Increase our faith!” the disciples demanded of the Lord (Luke 17:5-10).
“If,” the Lord reasonably replied, “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.’”
Huh? Mulberry tree? What happened to that faith-can-move-mountains thing? Well, the mountain is in St. Matthew’s report, and Matthew has Optimist Club optimism that faith, leveraged on a mustard seed, can move a mountain.
The mulberry tree, that’s St. Luke’s idea; a mountain never crosses his mind. His report is not as energetic or as buoyant. St. Luke omits the mountain and lowers expectations to a mulberry tree. St. Luke suggests more modest results from a mustard seed, perhaps more realistic ones. Not a mountain, but a treeone little tree.
Yet even St. Luke’s lowered expectations seem too high for me. I would have trouble moving the mustard seed, let alone the mulberry tree.
This life presents many challenges to faith (another word for trust). Like the disciples, we each wish for an increased faith, deeper trust. I would settle for simple but consistent resilience; endurance would be nice.
An old hymn speaks about the long trudge ahead under the “noontide heat and the burden of the day.” I think I’ve got that just about figured out; our family is currently awaiting a diagnosis that will, inevitably, steal away another we love. There’s hardly a day that something doesn’t corrode our trust in God. Just getting through a normal week can make us feel as if we’ve been wheezing through a spiritual marathon. Somebody keeps moving the finish line a little farther ahead.
So here we are, all of us, like the disciples seeking more faith to believe and to trust, and yet not infrequently overwhelmed. I understand their prayer. It is the same one I pray, when I can remember to pray, and it is often emitted between labored gasps of hesitation and uncertainty.
Still, St. Luke reports, Jesus did offer an answer. How? Well, he didn’t wave his hand over their heads and go “Poof!” and suddenly their faith was strengthened. No, but from taking note of mustard seeds and mulberry trees he went on to talk about duty-bound slaves doing ordinary jobs ordinarily, until the master returns home and expects to be served.
I haven’t moved any mulberry trees this week. You haven’t either, I bet. I don’t suppose I’ll be moving any next week, either. This is discouraging, because we all have a mulberry tree or two we’d like to send on a seaside vacation.
But I don’t think St. Luke intended to portray Jesus tsk-tsking at our small faith and weak trust as we live in the mulberry grove. This talk about mustard seeds and mulberry trees is a way of saying, work with the faith you have. Do that and you’ll put on an apron and you will serve him. I think this is the message behind the slaves who hop to it when the master says move.
So, no, my faith probably will never send a mulberry tree shambling off to the beach, ever.
But I do have enough faith this week that at his Word, I, like a slave who knows his place, will prepare the master’s Supper and place bread on the table. I do have enough faith to think that when I bless the bread, it becomes his bread, and is no longer my own.
And I do have enough faith to believe that the hands that give that bread are no longer my own to command, but in some way they have become his for the blessing of his people.
Even if we don’t move any mulberry trees, I think we do have enough faith to come to his table when he calls. We do have enough faith this week to seek the Bread that feeds our hunger for peace and gives courage in adversity.
Maybe that was the mulberry tree he intended us to move all along.
Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church and assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, is being published this year by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.