of faith? In the context of Jesus’ ministry, that seems unlikely. He was a brand new never before seen figure on the human landscape. Everything he did and said opened something new that often contradicted treasured traditions and customs that dictated the way it was supposed to be. Especially for his disciples, each day had to bring its moment of confusion: Who is this person? If he is the messiah, he is not the kind of messiah we have been waiting for.
Christian faith, however we understand it, is a post resurrection faith in the risen Christ, the Son of God, the redeemer of the world. We cannot ask the people of his day to have that faith. It would have been impossible for them. That means the faith Jesus saw, and to which he responded, had to be a different kind of faith, faith in something other than him as messiah. To be sure, the gospel records were written well after the church began to form, and it is possible that the writers intended their readers to understand faith from a resurrection perspective, but to stay with the text as it is we have to look elsewhere for an understanding of what faith Jesus had in mind.
Here’s what I think. Part of the faith that Jesus spoke about so often is faith in the teachings of the prophets, not about what is to come, but what God spoke through their pens about justice, mercy, and relationships between humans, and between humans and the rest of creation. It is a faith that is lived into a more full communion with God: more consistent, as it were, with God’s will. Another part of the faith Jesus spoke about is believing, understanding, and living into his teaching, especially as we see it summarized in places such as the Sermon on the Mount and illustrated in the parables.
When he gets exasperated and complains about “you of little faith,” I think he means that after all he has taught them about the meaning of God’s word through the prophets, and what it means to live into the fullness of life as God would have life be full, his closest disciples have a hard time grasping it, and keep trying to put big “buts” into it so that it more easily fits their customary way of judging what the good, just life is.
When he commends someone’s faith I don’t imagine that he has in mind some theologically deep sort of thing. I think he means a faith that is simply open and trusting that Jesus is a legitimate authority bearing God’s presence of love and power to heal. Parsing what legitimate authority means would be irrelevant because no one could anticipate the crucifixion and resurrection that lay ahead. Indeed, the faith he commends is the very childlike faith that toddlers have in what it means to be safe in their parent’s arms.
When it comes down to it, I think we make faith too complicated while not taking it seriously enough. We do what his followers of little faith did and try to mold Jesus and his teachings into forms that fit our customs, traditions, and prejudices. We are not toddlers, we are adults, and only a fool would trust in anything as a toddler trusts in a parent. It’s so much easier just to claim that have accepted Jesus as our lord and savior, call ourselves Christian, and get on with life as usual. Oh, we of little faith.