Probably one of Jesus’ most well-known parables is that of the Mustard Seed. Mark’s version from chapter 4 of his Gospel reads as follows:
30 He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade" (parr. Matthew 13:31-32 and Luke 13:18-19).
Elsewhere, in the Luke and Matthew double tradition, Jesus calls on his followers to have “faith the size of a mustard seed.” In Luke 17:5-6, the passage states, “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ The Lord replied, ‘If 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’.” Matthew 17:20 is similar, reading “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."
Jesus uses this image of the tiny mustard seed to allow us both to conceive his kingdom and the faith required by his followers. I have always thought it a sign that we need “more” but only have a “little,” so little that we cannot produce the faith necessary for great things. But think of the parable: even when the kingdom flourishes, it is not a mighty oak or towering cedar, but a shrub, “the greatest of all shrubs.” Great shrub? Along these lines, Tomas Halik reflects on the “faith the size of a mustard seed,” when he writes in Chapter 1 of Night of the Confessor,
Suddenly this text spoke to me in a way that differed from the usual interpretation. Isn’t Jesus saying to us with these words: Why are you asking me for lots of faith? Maybe your faith is “far too big”? Only if it decreases, until it is as small as a mustard seed, will it give forth its fruit and display its strength.Tiny little faith need not necessarily be simply the fruit of sinful lack of faith. “Little faith” can sometimes contain more life and truth than “great faith.” Can’t we apply to faith what Jesus said in the parable about the seed that must die in order to bring great benefit, because it would disappear and be of no use were it to remain unchanged? Does not faith also have to undergo a time of dying and radical diminution in the life of man and in the course of history?Perhaps we have too hastily attributed a “divine” connotation to many of the “religious matters” to which we have become accustomed, when in fact they were human – all too human, and only if they are radically reduced will their truly divine component come into play (17-18).
Faith, Halik suggests, might need to be little, to be unencumbered by that which is superfluous and which surrounds it like a shell, which seems solid, necessary and essential, but which is brittle, sharp and rigid, protecting our human endeavors and not our divine faith. He writes,
The opposite of the “little faith” I have in mind is actually “credulity,” the overcasual accumulation of “certainties” and ideological constructions, until in the end one cannot see the “forest” of faith –its depth and its mystery – for all the “trees” of religion (19).
Halik seems to see, at least in the West, easy certainties about religion, ideology which has replaced a willingness to suffer for one’s faith, a replacement of mystery with easy answers. “Big faith” offers no help against the paradoxes and complexities of life; it seeks safety in numbers and certainty from the past.
Then there are various “folk museums” of the Church’s past on offer; they try to simulate a world of “simple human piety” or a type of theology, liturgy, and spirituality of past centuries “unspoiled by modernity.” But the dictum, “you can’t step into the same river twice” applies here, too. In most cases it proves in the end to have been just a romantic game, an attempt to enter a world that no longer exists (20).
Halik does not say this, but I do: this is what we seem to be confronting now in the Church, a desire to turn back to the past that never was as a way of evading hard questions, problems and struggles that cannot be evaded and which if we attempt to evade them now will only be that much harder to answer or cope with in the future. Faith that appears great and strong, powerful in the eyes of the world, “is in reality simply leaden, solidified, bloated. Often the only great and firm thing about it is the “armor plating” that frequently conceals the anxiety of hopelessness” (21).
What we need says Halik is “naked faith” that has been scorched by the “fire of the cross.” This faith will not be “aggressive or arrogant, let alone impatient in its relationship with others. Yes, compared to “great” and “firm” faith it may appear small and insignificant – it will be like nothing, like a mustard seed” (22).
We see the Church in the USA today, perhaps in much of the West, worried about itself, speaking of political “losses” and “gains,” but these losses could be God stripping away what is unessential, what is unnecessary, what is meaningless; without the political and cultural power of the “Church,” what do we have? Is it enough for us? How much power and might did Jesus have? How much did his first apostles have? What was essential for their faith? Did they have aggression and arrogance?
“Lord, if our religiosity is overburdened by our certainties, take some of this “great faith” away from us. Take from our religion that which is “too human” and give us “the faith of God” (23). Is this enough for us, or do we need more?
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens
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