"If you have faith the size of a mustard seed…” Perhaps faith is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the Christian religion. We seem intuitively to know that we need faith. It’s something that all people who desire to live a godly life long for—it speaks to our deepest inner being—but what is it really that we desire? Is it that we should have all our doubts put to rest? Even the greatest of saints had their doubts. Or perhaps it’s that we long to see just one great miracle in our lifetimes. “ Oh, If I just had the faith! Then everything would be alright.”
The readings we have for today are clearly about faith, and to really get the message we need to look not only at today’s readings, but also we should consider where we have been liturgically in the past couple weeks.
Last Sunday we heard about the rich man and Lazarus, and how Lazarus laid suffering in the rich man’s door. He must have stepped over Lazarus every morning! The week before that we heard of the dishonest steward and those who trample the poor through cheating and dishonesty. Actually all these readings, along with the ones we have today are all about faith. Faith, or the lack thereof as it may be, becomes evident in the things we do and in the things that we fail to do.
What we sometimes need, when it comes to faith, is an eye opener. In today’s gospel Jesus provides the disciples with such an eye opener. I grew up with a literal interpretation of the parable of the mustard seed. I was told that if I had only a little faith, miracles would happen on a daily basis. In my Protestant evangelical upbringing I heard it all the time. Faith had to do with everything from gaining wealth and prosperity to overcoming incurable illnesses. Mustard seed faith was the key to everything. All one could want was possible by having mustard seed faith, or at least that’s what they told me.
I have to be honest. I never had that kind of supernatural faith. However, I did know of several Pentecostal preachers who could make people pass out by just touching them—of course this kind of thing was always suspect of trickery or prearrangement. Perhaps the faithful just knew what to do when the preacher touched them. Perhaps he knew if they had just the right very deep and intense prayerful look they were candidates for being “slain in the spirit.”
I did have someone pass out while I was preaching a couple years ago, but that was probably caused something else. I suspect it had more to do with a missed insulin shot than with supernatural power issuing from my words. My problem with faith when I was young wasn’t that I didn’t believe. Quite the contrary actually, it was just that no matter how much I desired it, regardless of how hard I prayed, no matter how much I contorted my heart and face, it wasn’t in my power to make the miraculous occur.
Nevertheless, I do wholeheartedly believe that faith leads us to realize unimaginable possibilities; that is, it leads to realistic possibilities that push the envelope in terms of what we would ordinarily consider. If we believe in something, something real and attainable in this world, and are willing to put forth the effort there’s a universe of pure possibility waiting. That’s a good thing, and I’m actually a lot more inclined to think of the mustard seed faith concept of my youth in this way nowadays. It’s the mystery of the power of God that makes the realization of faith possible. Not that it’s beyond our understanding, but that faith brings about a holy and transcendent experience. That’s the real meaning of mystery. It’s something that transcends what we would ordinarily expect.
In today’s gospel the disciples, somewhat impetuously, ask Jesus to increase their faith. As he often does, Jesus responds with hyperbole or overstatement to get his point across. The biblical literalists of my youth might have a hard time seeing it this way. In our translation that we heard today Jesus tell the disciples “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed” you could command this tree to be planted in the sea and it would obey. The Greek verb “have” in this section of the gospel is rendered in a tense, which older translations render as “had” in the sense of habitually having something. It is as though Jesus is saying to the disciples, somewhat accusatorily, “You say increase our faith, but I ask exactly what faith is it that I am to increase? If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” he tells them, then “you could command the tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea.”
As they often do, the disciples are caught presuming something and they have to be corrected. In their being reproved—about assuming to have faith to begin with—we find something key to understanding faith. Jesus goes on to say, “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’"
We are to do what we have been commanded to do. It seems rather simple doesn’t it? We are to obey the commandments and love. For me this is the key not only to understanding today’s scripture but also the readings for past couple weeks. It’s quite interesting that in each lesson the actions of faith they are cast in connection with how we interact with those whose lives are affected by extreme negative conditions outside their control: poverty, or as the case is today with the Habakkuk reading, how we react in the face of violence. No doubt these are all concerns quite relevant to us in our world today. What are we to do when we come face-to-face with those whose lives are affected by forces outside their control? How do we react to them? The manner in which we treat others determines the reality of faith much, much more than the sheer mystery of the miraculous.
I want to close by reflecting on something I became aware of this past week. It’s not to accuse anyone. After all we all have room to grow. I like to think that we encounter God each day, and each day brings us a test of faith. I have a friend, a devout person, who comes to church with her young daughter. Her daughter has autism. The child has behaviors typical for someone with autism. She can sometimes be a little noisy, but nothing too bad. Certainly she is less noisy than crying babies, who we tolerate very well. My friend’s daughter is a person who understands that we receive Jesus in Eucharist. I taught her that myself. Just last week I learned that someone who came to church late sat near where the child and her mother were in the back of the church. When the person noticed the child making a slight noise she told the mother, “Your child is distracting me, make her be quiet.” The mother explained, “My child has autism, she can’t really help it.” Again the person said, “Make her be quiet.” So my friend took her child and left Mass.
The things in life that require the response of faith come to us in many guises, be it Lazarus in the doorway calling out for help, the poor cheated by the rich, or the violence of our times. Perhaps it may the voice of a child in our midst with a disability. We only begin to reach out and take a hold of faith; we only begin to increase it, when we allow it to cause us to act when we encounter injustice. Faith is truly faith when we act in the lives of those who suffer. The mulberry tree will indeed someday be planted in the sea, but that will happen only when we decide to repair our world.