… [T]he apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’” (Luke 17:5-6 NABRE)
“We Walk by Faith”
This (now famous) illustration about faith Jesus gave to the apostles was probably as hard for them to understand as it is for us all these centuries later. The implication seems to be that the apostles have no faith at all since even a small amount of faith will yield miraculous results. Perhaps a closer look at how faith operates in the life of a disciple, both then and now, will shed some light on the subject.
Saint Paul makes the distinction between following God’s vision by faith versus charting our own course based on how we see things. “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7) is often quoted as a means to show how faith can be actuated in the life of the Christian. When we proceed by faith through the “mulberry trees” (deeply rooted obstacles) of life, we allow God’s divine strength to work through our natural weakness.
Authentic faith, however small, is a gift from God to be managed and shared in accordance with His will. Trying to “move a mountain” in our own strength will result in frustration and failure. Operating through faith, in alignment with divine providence, will “accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20). The “power” is God’s, not ours.
Faith, Prayer, and Repentance
Jesus explains how faith, belief, and prayer work together: “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will” (Mark 11:23 RSVCE).
It is important to note that just saying a command to a mountain or any obstacle in our lives will fall on “deaf ears.” As Jesus points out, prayer and belief must precede and accompany what we say with the understanding that it will be done for us by God. If we are to uproot the trees and move the mountains that stand in the way of our path to eternal life with God, we can take the first words Jesus spoke in His public ministry to heart: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15 NRSVCE).
Repentance (turning away from sin) and belief in the good news (the Gospel) provide a sure way of putting faith into action. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus elaborates on the relationship between prayer, faith, belief, and action. Moving mountains, uprooting trees along with asking for God’s forgiveness while forgiving those who trespass against us, all involve the process of asking, seeking and knocking on God’s door in faith:
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11 NRSVCE)
Even though we are the ones who utter the “commands”, it is God who acts on our behalf. The “good things” will always meet (and most likely) exceed our requests. “Mustard seed faith”, then, flows from God’s providential, covenantal relationship with us, His children. Our small “seed” will produce little by itself, but faith and belief received and multiplied by God will produce miraculous results. Just as God used a small amount of food to feed a large crowd, He will use the small seed we offer in prayer to produce abundant, everlasting results.