A Mustard Seed’s Worth of Faith

Updated: Feb 3

The Gospel reading for October 2, 2016 (Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22) was from Luke (17:5-10). The reading stated:

“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.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”

While many people hear or read the words “mustard seed” and think in terms of itty-bitty small, they confuse this reading with Matthew 13:33.  There, Jesus was quoted as saying, “Though it [a mustard seed] is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” The mistaken thought comes from applying that growth of a physical seed into a large tree, as if Jesus implied that in the reading from Luke.  Therefore, when people hear or read this reference to a mustard seed by Luke, people imagine a seed that needs to grow, in order to fulfill the statement, “You could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

That is wrong to think.

One cannot go to the garden store and buy a bag of faith seeds. In Luke’s verses, Jesus was stating that faith cannot be grown or increased in size.  The use of mustard seeds is metaphoric, such that the reference is to say, “If you had but one iota of faith, you could work miracles.”

The disciples had told Jesus, “Increase our faith!”, which must be seen as a braggart saying, “I have faith, but I want more!” Jesus replied, in essence, “You have no faith. Not even one iota. Not even the amount that would match the minuscule size of a mustard seed.”

When Jesus said, “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.’” then remember when Jesus saw a fig tree that did not produce fruit.  Jesus said to the tree, “May you never bear fruit again!” (Matthew 21:19b)  He was also remember to have said, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” by Mark’s Gospel (Mark 11:14b).  Immediately, the tree withered before the disciples, prompting them to ask, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” (Matthew 21:20b)

Matthew then wrote, “Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.’” That is the same thing as Jesus saying, “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.” Therefore, “faith the size of a mustard seed” is equal to “faith without doubt.”

The disciples who followed Jesus had doubts, thus they had no true faith. All Jews who believed in the Law of Moses had doubts, because they sinned. Because the Jews had produced the fruit of maintaining an education system for religious principles, they were not ordered, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” such that Judaism would wither and die.  Still, they had no real faith, simply from memorizing what they were told to memorize.  Therefore, when Peter jumped out of the boat and attempted to walk on water, because he saw Jesus walking on water, he sank because he doubted, prompting Jesus to say, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31b)

Jesus told his disciples, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread?” (Matthew 16:6) He further said to them, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” (Matthew 8:26) when they were on the Sea of Galilee and a storm came up, threatening to sink them. The point is clear: Jesus was one who did have a mustard seed’s worth of faith, such that he had faith in God with no doubt and no fear. The disciples, who called themselves the followers of Jesus – his disciples – they had zero faith, because they still doubted and feared, regardless of how many rules they followed.

As Christians today, we are no better than the disciples were then. We follow Jesus because we feel safe with him around. We think it will make Jesus happy if we do a few things that make it seem as if we have faith, to the point that we think we actually have faith. But, then we feel bad because we cannot heal the sick or cast out demons, so we demand of Jesus, “Increase our faith!”

We fail to see how Jesus did “Jesus-type” things when he only needed a mustard seed size amount of faith in God to do them. In actuality, faith with no doubt in God means a human with a soul is all God needs for God to work miracles through one of faith. If Jesus had demanded that God increase his faith, Jesus would have asked to be God. To ask to be God is to admit one is full of doubt and fear. To simply have faith, as small as one iota, that is all one needs to be God, as a servant through whom God works.

This is then the purpose of the story Jesus told the disciples, about a master and a slave. Jesus asked who among the disciples would treat a slave as an equal, if they were the slave’s master. A slave can never aspire to anything more than to meet a master’s expectations. Therefore, the disciples had asked Jesus to make them the equal of God, their master, when they were unworthy of taking a seat at that table of privilege. Jesus said, “When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'” That is an admission of service to God, which is true faith.

By understanding that seeking more faith is an admission of no faith, telling those whose faith is full of doubts and fears, “If you only have a mustard seed’s worth of faith, then planting it in good soil will make that faith grow as big as a tree that birds and squirrels can find a home in” is misleading.  It leads those of “little faith” away from gaining “one iota of true faith.” To serve God as an Apostle, whose mind is led by Christ – full of faith without doubt – then the message should be to tell people to gain the fundamentals from which true faith comes.

The Greek word for “faith” is “pistis.” The word stems from “peithô” meaning, “persuade, be persuaded,” with “pistis” properly meaning, “persuasion (be persuaded, come to trust); faith.” One does not have faith in anything without knowledge of that thing first taught to one. Thus, knowledge of God is what faith in God comes from.

The knowledge of God the Jews had was the Law of Moses, the psalms of praise, and the warnings of the prophets. Still, that knowledge had brought forth only a few who had true faith (those who are referenced in the books we read in the Old Testament). Jesus was sent by God to make that prior knowledge reach maturity and fulfillment, so the stories of Jesus would elicit more who would come forth and have true faith. However, no one gets to sit at the table with the master as a reward for being a slave on earth, as Jesus was sent to show the world how to become a slave for God.  All reward comes from attaining heaven, which is why the Kingdom of Jesus was never meant to be of this world; and we are asked to be reborn as Jesus the slave to God.

If you are a slave to God, then you spend 24/7 in contact with the Lord. You read Scripture and ponder its meaning daily, through prayer. You hear the whispers of Jesus telling you the answers you need for the enrichment of faith, as your mustard seed’s amount of faith that makes you Jesus reborn. You then go out and plow the fields and tend the sheep, by letting that awareness given to you be known by others seeking to find faith. Then, when that work is done, you prepare a meal for the Lord, which is the bread of your body and the wine of your blood, as a duplication of Jesus Christ. When God has been fed by your servitude, then you may find your needs met – salvation.

At no time are you able to maintain that iota of faith, if you go asking, “Please, sir, may I have some more?” That is when there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

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