Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Mustard Seed

A meditation on a text yet to be revealed.

Take a look at this saying of Jesus: "If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry bush, 'Be uprooted and be planted in the sea'; and it would obey you."

If you have been in church for any length of time, my guess is that you've heard it. You may have participated in Bible studies centered on it. You may have opened up your favorite devotional book, and this was the verse of the day. You may have heard sermons devoted to it. Here's a question, though...what does it mean?

That's no trick question. When we hear this text taught and preached, we often hear teachers and preachers lay down the strong challenge to have this kind of faith. That if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we would see earth-shaking results in our life. Some take this to mean that we can "name and claim" whatever we want (e.g.- healing, wealth, a promotion at work, etc.), and we will receive it. If we don't receive it, then the problem is with our faith.

In response to this kind of teaching, it seems that many evangelicals avoid texts like this altogether. Why? It's only a guess, but I think it's because we're afraid of sounding like the charismatics with whom we disagree. When you hear this saying, maybe you think of the story in Matthew 17, in which the disciples couldn't cast out the demon. That's what I had always thought of, but I read it again in Luke 17, and it really hit me...well, the context really hit me.

What is the context? Well, it's Luke 17:1-6:
"And He said to His disciples, 'It is inevitable that stumbling blocks should come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he was thrown into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble.
Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, "I repent," forgive him.'
And the apostles said to the Lord, 'Increase our faith!' And the Lord said, 'If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and be planted in the sea"; and it would obey you.'"

Did you just see that? What's the context? Jesus says to avoid being an avenue for sin to enter the lives of others...literally saying woe to those who bring stumbling blocks. We've all had those people in our lives, and at times, we've been those people to others. Boys introducing their innocent friends to pornographic magazines or websites. Women introducing gossip to someone who had no desire to hear anything. And I'm sure the list could go on. Jesus tells us, "Don't be those people...don't lead people into sin...don't even live your life as if nobody else is going to follow in your footsteps. You're better off dead than leading people to sin."

So, what is our relationship to other people with regard to sin? We are to be forgivers of sin. Instead of being those who lead people into sin, we are to be people who let repentant sinners off the hook through forgiveness. Even if they sin against us seven times a day...if they come to us repentant, we forgive. We don't hold grudges, we don't dig a pit of bitterness in which to sit. We forgive. Sure, it's not natural...but it is "forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32b).

Now, to the disciples, this was amazing. In the Jewish culture, you were only supposed to forgive a person a certain number of times...then they get cut off. To hear that if someone comes seven times a day, everyday, we forgive...that just made the disciples' jaws drop and eyes pop. Let's be honest...if makes our mouths and eyes do the same thing. If the disciples had a cartoon-like thought bubble above their collective heads, it might read, "We don't think we can do this...we don't have that much faith. We need more faith." Then, the sense of need becomes a request, "Increase our faith!"

What is Jesus' response? Surely they need more faith. Jesus is always questioning their faith, so He'll understand that they need more faith, right? He'll answer their reply...this is a worthy cause...forgiveness is a huge part of Jesus' life mission. So, surely He'll give them the extra faith they need. Right? Wrong!

Jesus essentially says that if they had any faith...even a speck of faith like a mustard seed...they could do anything. They could uproot a mulberry tree and cast it into the sea with that faith...they could even forgive a brother's sin seven times a day. They didn't need more faith; they didn't need a special kind of faith...they simply needed to access the tiny, wobbling, embryonic faith that they already had.

This is challenging to me. Is it challenging to you? It's always been easier to be amazed at people like Corrie ten Boom (who forgave a Nazi soldier face to face...a soldier who tortured her during the Holocaust). It's easy to be in awe and think, "I wish I had that much faith." The truth is this...the faith that Corrie ten Boom has is the faith that you and I is the faith once handed down to the saints. The problem is that we avoid living out every cubic millimeter of our mustard-seed faith.

So, think of the last person who hurt you but you thought, "That's the last straw!" Maybe you didn't get mad...maybe you just decided to remove yourself from that person's life. You changed grocery stores, jobs, churches, etc. By staying around and not forgiving that person, we not only avoid living out our faith...we also allow the sin against us to fester in the soul of the other person. In some ways, we have become a stumbling block to the other person by not offering them the chance to escape the guilt of their sin against us. (Remember what Jesus said? We're better off dead than to do that!) By removing ourselves from their lives, we don't do them any spiritual favors...after all, out of sight, out of mind. If you never see the person against whom you have sinned, the opportunities to feel repentant are diminished.

Let's not be the people who are avenues of sin into other people's lives. Let's be the people who go out of our way to forgive our brothers of their sins. How? Use the faith God has given us, as microscopic as it seems at times.

One final's interesting that Jesus uses the picture of uprooting the mulberry bush. I've already quoted Ephesians 4, but this word picture makes my brain go back to it. Just before Paul instructs the Ephesians to forgive as God in Christ forgave them, he says, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice" (4:31). Then, he goes into forgiveness.

The mulberry tree has an intricate root a maze that goes deep and has a firm grasp on the soil. If we think spiritually, what greater maze of emotion and attitude can there be to escape than bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice? Oh how deep it can dig into the soil of the heart! Get rid of the roots of bitterness and slander...forgive! If you are feeling bitter or are swimming in a pool of slanderous, malicious conversations, look for the one you must forgive! Cast the mulberry tree into the sea, and experience the freedom of forgiveness!