Daily Office Readings – Gospel ( Matthew 17:14-21 )
As I read through this morning’s Gospel reading, I was, of course, struck by Jesus rebuking his disciples. They had tried to cast out a demon, and they couldn’t get the demon to leave a boy who suffered from seizures and would fall into the fire or into the water.
When the disciples came to Jesus, though, he tells them that they are faithless and perverse, and wonders how long he has to put up with them. I mean, honestly, if I had a boss or teacher talk to me like that I might have told him to go perform some impossible scenarios with himself. But still, this is why many of the disciples are considered saints, after all, and instead of getting all miffed, they bring the boy to Jesus, who promptly casts out the demon.
When the disciples ask why they couldn’t cast this demon out of the boy, he responds that it is because they have too little faith. Then he says that if they have faith the size of a mustard seed, they would be able to tell a mountain to move and it would, and in fact, nothing would be impossible to them. Now the mustard seed jumped out at me, because while I’m quite fond of various styles of mustard, I’ve never actually seen a mustard seed. And so I decided to look up the size of a mustard seed, and also what the Greek text said here in this passage, so I could look up the information in my various encyclopedias and dictionaries.
What I found is that this passage in the Greek does not actually say, “the size of a mustard seed,” but says, “as a mustard seed.” From the dictionaries, it seems that mustard seeds were generally used to refer to size in Jesus’ time, so that’s how we translate this passage. But instead, Jesus is referring to faith like a mustard seed.
I think that in this passage it’s not the size of the faith we have, because if Jesus said to the disciples that it’s because they have little faith, and then told them they needed to only have faith the size of a mustard seed, some of them could respond with, “Well, Faith isn’t one of my Spiritual Gifts, so you may need to call on Thomas to make that happen. I’ve got the spiritual gift of administration, though, so if you want me to do up the logistics for that mountain moving, I can certainly do that.”
Previously, in chapter 13 of Matthew, Jesus had referred to the kingdom of heaven like a mustard seed, and said that even though it starts out as one of the smallest of seeds, it grows into one of the largest of garden plants, it becomes a tree, and birds nest in its branches (Matt. 13:31-32).
The point that Jesus wanted his disciples to realize is that it’s not the size of their faith that mattered, but how they used it.
Why? Because just after telling the disciples that they need to have faith as a mustard seed, he then tells them that the son of man would be betrayed. In other words, “You’re not always going to have me around. This is why you need a faith that grows beyond having me nearby.”
Though the disciples were performing miraculous works in Jesus’ name while traveling with him, they still had him around when things didn’t quite work out as they had hoped. They come to Jesus and he fixes it. Jesus had “to put up with them” a while longer until they learned what they needed to learn. And what they needed to learn was to have a faith that grew, from something smaller than a mustard seed into a giant garden tree that could provide respite and safety for others.
Faith comes by being stretched. Faith grows through action. It steps out into an uncertain path and returns stronger for having walked it. Faith grows by experiencing those things that seem impossible, but then come to pass. It steps out in fear, and ends in courage. Faith like a mustard seed is actively seeking new experiences of growth.
The disciples knew Jesus’ teachings, but if faith were just knowing these spiritual truths, then academics would be the most faithful. But faith involves action. It requires doing things without certainty, it involves acting upon the unknown. And that only comes from living and experiencing, from stepping into the uncertainty of life.
What the disciples had was certainty. Certainty that if things didn’t work out, Jesus would fix it for them. But once Jesus had returned to the Father, he needed them to find ways to deepen that faith, rather than looking for the quick fix answer.
The obvious takeaway here for us, of course, is to question if we look for the quick fix answer when confronted with scenarios that might grow our faith, instead of looking for the growth opportunity.