October 3, 2010
Maude was a devout Catholic woman in her sixties. For most of her life, she desired to go and visit the holy places in Rome. But Maude was terrified of flying. She realized that she was not getting any younger, and, if she was ever going to make it to Rome, she would have to do it soon. So she summoned her courage and bought a ticket. When she walked onto the plane, she was wearing her largest cross as prevention against any disaster. As she took her seat, she noticed that a few rows back there were four bishops on the plane, obviously going to some meeting at the Vatican. This made Maude feel better. The flight started uneventfully. But after dinner there was a jolt, and Maude looked out the window to see that one of the four engines had detached from the plane and was disappearing into the clouds. She sounded the alarm: “We’re going to die!” she screamed. The captain came over the PA system and assured every one, that yes, they had lost an engine, but he was confident that they could complete the fight and safely land on three engines. This did not comfort Maude. She continued to yell out: “We’re going to die!” The stewardess came over to calm her. Noticing her cross, she took a religious approach. “Madame,” she said, “Please relax. God is with us. We do not need to fear. Besides we still have three engines and look, we have four bishops on the plane.” Maude responded, “I’d rather have four engines and three bishops.”
Given our choice, I think all of us would prefer certainty over faith. We would like to have something that we know for sure, something we can see and touch, rather than trusting that somehow God will provide. Faith is difficult. That is why the disciples in today’s gospel ask Jesus, “Increase our faith.” Jesus answers, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this Mulberry tree be uprooted and cast into the sea and it would obey you.” This must have been a favorite answer of Jesus because there is a version in another gospel that says: “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, be uprooted and cast into the sea and it would obey you” (Matt 17:20).
Now despite Jesus’ attraction to this answer, it is not very clear what he is saying. What does it mean to have faith the size of a mustard seed? Does it mean having a little bit of faith? Well, the disciples already had faith the size of a mustard seed. Why were there not mulberry trees and mountains flying around them? There must be another meaning to “mustard seed faith.”
Perhaps Jesus is pointing to a faith the size of a mustard seed because he wants to contrast it with another kind of faith. Perhaps he associates the mustard seed with the little bit of faith that is required to believe in the dramatic changes in our lives, things as obvious as flying Mulberry trees. Perhaps he points to mustard seed size faith to call us to a deeper and simpler faith. We all prefer the dramatic. How wonderful would it be, if we asked God for something and found that it was immediately given to us? If we were unemployed and prayed for a job, wouldn’t it be gratifying if the phone rang immediately with an job offer? If we were worried about a son who was abusing alcohol and prayed that he would stop, how happy we would be the next time we saw him he told us that he was joining AA? If we were fighting with a deadly cancer and prayed for a healing, how great would it be if our next medical exam showed that we were cancer-free? These would all be wonderful dramatic changes in our circumstances. And do not get me wrong, I think that there are times when faith does operate in this way, when people’s circumstances are dramatically changed. I have seen such marvels and I know they are real.
But the majority of the time, a different and deeper faith is necessary. Usually, when we ask for something, things do not dramatically change. Mulberry trees don’t fly. Phones don’t ring. That is why I think Jesus is directing us to a different kind of faith, a faith that is more subtle and every bit as real. What if you were looking for a job and did not immediately find one, but somehow you received the grace to avoid discouragement and increase thankfulness for and enjoyment of your family? What if your son did not immediately stop drinking, but you found the strength to stop enabling him and at the same time convey to him your unconditional love? What if you did not receive a rapid cure for cancer, but you found the courage to endure the treatment, avoid the bitterness, and discover a sense of peace even in the face of death?
Now this kind of faith is not dramatic. It does not flip nature on its head. It does not send Mulberry trees flying into the sea. But it is the necessary faith on which we survive from day to day. Dramatic miracles can happen. But this deeper faith must happen if we are going to live a full and rewarding life. That is why Jesus ties the little faith of the mustard seed to the dramatic and the unexpected. He wants to remind us that there is another kind of faith where what changes is not our circumstances but ourselves. Faith can move mountains, but it can also move our hearts.