The Faith of a Mustard Seed
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."
September 30, 2022, Words By: Rev. Sarah Wiles, Image By: Unknown
I have a mulberry tree that popped up in my yard a couple of years ago. I didn’t pull it up right away. Now it is completely entangled with my fence. In just two years it went from a skinny sprout to a thick-trunked tree (taller than I am) that’s ruining my fence. I would like to throw it into the sea. If only I had faith the size of a mustard seed.
I once heard a candidate for ministry begin his statement of faith by saying that he didn’t have very much faith, because if he did, he’d be able to move mountains, and he never has. I can relate. This verse can read as encouraging or discouraging depending on the day and the mood I bring to the text.
Justo González taught me something new about this text, though*. The word that is translated in the NRSV, and in many other translations, as faith “the size of” a mustard seed is really just the simple adverb hos; it means like or as. So, the verse reads, “If you had faith like a mustard seed….” The translators made an interpretive choice in deciding that what Jesus meant was specifically the size of the seed. But what if he meant it more generally? What if he was pointing to having faith like the kind of faith a mustard seed has?
That, of course, raises the question: what kind of faith can a mustard seed have? It almost seems nonsensical. Could we imagine, though, that inherent in a seed is the trust that it will become a tree? The faith of an acorn is that it will become a mighty oak. The faith of a mustard seed is that it will become a medicinal and flavorful bush. And then, perhaps, the faith of a disciple is the faith that we will become who God intends us to be.
In that perspective, I don’t need to obsess over whether I’m good enough or smart enough or hardworking enough or successful enough. Jesus says, if you just have faith that you are becoming exactly who God intends you to be, that is enough. You, as you were created, are enough. All the rest is distraction and actually gets in the way. When we rest in the trust that God has created us just as we should be, faith takes root and grows easily, naturally, beautifully.
This interpretation may help us a bit with the more difficult second half of this passage. Jesus compares disciples to slaves who work all day without thanks and accept that as the way it should be. “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!'”
The word for slaves, doulos, can be translated as servants, but that hardly helps. In a world where slavery and oppressive servitude are all too real, and where we are grappling with the legacy of centuries of slavery, it is difficult to see how asking anyone to be like a slave who works tirelessly without expectation of thanks is useful. An argument can be made for focusing solely on the first part of this passage. I wouldn’t blame you.
But if we’re going to trust scripture to offer a good word in all circumstances, perhaps we can lean on the first part to illuminate the second. If we are enough just as we were created to be, if we have faith that we are developing into the kind of people God intends for us to be, then we are freer to serve the way Jesus served — simply, beautifully, without degradation. If we have a fundamental faith in our inherent self-worth and value, a faith so strong that it could even disentangle my mulberry tree, then we can embrace humility without any threat of humiliation. We can do our part — whatever that may be — and let it be our simple offering, trusting that in the Maker’s hands it becomes exactly what it should be.
* Justo L. González, Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible, pg. 201.
Dwelling Among Us
1. Could you take time this week to rest in the simple assurance that you are enough just the way God created you?
2. If you had full faith in that promise, what would you do? What would you pursue and what would you leave behind?