A few days ago a friend and colleague was bemoaning a seemingly dire situation and her own lack of faith in the face of the circumstance. “Do I not have enough faith?” she asked. “Is that why things aren’t changing? I mean, if I had the faith the size of a mustard seed, couldn’t I throw mountains into the sea? Do I not even have that much faith?”
Many of us have ridden this train of thought before. For some of us, it is akin to a commuter rail. Our minds dwell on it briefly before we’re off to something else. For some, it’s a transcontinental journey of investigation and inquiry, exploring the impact of faith on real life situations. For others, it’s a catastrophic train wreck that derails faith entirely.
Didn’t Jesus say, if I had the tiniest bit of faith, I’d witness great miracles?
Yes. And no.
The saying about mountains, mustard seeds, and a watery grave is actually an amalgamation of two different episodes in Matthew. In chapter 17, in response to the disciples’ complaint that they were unable to cure a sick and possessed child, Jesus says, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you” (Mt 17:20, NASB). Later, in chapter 21, after cursing and withering a fig tree, Jesus tells his disciples, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen” (Mt 21:21, NASB, paralleled in Mark 11).
As always, the key to these passages is the context. In chapter 17, Jesus has just come down from mountain on which he was transfigured (17:1-13). Is he speaking of the transfiguration experience when he talked about moving “this mountain?” I’m not entirely sure. Nor am I entirely sure what that might mean if he were.
But I am seeing a few other little features in and around chapter 17. Again and again, both before, during, and after this episode, Jesus refers to his imminent death. Jesus starts talking about it in Matthew 16:21, then goes back to it in 17:22-23. In between, he talks about the Son of Man coming into his kingdom (16:27-28). Then following the issue of the mountain and the mustard seed, Jesus is questioned about the Temple tax (17:24-27).
It does seem to me that Jesus is referring to some issue related to the kingdom he was inaugurating and how that related to the current religious system in Israel. He knew that the types of things he was saying about the kingdom of heaven coming in and through his life and work would eventually get him killed by the religious authorities in Jerusalem. That the kingdom – the hope of Israel – might come through him rather than through the Temple (Jesus essentially blows off a portion of the Temple system in addressing the Temple tax) would certainly irritate those charge with maintaining the Temple. This takes faith. That Jesus is the successor to Moses and Elijah and the work of God among the people of Israel, as demonstrated through the transfiguration (17:1-13) – this too takes faith.
Now about chapter 21. In this brief passage (vv. 18-22), Jesus and his disciples are on their way into Jerusalem from Bethany, where they had been staying during the Passover festival the week before Jesus’ crucifixion. On their walk from Bethany, they have to come over the Mount of Olives, which overlooks a valley and the mount on which Jerusalem and the Temple are built. This particular morning, Matthew mentions, Jesus gets some grumblies in his tumblies and goes looking for some figs from a fig tree. Finding a fig tree with no figs, he curses the damned thing, and it promptly shrivels.
The disciples are amazed (and not for the reason most 21st century Westerners are) and ask about it. Jesus replies, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith, and do not doubt, you shall not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it shall happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive” (Mt 21:21-22, NASB).
Again, as in chapter 17, the issue is about the Temple and its place in Israel’s hope. And again, context is key. Just prior to this episode, at the beginning of chapter 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a colt as the people line the streets in excitement (Mt 21:7-9). They were welcoming one who they thought might be the God-appointed king to restore Jerusalem and Israel to autonomy, ousting the Romans. This is what many hoped Jesus would do.
Then, Jesus causes a commotion in the Temple, calling it a “robbers’ den” (v. 13, NASB). This could also be translated “insurrectionists’ hideout. Jesus was pronouncing judgment on the Temple itself and those in charge of it. The Temple was meant, he says, quoting Isaiah 56, to be a place where the nations would gather to pray to their Creator. Instead, it has become a place where insurrectionists gather to plot against the Lord. Jesus later makes much the same point in debate with the chief priests and elders (21:28-32).
So in the story sandwiched between, when Jesus condemns the poor fig tree, he’s demonstrating still the same point. The fig tree is a representation of Israel (see Jeremiah 8:11-13) from whom Jesus expects to find fruit. It is as if Jesus is saying that Israel and her Temple have been given enough time to produce something of value. Enough.
So what of the mountain? One can imagine Jesus standing by the whithered fig tree with his disciples on the Mount of Olives. They are looking across the valley at Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Perhaps Jesus even pointed across the way: “You could say to this mountain…” The faith for which Jesus is calling is not the faith to decimate all horticultural life, but faith to look beyond the Temple system and the old way of thinking about Israel. Jesus was look for the faith to see that what they had always hoped for in the restoration of Israel and the redeeming of the world was actually happening not through the Temple, but through Jesus himself.
It only takes the smallest portion of faith and you can begin to see that all things are made whole in and through the work of Jesus.
Does this exclude the faith to believe for difficult situations and pray to see them changed? No. That’s in there too, but that’s another (hopefully shorter) post.