June 05, 2011
When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
I tell you in truth, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Matthew 17:2
Surely any serious biblical literalists would have to admit that neither they nor anyone else has “faith like a grain of mustard seed,” and surely also we should be glad that this is the case. Imagine how chaotic it would be if every Sunday the faithful were called to demonstrate their faith! It is one thing to have people handling snakes and drinking strychnine, as some in fact do. A few do die, but that affects only them and those close to them; and interestingly, these occasional deaths are not interpreted as caused by a lack of faith. The basic explanation is that it in the Lord’s sight it was time for this individual to die and to receive the blessing of eternal life. No such reasoning, though, explains the lack of mountain movers. To the best of my very limited knowledge, this “test of faith” is simply ignored.
This is unfortunate, because it betrays a tendency to choose the texts that we can live with and ignore the ones that trouble us, which is obviously no way to treat a book we regard as a revelation. It happens all the time, of course, as when people cite the biblical requirement of the death penalty for murder on the one hand but ignore the biblical requirement of the death penalty for the child who curses father or mother on the other. Let’s face it: the Bible is not only inconsistent; it sometimes says things that defy credibility. It also says things of surpassing beauty and wisdom and has been the inspiration and guide for some of the finest lives ever lived.
The problem, our theology tells us, is not so much with the Bible itself as with the way we read it. Specifically, literalism is only one way of reading it, and if we choose that way, we need to be honest enough to recognize that this is our own choice and be willing to take responsibility for it.
In fact, literalism is a relative latecomer on the scene. For centuries, the universal assumption was that divine revelation had depths of meaning far beyond the letter. If we look at the examples of fulfillment of prophecy in the Gospel of Matthew, for example, we find that none of the prophecies is fulfilled literally. From the early church fathers through the Middle Ages, immense and disciplined energy was devoted to understanding the deeper meanings of the language of God. In fact, the exclusive focus on the plain, literal sense came to the fore only with Luther and grew out of his need to find a clear authority greater than that of the Roman Catholic church and its tradition.
The gospel evidence is that Jesus was not a biblical literalist. In his first “sermon” in the synagogue at Capernaum, he read the opening verses of Isaiah 61, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted . . .” and then said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21). But Isaiah’s words were not a prophecy of things to come. They were a statement of Isaiah’s own divine commission. Or we might turn to the end of Luke, where Jesus was talking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). “Moses” is the Torah, the Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—and there is nothing in their literal sense about Jesus or the Messiah.
Jesus’ favorite form of teaching was not literal commentary but fiction, parable. He could talk of plucking out the offending eye or cutting off the offending hand—and again, it is hard to believe that no literalist has ever had a roving eye or a roaming hand. No, the only way to understand his sayings and stories consistently is to see them as outward expressions of inner principles. It is not really the roving eye that offends, it is the sexual desire that directs the eye to rove, and that desire is what must be directly addressed. When we see that other person as nothing but a hunk or a hottie, we are denying that he or she is essentially a child of God, and this is a direct violation of the second great commandment.
In this spirit, then, what might our text be trying to tell us? “I tell you in truth, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.” There are two main differences between a mountain and a mustard seed. The one that first comes to mind, the one that makes nonsense out of any literal reading of the statement, is the immense difference in size. The other is at least as immense, though—the seed is alive and the mountain is not. Given a clear field of competition and enough millennia, the seed would in fact conquer the mountain, multiplying geometrically, covering the surface, devouring its soil, breaking down its rocks to make more soil. The mountain’s only resistance would be completely passive.
If we then apply these ratios to the realm of faith, Jesus is saying that the smallest bit of truly living faith can overcome what seems to be an overwhelmingly large dead weight. It is then up to us to bring this down to specifics, and the easiest way to do this is to identify what it is within us that constantly discourages us, constantly weighs us down. It may be a tendency toward resentment of those who don’t appreciate us or of responsibilities that we didn’t ask for. It may be envy of those who seem unfairly privileged. It may focus on money or sex or food or alcohol or control. Each of us has some such “dark side,” and everyone’s dark side is distinctive, unique.
The common feature is the recurrent discouragement, the feeling that we’ll never get over this. We’ve resisted the feelings, but they keep coming back. It is the feeling so clearly pictured in the Greek legend of Sisyphus, condemned to keep rolling a huge stone up a mountain only to have it roll back down again just as he was nearing the top.
If that is the mountain, then, there is some urgency to identifying the mustard seed that can move it, and if we turn to the contrast between the lifelessness of the mountain and the vitality of the seed, there is one obvious candidate: a true, living recognition that the Lord is life, or perhaps even better, that life is the Lord.
This is a tiny statement—in English, four words, all of one syllable—but it goes straight to the heart of the matter, to the difference between life and death. It is a simple statement, but plant it in our minds, let it take root and grow, and its effects are out of all proportion to its simplicity. Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, the smallest seed of all, but one that could grow to be a tree big enough for birds to nest in its branches. The ramifications of this principle are immense, and the very word “ramification” is from a Latin word meaning “making branches.”
What are some of these branches? Perhaps the trunk itself is most clearly identified in the first principle of Alcoholics Anonymous, the recognition of our own powerlessness. In and of ourselves, we are simply not alive. The only thing that is alive in us is the presence of the Lord. It is this recognition that has enabled countless “hopeless” alcoholics to lead lives of sobriety. It is this mustard seed that has moved their mountain.
Clearly, though, this is not merely an intellectual comprehension of a theological principle. This is a conviction based on personal experience, the contrast between the painful experience of total defeat and the miraculous experience of deliverance. It calls to mind the statement of the man whose sight had been restored by Jesus. He could not answer the theological questions of the scribes. He could only say, “This I do know, that whereas I was blind, now I see.”
That fundamental fact, that trunk of the tree, can reach out and touch every facet of our lives. It can give us a whole new sense of proportion. There is a rabbinical maxim that says it very nicely: “Everyone should have an overcoat with two pockets. In one there is a slip of paper that says, ‘I am nothing but dust and ashes.’ In the other there is a slip that says, ‘For me the world was created.’” Whatever we are, and sometimes we seem to be not very much, we are inexpressibly dear to the Lord.
Another way of saying it is “I matter; but ‘I’ doesn’t matter.” We matter to each other. Think of how it feels to walk into a room where people have been waiting for you and are spontaneously glad to see you. Contrast that with walking into a room where for any reason at all you are not welcome. Imagine a life composed entirely of one kind of experience or the other. We not only matter to each other, we are absolutely essential to each other. “For me, the world was created.”
Few attitudes more surely make us unwelcome, though, than a sense of self-importance. That “I” is one we would do well to forget, the “I” that is constantly saying, “Look at me. Look what a good job I’m doing. Look how special I am.” No, that “I” is nothing but dust and ashes. This is the futility of the whole business of spiritual scorekeeping, of credit and blame.
It is may be nothing but dust and ashes, but it can seem like an immense pile of dust and ashes—in fact, like a mountain. This sense of ownership, of selfimportance, is the essence of the mountain that needs to be moved. It is the dead weight that drags us down, dead because in claiming to be alive in and of itself it denies the source of its life.
“If only we believed the way things really are,” Swedenborg wrote, “we would not take credit for the good we do or blame for the wrong” (Heaven and Hell 302). Instead, by claiming ownership of ourselves, we make ourselves guilty of the wrong and spoil the good with self-righteousness. That is a major branch of the tree that grows from the mustard seed. Another is the recognition that the same holds true for everyone in the world. Another is that the recognition that because of that inflowing life each of us is in process, that where we are headed is in many ways more important than where we happen to be.
Once we are relieved of the dead weight of selfimportance, everything looks different. Everything feels different. We find ourselves for the first time truly free simply to be responsible. This is the easy yoke, the light burden that the Lord promises to those who labor and are heavy laden if they do that one simple thing—come to him.
Like an ant on a stick both ends of which are burning, I go to and fro without knowing what to do and in great despair. Like the inescapable shadow which follows me, the dead weight of sin haunts me. Graciously look upon me, Lord. Thy love is my refuge.
- from India
Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved Thee: for behold, Thou wert within me, and I outside; and I sought Thee outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things that Thou hast made. Thou wert with me, and I was not with Thee. I was kept from Thee by all those things, yet had they not been in Thee, they would not have been at all. Thou didst call and cry to me to break open my deafness: and Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness. Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me,
and I drew in my breath and do now pant for Thee:
I tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee:
Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy
- St. Augustine, 354-450
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense.
Lord, in thy great, unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
- C.S. Lewis, 1889-1963
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee.
Take my voice and let me sing,
Always, only for my King.
Take my lips and let them be
Filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect and use
Every pow’r as Thou shalt choose.
Take my will and make it Thine,
It shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own,
It shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour
At Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself and I will be
Ever, only, all for Thee.
- Frances R. Havergal, 1874
Rev. Dr. George F. Dole