‘The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” What’s the equation for increasing faith? “The Lord replied, ‘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’.” What sort of answer is this?
Jesus uses this image of the tiny mustard seed to allow us to conceive both of his kingdom and the faith required by his followers. I have always thought it a sign that we need “more” faith but only have a “little” faith, so little that we cannot produce the faith necessary for great things. The Rev. Tomas Halik, a Czech priest and intellectual, undercuts this understanding in Night of the Confessor:
Suddenly this text spoke to me in a way that differed from the usual interpretation. Isn’t Jesus saying to us with these words: Why are you asking me for lots of faith? Maybe your faith is “far too big”? Only if it decreases, until it is as small as a mustard seed, will it give forth its fruit and display its strength.
Faith, says Halik, might need to be little, to be unencumbered by that which seems solid, necessary and essential but is brittle, sharp and rigid, protecting our human endeavors and not our divine faith. Halik sees, at least in the West, easy certainties about religion and ideology that have replaced willingness to suffer for one’s faith, a replacement of mystery with easy answers. “Big faith” offers no help against the paradoxes and complexities of life; it seeks safety in numbers and certainty from the past.
But what about what Halik calls the “impossibly absurd” promise that if we had a “little faith” we could move a mulberry tree to the sea? Halik does not believe Jesus is encouraging us to ask for and expect the equivalent of spiritual “superpowers,” which might simply play into our “covert narcissism, megalomania, Messiah complex” (25) or that Jesus is encouraging a form of “autosuggestion,” by which we replace faith in Christ with “self-affirmation, self-assertiveness, and the ‘extension of one’s potential’” (26).
Instead, he associates this radical expression of faith with behavior deemed foolish by the world, like “forgiving when I could take vengeance, and even ‘loving my neighbor,’ and ‘turning the other cheek’ when I have been done wrong to…” (26). This absurd little faith of forgiveness and turning the other cheek is in fact living out a life of love in the midst of a world that desires power and vengeance, and seeks always to protect “what’s mine.” Are not these little acts of love more absurd in our world than moving a mulberry tree into the sea? Do they not require continual little acts of faith in the face of violence, mockery, rejection and the loss of the things of this world?
So, how do we increase our faith? What Jesus says in the verses that follow comprise a surprising answer, which fits with Halik’s focus on the positive nature of “little” faith. In these enigmatic verses, Jesus speaks of master-slave relations, a key aspect of ancient society that every hearer in antiquity would have understood. The language of human slavery properly sounds harsh to modern ears, but in Jesus’ day a slave would do what his master required and would not be unduly rewarded or praised for it. Jesus’ focus, though, is on the spiritual implications for his followers: “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.’”
This is not precisely the language of “self-affirmation, self-assertiveness, and the ‘extension of one’s potential.’” Faith, Jesus says, is the practice of doing what we ought to do as his followers, however bizarre and absurd it might seem to a world that demands more. It is the image of Paul in prison, “a prisoner for his sake,” bearing his “share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.” It is the prophet Habakkuk, crying out regarding the “destruction and violence” that surround him and hearing God’s voice say, “The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.” How do you increase your faith? Practice letting it grow small.