When I was a little girl and first heard the parable of the mustard seed, I can remember my Sunday school teacher pinching her thumb and forefinger together until there was almost no space between them and saying “this is how big a mustard seed is…make sure you have at least this much faith if you want to be a good Christian”. At the time I remember thinking “wow…that’s it? That’s so small? I only need to be that good?” Obviously, I didn’t get the point of the story. And the other day as I thought about that experience I somehow heard it laden with guilt. Somehow I heard my teacher telling me “shame on you for not having even this much faith”. So I needed to check that out a bit and it turns out my memory wasn’t that far off. Turns out this has been told for years as a “shame on you” story. As I rummaged through older commentaries and sermons, it turns out that preachers and Sunday school teachers have been telling this story with the perspective of an annoyed, exhausted Jesus basically saying “get it together, fellas…if you had even this small amount of faith, you could perform miracles”. And by telling it this way, by presenting Jesus in this light, it makes the disciples—and us—feel bad that we’re not faithful enough.
What does it mean to be “faithful enough”? How can we measure that? Is it based on the amount we put on our pledge card? Is it based on the amount of our time and talent that we give to projects of the church? Is it based on the number of home visits we make to those who are sick or homebound? Is it based on the number of meetings we attend to plan for our future? Somehow, I’m just not sure that’s what Jesus had in mind.
And that moves us into the second part of today’s gospel lesson…the part that is even less appealing and more challenging than the parable of the mustard seed.
Let’s look at it again:
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 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!’”
Ok, so on first reading, it might make us scratch our heads, decide to ignore it, or even get angry. It’s exactly this servant and master kind of teaching that has been used for generations to subjugate women and minorities and justify slavery, so it would be easy to say “well, we’ve moved beyond this kind of stuff…let’s just ignore it…it’s not important anymore”. And yes, we could. But I think that we owe it to ourselves in our journey of faith formation to wrestle with complicated scripture and try to find the “good news” in it. Otherwise, we get a very slanted perspective of what it means to be faithful.
At first glance, Jesus is telling his disciples that service in the Kingdom is about doing what you’re told, even when you’re tired, and expecting no thanks in return. Furthermore, the disciples should even think of themselves as “worthless slaves”. Well, I have to say that if that’s the way I’m supposed to understand faithfulness, then I fail. I just can’t think of myself as a “worthless slave”. Nowhere does Jesus call the disciples “worthless slaves”…in fact, he calls them friends. So what’s this all about?
From a historical perspective, this language of master and servant makes perfect sense, and would not have seemed shocking to its original audience. Some scholars have written that Jesus was speaking to people who would have understood the relationship between master and servant as one of mutual accountability and expectations. As Kimberly Long explained, “The master expects the servants to perform their duties, and the servants, in turn, expect that when their work is done, they will receive nourishment and rest and protection.”
Honestly, I needed to sit with this a minute when I first read it. It is an understanding of discipleship that I have never really considered. And it suddenly occurred to me that I was still thinking in those elementary terms of the mustard seed…if I had this teeny tiny amount of faith, I was being a good Christian. It was a simple understanding of discipleship that didn’t really require anything of me…in fact, the expectations were pretty minimal!
But let’s look at this gospel lesson again, and actually back up a couple of verses.
In the verses that precede our gospel for today Jesus gives his disciples some lessons about discipleship that are ultimately about being responsible for one another. So his friends are starting to understand that being a disciple is a lot harder than just following Jesus around, listening to his teachings, and witnessing healings. Being a disciple is about being willing to be a servant…it’s about being willing to be responsible to God and one another not so that we’re considered “good”, or to earn ponies and saunas in heaven (which has always been my default for doing good), but because God has given us abundant life.
When the disciples ask to have their faith increased, they ask out of fear of not having enough. They ask because the responsibilities of discipleship are bigger than they can imagine. If we’re willing to be honest with ourselves, I bet we’ve also asked to have our faith increased. How many of us have tried to bargain when a loved one has been ill, asking God for more faith? How many of us feel hopeless and despondent with the long-term prospects of the government shutdown, wishing that we had more faith in one another? How many of us feel scared about our finances and just wish we could be more faithful and trusting in God to take care of all of our needs? Whatever the reason, we all wish for our faith to be increased. And imagining a Sunday school teacher shaking her head like an annoyed Jesus doesn’t help our feelings of shame, guilt or inadequacy.
So what if we imagined that as the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, Jesus looks at them with love in his eyes? What if he looked at them with kindness and said, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could work miracles. And you have that faith inside you already. God has given it to you abundantly. Now take care of one another, take care of those who are on the margins of society; be with those who are in desperate need of faith and healing. And do it without asking anything in return.” This Jesus, this kind, loving Jesus is the same who tells the hemorrhaging woman her faith has made her well, who touches the leper and gives life to the centurion’s daughter. This Jesus is the same who washes the feet of his friends.
So I invite you to consider the mustard seed and know that, through the abundant love and grace of God, you have enough faith to be the disciples you are called to be.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.