A Big Enough Mustard Seed?
One often overlooked aspect of Christianity is the little amount we should need by way of theology before we can start the task of living the faith. Mind you, at least you can see where those first disciples were coming from. The excuse of seeking almost impossible levels of faith before getting on with the living bit has always had its temptations.
I guess the main problem for most adults is that consequences of their upbringing and predispositions are usually fairly well set by the time they emerge from their adolescence. And most of us are at least partially aware of our shortcomings. We are probably not surprised to learn that biological drives have left us with certain blind-spots and weaknesses. Perhaps we should also probably admit that our communities have shaped our politics and our prior experiences have helped set our religious and social views.
We also can see it in others. Just try to reshape someone’s thinking about traditional enemies or try praising the policies of rival political groupings and you will begin to see just how much people have become victim of circumstances. Maybe this is why Jesus’ basic teaching still gets an unfriendly reception when anyone tries to influence another’s actions using the teaching.
One reason why the gospel retains the power to disturb and shake in a modern world may even be a by-product of evolution. One assumption of standard evolutionary theory is that in order to get an edge over potential competitors each individual and each cooperating group of individuals has a desire to accumulate resources, behaving as if driven by a notion that there is a scarcity of resources. No doubt each individual or group who succeeds in taking more than a fair share of resources gains power and advantage over potential rivals. The down side is that this also results in attitudes of selfishness and acquisitiveness and makes society uncomfortable for those who miss out in the race for accumulation.
When the gospel message of forsaking all for the chance to work for love, this is counter cultural and sooner or later there is a clash between, on one hand, the large number who have natural propensities for selfishness and on the other those with a genuine gospel desire to care for others in the wider community and world.
Even a little bit of faith is resented if it challenges cherished prejudice. As a simple example of how the ethics of Christianity can encounter widespread opposition, a few years back (in 2007) there was a story in the news about a Christian group using shopping malls in the US as a venue for a painted poster depicting a group of significant leaders having their feet washed by Jesus. There amongst the leaders was Osama bin Laden also having his feet washed. The poster had been prepared for a Christian conference by an artist named Lars Justinen from the Justinen Creative Group. Under this picture there were a variety of captions like “Follow the Leader,” and “Jesus – Still Too Radical?”
Despite the well-known nature of the story of Jesus being prepared to wash the feet of Judas as well as the feet of other disciples and despite the relatively widespread contemporary Church membership suggesting that many in the community would be expected to accept the teaching of Jesus, the notion of having Jesus wash the feet of a real life contemporary enemy was evidently too much for the general public. No sooner were the posters placed, there was a flood of angry phone calls and letters which in fairly short order persuaded the managers of the Malls to remove the posters.
If the gospel is understood to be a reshaping of possibilities it is at least understandable that people get nervous about what this might mean in practice. I can for example begin to understand why the disciples were recorded as almost panicking when Jesus asked them to forgive time after time. I suspect they were horrified at his example of the Good Samaritan (ie the heretic) in one of his parables – and they probably experienced much trepidation when he asked them to avoid doing the least thing to endanger the faith of the young. They would have been only too aware that human nature does not call them to such behaviour. So they asked Jesus for more faith.
We can almost hear the scorn in Jesus’ voice in his reply. 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. But there is a puzzle. No-one has that sort of faith…… do they? – or are we missing something?
The strange simile of the mustard seed takes on more meaning when it is remembered that the mustard plant was a pernicious weed for those early Palestinian farmers. Birds would ingest the seeds – yet not quite digest them before passing them out. The weeds would grow uninvited and very difficult to eradicate. Suggesting faith ought to be somehow like that, growing wild and largely uncontrolled conjures up notions of a faith that takes on its own life.
Perhaps it was the wrong idea about faith in the first place to ask for more, particularly as a means of gaining power. Remember much of Jesus’ teaching is not so much about faith as a talisman but rather of faith as a way of seeing things in a new light.
Rex Hunt for example quotes his own theology mentor Henry Nelson Wieman as pointing out that faith is not a verbal statement. It is a way of life, which gives a different perspective. And what is meant by this perspective?
C S Lewis gives us something to think about when he states: I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
To think through to the possible consequences of Lewis’s metaphor: When we look through a window it is not the size of the window that counts, but rather what we see through the window. Focusing on the window or even to want more windows is rather to miss the point. Perhaps for the Christian, faith also shapes the general attitudes to life. As one mystic Rabindranath Tagore put it: Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.
Part of the confusion about seeking more faith might be related to our intention to seek faith that goes with our present attitudes rather than looking at allowing ourselves the possibility of faith directed behaviour. I guess we have all seen those claiming to be born again looking and sounding suspiciously like the one there before the born-again experience! Because there is a danger that we will dignify our baser attitudes with our less honourable faith assumptions, from time to time we should also check on how we might better live our faith.
Jesus as reported by the gospel writers, sometimes has an unnerving habit of first making his listeners feel they are totally with him in thought, then he introduces a new twist that causes them to rethink, sometimes in most uncomfortable ways. Today’s passage is one of those occasions. For those familiar with the gospel message Jesus’ comments about how to treat one’s slave seems almost opposite to his standard message of consideration and humility. Nevertheless we can probably concede that for Jesus’ time at least, many of his audience would have assumed his suggested treatment of a slave would be most appropriate.
Of course for that time his listeners would not have expected a slave in from the fields to join the master for a meal. The standard thinking of the day would be that the slave’s first responsibility was to the master and therefore to tell the slave to prepare the master’s meal before allowing the slave to eat may not have been Jesus’ standard gospel – but it was almost certainly standard first century expectation.
Then suddenly Jesus turns it around. It is not the other – the slave – who needs to realise their sense of obligation- it is we ourselves who need to develop the sense of obligation. What was it that Jesus in this passage said. Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ˜We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
Perhaps this is the seeing in a new light that CS Lewis was referring to. If only we can place ourselves in the position of being those who are servants to others, then issues like forgiving many times should be a natural consequence. On the other hand if we insist on seeing ourselves as superior to the one being forgiven there will be clear limits to the amount of slack we are prepared to cut. No amount of faith we are given will enable us to see those we regard as inferior as worth going the extra mile for.
And it is problem that is still with us. The notion of some people being superior to others bedevils any attempts to develop genuine relationships. To choose just one of many possible areas of concern is to reflect on why in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 6 million civilians have been killed in the last two decades while their plight is virtually ignored by those of us claiming to be in the Christian West. The thousand upon thousand child soldiers of the Congo, the thousands of small girls killed each year because of their claimed powers of sorcery, those conscripted into child prostitution and those condemned to die unnoticed of AIDS. Think back a few years. Were we insisting that our Churches and our government respond? Perhaps I missed it.
One time, on holiday in Dubrovnik, I encountered a photo essay of a priest in the Congo living his response to this problem. The challenge for each of us is not so much about the Congo as the question as to which issue or issues we are intending to respond to as a consequence of our faith viewpoint. Last month, which issues did your Church choose? And this month?
That is an open question which depends on what we as a Church and what we as individual Christians will notice as part of our perspective generated by our faith. Of course we are not strong enough to tackle such problems alone yet nor can we pretend that our response depends on somehow first getting more faith. C S Lewis believed in Christianity because it helped him see things in a new way. His faith, I guess like our faith, may have been limited – even mustard seed sized. Yet he still saw life in a new way. Sunday after Sunday we reflect on our own mustard seed sized faith, yet the question should never be: have we got enough faith? The question which ultimately will affect our life decisions is simply this. What do we now see as a result of our faith that we did not see before? – and if part of the path is now illuminated for our next few steps, will we take those steps?