Laboring in the Soil

Luke 17:5-10

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.

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Jenna Smith
Montréal, Quebec | Canada

It is an odd image in this week’s text:, uprooting a tree (already challenging) and planting it into a body of water that is salty (impossible). But it is not surprising to talk of agriculture in terms of challenges, impossibilities, and indeed, as an act of faith.

In downtown Montréal, Innovation Youth has been growing our expertise in urban agriculture for several years. We “green the city” by planting vegetable gardens and hiring unemployed teens to maintain them in odd spots: churchyards, forgotten plots of land next to condominiums, back alley ways, and most recently the old garden next to the famous Notre Dame Basilica (yes, the one where Celine Dion got married), which is actually North America’s oldest standing urban garden.

This Notre Dame garden, owned by the Sulpician order, had suffered nearly 30 years of neglect, and a century of mismanagement by the time Innovation Youth moved in. The French design was unfavourable to Canadian climate. The old maple and chestnut trees drained the soil of its nutrients and overshadowed the flower beds so that growth was difficult. The vegetable plots, once vital to feeding a community of 1000 priests, nuns, parishioners and their families, were in such disarray that it took a whole summer to weed and replenish the soil. Our staff, interns, and young people had frequent moments of doubt, frustration, fatigue and frustration.

The tree planted in the salty sea. This is how gardening in an urban context sometimes feels.

Invisible Gardeners on Stolen Land

Then Jesus brings up the topic of slaves, in a stinging description—without much commentary—of their role in the agricultural industry. This image should not be lost on us. The Sulpician garden is on unceded Indigenous lands, on the traditional territory of the Kanien’kehá:ka. Those who toil are often forgotten. Many nations built their riches on exporting items, grown at the hands of cheap or slave labour. Do I digress?

This may be an exegetical rabbit hole, but I cannot help but see a hint of sarcasm in Jesus’ question, “do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” knowing full well, in first century Galilee that no slave would ever be thanked. The toil is hard, the work is thankless, and in this parable, it is implied that the worker has no place at the master’s table.

Working the Soil

What does all of this have to do with faith?

Increase our faith! Ask the disciples. Jesus brings up the image of a mustard seed, contrasting its smallness with the greatness it can accomplish. In our case, working the land at the Sulpician garden was indeed an act of faith – no skills, planning, or experience could have prepared us for the task ahead. But the mustard seed is so small – can this not be a comfort to us? We don’t need the knowledge, the resources, the expertise of genius farmers (or of missiologists, strategists, urban planners, for that matter). Bring me your smallness, says Jesus, I can work with that.

In our case, our “smallness” was showing up and faithfully working the land. Much as the slave does in the parable, no thanks expected, no rewards given. We poured ourselves into restoring and healing the gardens, without any guarantee they would produce fruit. We acted, we toiled, and little by little our faith in God’s plan for this ministry grew.

The slave is unthanked, and does not dine with the slave owner. This is the image in the parable, and this is how it is for much of humanity today. The kids we work with, the very ones who worked the gardens with us, are for the most part “uninvited” to many of the “tables” in the city. The places of power and status are not where our kids feel welcome.

Jesus describes this situation in his parable, but his posture is so very different in his own ministry. We know that in his world, the slave, the forgotten, and the oppressed did indeed have a place at his table. He invites them and serves them: “take, eat…” the bread made from grain that was grown at the hand of the worker. It is broken, blessed and given to the servant, by the master.