In the Reader’s Digest the story is told of a woman who said, “My husband gave me a beautiful anniversary card that had lovely art and a heart-touching verse. In fact the verse was so touching it brought tears to her eyes and she said to him, “This is the sweetest card I have ever received.” Her husband looked surprised and replied, “Really? What does it say?”
You know, sometimes I think faith is like that. We recognize it when we see it in others, yet sometimes we have a hard time having a good understanding of it ourselves and even how it looks or how it should look in our lives. Our Gospel reading today begins with the apostles saying to Jesus, “Increase our faith.” And Jesus responds by talking about a mustard seed. How do you think of your faith, would you describe it like a mustard seed? Or do you think of your faith as a feeling of confidence or belief?
“Increase our faith,” the disciples said to Jesus. As always, context is really important. Our gospel reading begins in verse five of this chapter but the disciples did not request more faith simply out of the blue. Their request was in response to what Jesus had just said. Last week as you might remember Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man went to Hades because of how he had lived his life. And when he was in Hades he became concerned about his brothers who would follow his example. Jesus is continuing directly from that parable. And then Jesus then tells his disciples that people like this rich man who cause or influence others to sin, it would have been better for them if someone had taken a mill stone, a very heavy stone and tied it around their necks and thrown them overboard in the middle of the sea rather than have them live and cause or influence other people to fall into sin. And then Jesus went on to say “If another brother or sister sins against you, you must let them know how they sinned. If there is repentance, they say they are sorry, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.” It is at this point after they hear about Lazarus and the Rich man, after they hear about being a good example, and the consequences of being a bad example, after they hear about forgiving and forgiving and forgiving, the apostles said, “Increase our faith!” In their minds the standard is too high; it is too difficult for them to attain.
How could they make sure they didn’t lead someone astray by their examples or how could they forgive someone seven times in one day? They figured that in in order to be able to live such an exemplary life and to be able to rebuke and forgive this same person over and over again, they would have to have a large amount of faith.
Jesus doesn’t wave his hand and say, ‘Bing, there you go’ and then suddenly fill them with faith.” Instead Jesus talks about faith in conjunction with a mustard seed. He says that if you have the faith like a mustard seed, you could say to the mulberry tree be uprooted and be planted in the sea. The mulberry tree in Palestine has an enormous root system that is deep and wide; in fact so much so that they are practically welded into the ground. So uprooting a tree like that is pretty much impossible. And then to tell this uprooted tree, mulberry or otherwise to be planted in the sea is equally absurd. Trees that are rooted in the ground cannot be rooted in the sea, right? It is all impossible; it is an absurd picture. Jesus was painting a picture of the impossible wasn’t he? In fact it is no more possible for that to happen than it is for you to be able to forgive someone over and over and over and over and over and over again. You see, you cannot do that either. And then it is not really possible for you to live in such a manner that you will never cause someone else to stumble or sin. It is no more possible for you to do these things than it is for you to tell the mulberry tree to be uprooted and be planted in the sea. Except Jesus said, “If you have faith like a mustard seed.” If you have a mustard seed’s faith, then the impossible can take place.
What exactly does Jesus mean talking about faith like a mustard seed? Jesus is telling them they really need only a little bit of faith. But he doesn’t describe faith as a feeling of confidence. He doesn’t even describe faith as a strong belief. Instead he compares faith to obedience and doing the next thing.
And that is what the next section is about. Jesus says to the disciples, “who among you would say to your slave (in the Greek Jesus actually used the word for bond-slave and this is very different from what we think of as a slave where a person was captured sold like a piece of merchandise. A bond-slave is a person who has requested slave status in order to have a job and shelter. Nowadays we call these sorts of people employees.) So with that in mind, who among you would say to your employee after he comes in from his first task ok, take the rest of the day off. No, you tell the employee, “OK, here is task #2.” Your employee doesn’t get a special prize for doing his job. Today just like then, when we are on the clock; we are supposed to work. What Jesus was talking about then is that we are the bond-slaves of God; we have chosen to be followers of Jesus. As his followers we are expected to live the way God has instructed. God asks us to be obedient in this area and in another. It is not like we are being super Christians when we simply do what we are supposed to do. And part of being a Christian is forgiving one another. Part of being a Christian is caring for those who are in need around us. The Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Christians at Galatia what really matters is our faith working through love. You see, faith is not simply a feeling. Faith is not a gut-confidence necessarily either. St. James said it this way, “Faith without works is dead.” We show our faith by how we act. We can talk about faith all day long, but the bottom line is, how do we live? Jesus tells us here that faith is a matter of obedience. Faith is a matter of doing what we are told to do. The faith of the mustard then is simply doing the next thing we are told to do. It is obedience one step at a time.
So you see, our faith in Christ, our faith in God is not so much to be measured by how we feel as much as it is to be measured by how we live; how we serve and how we give. These are the markers of faith that God is looking for. So like the husband who was unsure what the words were exactly that touched his wife’s heart, when we are being obedient to God we may be unaware of how our actions are showing our faith to the world around us. But that is OK. God knows and God loves it when he sees us living in faithful service to Him. And if we continue to live our lives in faithful service before Him, one day at the end of time we will hear Jesus Himself say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” Amen