It’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for the disciples in this scripture. They have been following Jesus along his journey. They have been told to give up all their possessions. They have been told that he, Jesus, and God are one. They have seen unexplainable miracles. They have heard, over and over again, that the rules of their religious life are not, in fact, the rules of God. They have decided to follow a radical rabbi from a poor neighborhood and have been told everything they have been taught about God and their place in God’s world is wrong. And, they had just been told, in the verses immediately before these, that they must forgive people who wrong them each and every time they are asked for forgiveness. People will stumble, Jesus says, and do wrong. But his disciples are to forgive those who stumble – no matter how many times they do it again. No matter what they have done. Jesus says, “If the same person sins against you seven times, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’ you must forgive.” So, when they plead with Jesus to increase their faith, and he then chastises them for not even having faith the size of a mustard seed – well, like I said, it’s hard not to have some sympathy for them.
But, maybe he wasn’t criticizing them. There is a trick here, in the Greek translation of this text. The ancient Greek wrd that is translated as “if” – “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed” could be just as accurately translated as the word “since” – “since you have 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.” Since you faith, even the size of a tiny mustard seed, you can do incredible things. You can move mountains. You can follow the commandments of God. You can create the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, now. Since you have faith the size of a mustard seed, and that is enough.
We don’t know, then, if Jesus was scolding or encouraging the disciples here. The translation is not clear – and as with most ancient texts, it has been retranslated so many times it is difficult to know what was originally said. Either way though, what is clear, is that Jesus is saying we don’t need great faith to do great things. We don’t need big, grand faith. All we need is a tiny bit of faith, as tiny as a mustard seed, and we can do unimaginable things. And what a lovely idea that is – something that can easily be preached, as they say. But, as always, things get less clear the more we read in the scriptures. Because Jesus goes on, talking about a slave who has done their labor, and asks does that slave deserve thanks? Once again hear verses 9 and 10, “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!” What in the world does that lesson have to do with having faith the size of a mustard seed? It can seem like the writer of Luke looked around at all the sayings of Jesus that they wanted to incorporate and just tucked these two together.
But, here’s the thing. I don’t think we have here two disparate lessons. I think, in fact, that we have Jesus trying to explain what it means to have even the simplest faith. Remember, the concept of masters and slaves was very common then. The great chasm between master and slave was something the disciples would understand. But, Jesus never identified himself with the master. He was the servant. He was the one who humbled himself. He was the one who washed the feet of his disciples, not the other way around. He was doing God’s work on earth because it must be done and he was not looking for glory or praise.
Perhaps Jesus feared that the disciple’s request to have greater faith meant they wanted greater recognition. Perhaps he feared that they would begin competing with one another, trying to one-up one another. Because that is human nature. We do it all the time. Sometimes it is about material things – look my car is nicer than yours. Sometimes it is about actions – look at all this money I have given. And sometimes, it is about faith – look at me, look how faithful I am. Look at how much I pray. Look at how many scripture verses I have memorized. Look at me. My faith is so big and grand I cannot contain it. You should be jealous.
But, all you need, Jesus says, is faith the size of a mustard seed. Nothing more, nothing less. We are to do what ought to be done, and not worry about looking more faithful than the person next to us. To be a servant of God is far more important than to be a master in this world. Not only did Jesus teach this, but he practiced it. He led a humble life of service to the outcast and the marginalized. He sat a table and shared meals with people others would have deemed unworthy of his attention. And he demanded his followers do the same. For Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven can be described as a huge banquet, where everyone is welcome, no matter the quantity or quality of their faith.
And that lesson has had staying power. The ritual and sacrament of Holy Communion not only reenacts the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples. It is also a chance for all of God’s people to practice the equality, justice, and mercy of the Kingdom of Heaven. At this table, no one is turned away. At this table, all you need is faith the size of a mustard seed. At this table, it does not matter how much you know, how much you have, or how much you doubt. At this table, all are welcome, just as they are. And today, with Christians around the world we will celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion – we will remember that we are a part of a worldwide community of people striving to humbly do the work of God. We will remember that we have siblings in the faith, some who look and think just like we do, and others who are so different we cannot help but be awed by the varied face of God. Nothing is expected of you as you approach this table, except a desire to participate in an action that draws us even closer to realizing the Kingdom of Heaven right here, right now. Whether you have faith that is so grand you feel as if you are bursting at the seams, or you have faith no bigger than a mustard seed – you are welcome and celebrated. This is a gift from God. And thanks be to God. Amen.