Luke 17: 5-10, Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
While in high school I once came across the famous quote from Archimedes, the great scientist of Syracusa in classical antiquity: “Give me a standing place and I will move the world.” I resonated with it so strongly – if I could have a platform of some kind, if I could have the necessary conditions (health, money, the right degree or other accreditation, whatever) – I could move the world. It’s not a boastful decree at any age but the yearning of many hearts – with the right conditions I could contribute in a way that would really change things for the better. I have something to share. I want to participate. I want to make the world better than it has been. These are wonderful sentiments for people of any age, and they come so naturally. As I grow older I realize that our job isn’t so much to instill this passion in others (it will come), it’s to not iron it out of them – not to pour the cold, cold water (of practicality) on dreams, compassion, and a healthy sense of destiny.
“Increase our faith!”, the disciples demand of Jesus. It is their first, blurted response to his teachings that they must forgive any persons who sin against them any number of times, but who also say, “I repent – forgive me.” “Increase our faith!” – we can’t forgive like that! That requires a faith that must be much stronger than ours. You’re going to have to help us believe a lot more; do or say something that will make it possible to do all that you ask of us. Like Archimedes (and me) they assume that they are not already in a position to do what is remarkable – to move the world, to move a mulberry tree, to forgive repeatedly someone who is brutal to them, apologizes, then does it again (I do wonder if this last task isn’t the most difficult).
Jesus’ response to them is “Don’t let yourselves off the hook! You have plenty of faith to accomplish all I ask.” This text is so frequently misinterpreted as meaning, “O ye of little faith!”, as Jesus’ put-down of the disciples for not even having the faith of a tiny seed. We’ve inverted the metaphor to mean that we need faith as big as a mountain to move a mustard seed. On the contrary! The disciples are suggesting that, and Jesus tells them that they have plenty of faith already. The text of the original Greek is so clear that the sense of the “if” clause is the one that implies that the situation is already true. “If you have faith – and you DO!” is its meaning. It takes a faith just the size of the teensiest mustard seen to uproot a tree – and not just any tree, a mulberry tree, which live to be some 600 years old, and whose roots are so deep and so strong that they can break rocks beneath the earth’s surface. We’re not talking about pulling up a little green weed here, that gives up quickly at the force of our coaxing. It takes the smallest faith – and we have it - to uproot a mulberry tree, fly it through the air to the sea, and replant it on top of salt water. Oh, and make it thrive there. “All that said,” says Jesus, “you have plenty of faith to accomplish all I ask, so stop making excuses for yourselves.”
Jesus unmasks the alibis of his friends, and of all of us who grasp for reasons to avoid particular challenges. I would forgive so-and-so (insert name of someone who’s been awful to you) if I had more faith, or if I were a bigger person with more compassion… I will be more generous when I have a little more money myself. I can’t spend more time with my friends and family until I’m (fill in the blank)… tenured? Graduated? Retired? I can’t reduce my drinking until …. I could try to move the world, I could work for social change, if I only had “x” position or “y” degree. “Excuses, excuses,” Jesus says, and gently.
I have read that Dorothy Day, a co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement and an extraordinarily faithful laywoman, was often approached by people who said things to here like, “You are a saint,” “You are so special – a true gift of God as a person.” She hated that! She was quite gruff with those who suggested these things. She’d say, “No, I’m not! I’m no different from you. If you value what I do, go do it yourself. You could, you know.” She detested any language that set her apart from others because she saw it as a cop-out, a way for people to rationalize why they were not more devoted to easing the suffering of the poorest. The disciples were this way – they saw before them what their faithfulness would require and declared that they didn’t have enough faith to consider such choices. “Excuses, excuses,” Jesus tells them. We say “I don’t have enough faith to be that kind of person, the kind of person who…” Jesus says, “Sure you do.”
In recent weeks news has been shared of another Catholic woman – this one truly in the beatification process: Mother Teresa. As you may have heard, a new publication takes into serious account Mother Teresa’s profound doubts, throughout her adult life, in the very existence of God. As she continued her invaluable ministry to some of the earth’s most destitute people – or perhaps because of it – she found herself living with profound doubt. My husband, an Episcopal priest, and I first heard about this on a radio program as we were driving to my parents’ house north of here. Jarrett kept one hand on the wheel, of course, but we high-fived each other in the front of our car. We weren’t thrilled that anyone would experience such a “dark night of the soul,” but that someone so revered for her works of faith would admit that she had doubts. How liberating to us mere mortals who may also live with doubt, who think we don’t have the faith to move mountains. Not every high (or low!) profile Christian has doubts, but how important for all Christians to know that someone whose commitment to God’s beloved never wavered even if her belief in God did. This isn’t terrifying or scandalous but real, and invites us to be as honest with ourselves and one another.
A favorite method of excusing oneself from forgiving in particular or from more faithful living in general has long been to play the doubt card. It is a convenient alibi, and it is true. We doubt. Faith itself is no easy thing; who would take it seriously if it were? No one has ever had it easy, in terms of doubt, and certainly not Jesus of Nazareth. He understood his friends’ excuses only too well. Fred Buechner has written that our doubts prove that we are in touch with reality. And if we aren’t in touch with reality, our faith is blind and not worth much anyway. A seminary professor of Buechner’s once made an aside that has stayed with him since: he commented that doubt is not the opposite of faith but an integral element of faith. He probably knew from personal experience; he was Paul Tillich.
The prophet Habakkuk lived with many challenges to his faith. He prayed his heart out to God and God seemed not to answer. Habakkuk lived in a society marinated in violence of every kind. He keeps praying and it only gets worse. People who cheat rack up honors. People twist the word of God to suite their own agendas and they get away with it. Other people buy it. In the midst of all this he finally receives an answer from God: there is still a vision; justice will come; in the meantime, the righteous live by their faith.
Of which Jesus says, we have enough – whatever times we live in, whatever the circumstances of our lives, whatever form our faith may take – it is sufficient. It is a standing place for wherever we feel called to take it, whatever we know we must do. That mustard seed is not the symbol of the shameful inadequacy of our faith but of its earth shattering possibility – rock-crunching, tree-lifting, life-changing, world-moving. Faith to sustain us in any trial, the faith that gives us the ability to forgive an infinite number of times someone who is cruel, says I’m sorry, then does it again. We have that Archimedean standing place we have always wanted.
But it’s not enough just to stand there and enjoy the view. Seeds are meant to be planted, so that even more lovely things can grow. When we plant the seeds of our faith they cause more faith to grow, and the acts of faith, which are God’s love, justice, and mercy. In this way we bring the love of God to the unloved and the unloving, God’s mercy to the merciless and to those who’ve known no mercy in their lives. We make God’s justice to grow in places rife with cruelty and violence, and in the hearts of those who are unjust. We cause faith itself to grow in the sprits of those who have never had faith, or who lost their faith long ago to tragedy or boredom. And in planting and cultivating the seeds of faith we find that our own faith grows, and that tasks like forgiving repeatedly anyone who repents become things we do with ease and grace, like the other parts of our lives to which we have devoted much practice: playing an instrument, playing a sport, crafting a letter, sketching a picture. Our faith is sufficient. We have the standing place to do and to be all that God needs.
Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi, Interpretation Series, WJKP
Joseph Donders, Praying and Preaching the Sunday Gospel, Orbis: 1998
Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Series, WJKP