A sign of faith or an impossible task?
told by Deborah
The apostles said to the Lord, “Give us more faith!”
The Lord replied, “If you had even a speck of faith, as tiny as a mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree, ‘Pull yourself up and jump in the lake,’ and it would obey you.”
OK, let’s get one thing out of the way right up front. This is definitely one of Jesus’ stranger sayings — or is it a parable? Whatever it is, His words leave us puzzled and wondering: how does a bizarre horticultural miracle relate to the power of faith?
The most devout, sincere believer could pray for years on end for a tree to transplant itself into the ocean, to no avail. It simply wouldn’t happen. And even if it did, the only result would be a waterlogged mulberry tree. What would be the point of that?
Why would Jesus suggest such a thing? Is it because it is impossible? Is it to challenge us to strive ever-more earnestly: “Keep trying; that mulberry tree is still right where it was”? Or is the meaning enfolded within its very absurdity: “Ours is not to reason why…”?
Or is it an outright rebuke: “Of course this is impossible. That’s because you don’t have even a grain of faith. You can’t ask for more of something you have none of. What you need is faith, period.”
Yikes. If that is what the Lord is saying, it puts that tree in a different light. We may begin to squirm uncomfortably (I know I do). Of course we want to believe; we’d like to believe, profoundly and unconditionally. But… Well, the truth is, we do have our doubts. We wonder. We are unsure, uncertain — hopeful, but hesitant.
What would it take to give us more [read: some] faith? What is “faith,” anyway?
The prophets and psalmists, preachers and well-meaning friends tell us to “trust in the Lord.” They say that no matter where we are or what is happening, we should believe that the power and goodness of the Eternal will see us through. That is the essence of faith.
But what does it mean to “trust”? It’s a nearly-unimaginable concept in our current climate of deceit and dissembling: “Trust no one,” could be our national motto, regardless of what is printed on U.S. currency. But, in fact, our daily lives are filled with examples of trust. When I put the key in the ignition I trust that my car will start; I trust that the elevator will take me to my floor; I trust that the copier will print my report; I trust that the microwave will heat up my cup of tea. On a more dramatic level, I trust that the sidewalk will remain solid and stable, that my feet will carry me to my destination, that the sun will come up in the morning — and that I will be there to greet it, along with those I love.
Daily my trust is rewarded, my faith in these things is affirmed. But woe! What grief, annoyance, anger, and desperation arises when our trust is betrayed!
When the car won’t start, when the elevator is out, when the printer doesn’t print…. We are lost, aggrieved, helpless, outraged. Our faith turns to ashes. What we relied upon, things we considered trustworthy and true, have let us down. They are worthless servants.
We curse, we condemn, we rant: “It must be a lousy battery.” “The maintenance on this building is atrocious.” “This brand is worthless!” “How could this happen?!” and — when things get really tough, when things that really matter go wrong — “How could God let this happen?!”
Our faith withers under the shadows of disappointment and doubt. How can we trust without proof; how can we believe where we have not seen? What good is God, anyway?
We pray, but our prayers are not always rewarded. We win some; we lose some. Unfortunately, we don’t “win” a lot of the ones that we consider most important. And that can hurt. A lot. We tire of what seem pointless, impossible labors: it can feel as if we’re just shouting at a securely rooted mulberry tree. Why bother? Why try? Why trust in the Lord? This business of “faith” seems to be a gigantic waste of time.
In what seems like a non sequitur, Jesus follows the tale of the mulberry tree with a story about a landowner and his farmhands:
“Who among you would say to your field hand who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep, ‘Come here and sit down to eat’? Instead, won’t he tell him, ‘Prepare a meal for me, put on an apron and serve me while I eat and drink, and after that you can eat’? Is he impressed that the servant followed orders? I don’t think so. The same goes for you: when you’ve done as you’ve been commanded, say, ‘We’re nothing special; we only did what we were told.’”
~ Luke 17:7-10
There is no hint of egalitarian sympathies, no suggestion that the workers should sit themselves down as equals alongside the boss. Instead, we are told of hours of tiresome, tedious labor to be followed by demands for further effort — when it would be easier and far more pleasant to just kick back and rest. No bonuses, no benefits, no special privileges, no praise: just serving the Lord, doing what we’ve been told.
Jesus is saying that faith isn’t a guarantee of good times and easy living, but life as it is — with the additional responsibilities of serving God, doing as we’ve been commanded. Commanded, mind you. God directs, we are to obey: “Not my will, Father, but Yours.”
That doesn’t sound like fun. It sounds like work — as if there will be days of mundane, everyday activities, just doing our best solely because we have chosen to follow the Lord.
Because we have chosen to follow the Lord.
There is the “why” of prayer and persistence; there is the meaning of faith: it is a choice, a decision to follow A Certain Something. This Something is impossible to describe: we can offer only similes, metaphors, images that hint at what we presume to name “a Call.” It is a Song that resonates within us; a Wind that shakes us to our foundations; a Light that illuminates our understanding; a Flame, a sweetness, a joy, a radiance, a Tiger… It is a Presence that proclaims Godself, a Voice that speaks to our soul; it is a Something we cannot ignore.
We can resist this Something; we can dismiss it, discount it, and even live without it. But it is always with us. It is the Love that will not let us go.
However, if we chose to follow the Wild, Magnificent Something, we do so at our peril. The world will treat us with condescension and suspicion, our faith scoffed at as ignorance, remnants of primitive superstition, an enemy of the intellect, a threat to safety and civilization. But, of course, it is none of these things.
Having faith in the Beloved is to carry the divine Spirit within us as living embodiments of compassion, love, and mercy. It is to hold all creation as sacred; to seek to bless, comfort, and heal. It is to look forward with hopeful eyes, imagining what is possible, seeing beauty and grace, and believing in forgiveness and new beginnings. It is to live with courageous joy and infinite gratitude, believing in God’s love, believing that love is everlasting.
To trust in the Lord is not to believe in a celestial, fee-free Amazon.com that provides next-day delivery of our orders. Our faith is not a payment/reward system, but a commitment to serve God, dedicating ourselves to the Divine way of living.
For a single day in Your courts is more glorious than a thousand anywhere else. I would rather be a servant in the house of my God than a pampered guest in the palaces of the wicked.
~ Psalm 84:10
May the radiant joy and love of the Holy One abound,
May the Spirit of Grace, radiant and holy, transcending all language, surpassing all knowledge, illuminate your soul, warm your heart, and sow in you the seeds of Her divine wisdom, as in good ground. Amen.