Mustard Seed Faith

October 3, 2010

(Habakkuk 1,1-4 & 2,1-4; Luke 17, 5-10)

Today our gospel reading urges us to have ‘mustard seed faith’.

The mustard seed is used several times as an image by Jesus in the gospels; first as a metaphor for something that starts small but grows to enormous size; and as an image of faith that can move mountains, or a mulberry tree into the sea.

It’s become a favourite Christian symbol as well. If you do a Google search you will come up with Mustard Seed Project, Mission, Ministries, Homes, Bookshop, a Mustard Seed restaurant (in a disused church) and even The Order of the Mustard Seed (motto: True to Christ; Kind to People; Gospel to the Nations).

But what does it mean to have ‘mustard seed faith’?

Nowadays we have a problem understanding, because most of us don’t have much experience of mustard seeds. Very few people make their own mustard from scratch, blending different seeds, grinding them into a powder and mixing them up with oil or wine or vinegar. Most of us will buy the powder ready ground, or the whole condiment ready made.

And we have even less experience of mustard plants. For most of us ‘growing mustard seeds’ means helping our children to grow a mixture of mustard and cress in a shallow tray on dap cotton wool or  tissue. It grows easily, but the resulting plant  isn’t big enough for a tiny insect to find a home in, let alone all the birds of the air.

So what was Jesus trying to say?

He was probably talking about the black mustard plant, which could grow to up to 9 feet tall and very wide. In Palestine it was not cultivated in gardens but grew wild . Although it was useful for cooking, it eventually came to be considered as a weed – once you had it growing in your field you could never get rid of it, because the plant produced strong roots,  lots of flowers and the seeds germinated easily. A modern parallel might be the giant hogweed, introduced to this country as an ornamental garden plant, but which is now considered an invasive weed, difficult to eradicate because it too produces so many seeds and has tuberous roots which are difficult to destroy.

In the parable of the mustard seed (Luke 13, 18-19) Jesus is talking about how great things can come from small beginnings; but in the comment we heard from Luke 17, combined with the parable of the slave and the master, he seems to be making a different point.

The comment comes in response to a request from the disciples: “Lord, increase our faith”. It’s not surprising that they feel the need for greater faith: during the journey up to Jerusalem, Jesus has been telling them what is probably going to happen to him, and outlining the nature of their ministry: a ministry where outcasts will be welcomed into their fellowship; where the normal social order will be reversed; where they have to have a special care for children; where they will have to forgive people who wrong them an infinite number of times. No wonder they feel their faith is inadequate to the task!

When Jesus replies to them, as so often happens, he is trying to change their way of thinking. He talks about ‘mustard seed faith’ not in terms of the quantity of faith, but the quality. The mustard seed doesn’t go on about how small and insignificant it is, or how it can’t make any difference, or how the problem of growing a new plant is too much for it: it just gets on with what it was created to do. It blows away in the wind, falls into the earth – and leaves God to deal with the conditions to make it germinate. The mustard seed doesn’t need larger quantities of faith for God to work through it. Neither do we.

Faith is not something that is doled out in smaller or larger quantities. It is a free gift from God to humanity. If we offer ourselves as God’s servants, Jesus is saying, and trust in the divine faithfulness and promise, then God will work through us to do amazing things.

The parable  of the master and servant which follows reinforces this message. Again, our different cultural context makes it more difficult for us to hear Jesus speaking through it. We live in an individualistic enterprise culture; working for someone else , especially as a ‘servant’, tends to be seen as demeaning. That’s why foreigners do most of the work in our hotel and catering industries. But in the ancient Middle East, to be a servant who did the job well gave one a sense of worth and security. And how could anyone regard being a servant as demeaning, when Jesus said he came among us as one who serves?

When Jesus asks the question ‘Which one of you when your servant came in from working outside would sit him down and serve him dinner?’ he asks it in a form which anticipates the answer ‘None’. That isn’t how things work in a traditional society. There are masters and there are servants and each has their place. The servant knows that his job is both to work in the field and to serve in the house, and that is what he does.

Our understanding is not helped by the difficulties of translation. The Greek adjective ( achreios) which is translated as ‘miserable’ or ‘useless’ or ‘unworthy’ can also mean ‘one to whom nothing is owed’. It is that meaning that makes sense in the context of the parable. ‘Is there any credit due to the servant for doing his job properly?’, Jesus is asking. ‘Should he expect a tip or special treatment?’. Again, ‘no’ is the expected answer.

So it is with the disciple and faith. We don’t have faith in order to work miracles, and to prove ourselves special. We are given faith by God, in order that he can work through us for the salvation of all. We are created for that purpose, just as the mustard seed was created to produce new plants. There is no such thing as being ‘further along the path of faith’ or stronger in faith than anyone else. None of us earns salvation by the strength of our faith, or by our good works. Neither serving God faithfully nor strength of  faith gives us any claim on God’s favour (that’s partly what the Reformation was about – a rejection of the idea that God operated a sort of book-keeping system of good works which could be set against sin to buy our way into heaven). To have faith means to serve God without the expectation of any reward.

And what is faith?

In the Christian Church, we’ve come to understand it as assenting to a series of propositions. When anyone is licensed as a Reader or ordained, they are required to ‘declare their belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness’. Now, worthy as they may be, I can’t see anyone moving mulberry trees or changing their lives because of the historic formularies or the catholic creeds.

And people who don’t share the faith can’t either. It is why the atheists and humanists who are so critical of believers at the moment think of faith as ‘believing six impossible things before breakfast’ (to quote the White Queen from Alice through the Looking Glass). They think faith  is about believing in books that come from God via angels, in a world created in six days 4,00 years ago and children born to virgins, rather than adopting a life changing attitude to God and the world. We recite them often, but I don’t think historic creeds are really much help in reminding us what faith is actually about.

When Jesus spoke about faith he was not talking about intellectual belief, or theological definitions. He was talking about values and relationships, actions and a way of life. He meant a profound trust and confidence in God and the divine purpose for the world. It’s the sort of confidence that the prophet Habakkuk is urging the people of Israel to find in our Old Testament reading. ‘Never mind that the world seems to be in moral chaos and financial crisis’ the prophet says. ‘Have faith  in God’s promise that eventually the righteous will live and that goodness will triumph and the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’.

When Jesus spoke about mustard seed faith, he was also hinting that faith involves a willingness to be broken in God’s service. That is what happened to him, and what he was trying to prepare the disciples for as they travelled on the road to the Holy City. The seed does not grow until it has fallen into the ground and been broken open. Only then can it be transformed into something incredible, new and fruitful. The same may be true of us.

So what is mustard seed faith? It is faith which is a gift from God. It is faith which is prepared to be self-sacrificing, and which allows us to be broken and transformed to serve God’s purpose. It is faith in a different way of living and relating to others. It is faith that we are God’s servants and that God will work through us to bring in the Kingdom of Heaven. It is faith that, no matter how chaotic and evil the world appears to be, the ultimate triumph of God is assured. It is faith that through us, God can do marvellous things.