By the Rev. Darren Miner
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This coming Tuesday is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of this city. And some Episcopal churches in town are using the readings for St. Francis’ feast day, instead of the regularly prescribed readings for this Sunday. One motivation might be to give greater honor to our city’s patron. But I suspect there may be another motivation: to avoid preaching on this Sunday’s readings! Today’s Gospel reading is particularly difficult, even a bit offensive. But, in my humble opinion, that is all the more reason for wrestling with it, instead of avoiding it!
The Gospel story seemingly starts with the apostles’ demanding that Jesus grant them more faith. But really, this is the middle of the story. The lectionary omits the beginning. It turns out that what evoked this response from the apostles was a teaching on forgiveness. Jesus had just told them, “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” It’s when the apostles hear this that they ask the Lord for help, crying out, “Add to our faith!” And who can blame them! Forgiving may very well be the hardest thing that followers of Jesus are asked to do, and it takes faith to sustain a life of forgiveness.
In the English translation we heard read today, Jesus prefaces his response with the words: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed….” The translators have tried to fix what they see as a grammatical error in the Greek. But by doing this, they give a wrong impression that this is an instance of what grammarians call “a condition contrary to fact.” Paraphrasing, Jesus seems to be saying, “If you had even the smallest amount of faith, which unfortunately you haven’t, you would be able to do great things.” The clear implication is that the disciples are faithless.
But a more accurate rendering from the Greek would be “If you have faith like a mustard seed…” Note the two differences from the translation we heard read. First, by using the word have, instead of had, Jesus implies no lack of faith in his listeners. The condition that Jesus proposes may, in fact, be factual. Second, Jesus never mentions the size of the mustard seed. He speaks of having “faith like a mustard seed”? Paraphrasing, Jesus is saying, “If you have the kind of faith that can sprout and grow like a mustard seed, which you may very well have, then you will be able to do great things.”
Think back to the parable where the kingdom of God is likened to a mustard seed, something tiny from which comes something unimaginably larger. For Jesus, the mustard seed is a symbol for more than smallness. It symbolizes potentiality for growth. It symbolizes life hidden in the seemingly inert. It symbolizes the breaking out of God’s kingdom. So when Jesus says, “If you have faith like a mustard seed,” he is referring less to the quantity of the apostles’ faith and more to the quality of that faith. Like a mustard seed, faith should be amazingly full of life; it should have the potential to grow and develop; it should be a visible sign to the world that God’s kingdom is breaking forth. Jesus is telling his apostles, that if they have even a smidgen of this kind of living faith, then it will be enough for amazing and wonderful things to take place—like a mulberry tree being transplanted and taking root in the sea. Such a living faith might even be enough to sustain forgiving a person who sins against you seven times a day!
Jesus concludes his teaching with a parable that could be called either “the parable of the unthanked slave” or the “parable of the ungrateful farmer.” This parable explains that a farmer does not owe any gratitude to a slave for doing his duty, even if he does it with great diligence. Jesus then tells his apostles that when they have done all that is commanded of them, they should say to themselves: “We are unpraiseworthy slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” The parable is clearly an allegory. God is the farmer. And the apostles as a group are represented by the slave.
One question immediately comes to mind: what does it mean to liken God to an ungrateful slave-owning farmer and the apostles to an unthanked slave? To understand this, we need to know something about social relations in antiquity and what the ancients understood as “gratitude.” For most Americans today, gratitude is primarily a feeling; and there is little in the way of social obligation attached to that feeling. When we feel grateful, we respond by saying, “Thank you,” or, if we are particularly grateful, we might even write a thank-you card. For the ancients, gratitude was not thought of as a feeling, but as a debt of obligation. If someone did you a favor, you were obligated to return the favor at some point in order to restore social balance. People in Jesus’ day were accustomed to performing favors for a local bigwig with the mutual understanding that the favor would be reciprocated. The technical term for this relationship is patronage. (And to a large extent, that’s how our political system still functions today.) But slaves didn’t fit into the patronage system! Whatever they did for their masters was seen as a duty, not as a favor. And in the eyes of the ancients, “gratitude,” which is to say “a debt of obligation for a favor received,” could not be owed to a slave. For Jesus’ audience, all this would have been obvious. Jesus likened God to a farmer with a slave, neither to indicate that God is ungrateful in the way that we mean the word nor to indicate that the faithful are no more than good-for-nothing slaves, but to remind his demanding disciples that the relationship between God and the faithful is not that of a local bigwig who looks after those who do him favors—returning favor for favor. Nothing we do should be construed as doing God a favor, up to and including forgiving others their trespasses. Likewise, nothing God does for us is done to pay a debt of obligation.
To sum up, Jesus did not compare the apostles’ faith to a mustard seed to shame them for their lack of faith, but to reassure them of the sufficiency of their seed-like faith to sustain a forgiving way of life and to grow the kingdom of God. He did not compare the apostles to a lowly slave to demean them, for each of them, and us, is a beloved child of God. No, he did so to remind his disciples, then and now, that everything we do for God is no more than our duty and that everything that comes from God is a gift.
Now, if Jesus had never told us anything else about the nature of God other than this parable, we would undoubtedly have a skewed view of the relationship between God and the faithful. Fortunately, we have other more comforting teachings from Jesus that assure us that our God is both merciful and just, and we have the witness of the First Letter of John that “God is love.” So although Jesus may tell us that we are like slaves in that we cannot ever oblige our Lord and Master to show us favor, in the end it doesn’t matter. All that we need will come to us as pure, unearned gift. And at the End Time, we are promised, the faithful will, contrary to today’s parable, be invited to eat and drink at God’s table as his guests. Our communion at this Holy Table is our weekly reminder of that promise.
© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.