And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Go get me some corn dogs – we’re gonna have a picnic!’ and it would obey you.” (Luke 17:6, 21st Century Gen X Dead Sea Translation)
One of the really annoying things about patriarchs, prophets, and saints is their shaky faith. I mean, honestly, how am I supposed to learn any spiritual lessons from a bunch of people whose gut reactions to God’s promises are no more robust than my own?
Take, for example, Abraham, when God tells him that he’s going to be the father of many nations, countless multitudes.
God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:1-8, 15-21)
God: Abraham…er, Abram…whatever your name is. I’m going to make you the father of many nations, of countless multitudes.
God: This time next year, your wife Sarah will bear you a son.
Abraham: Who’s Isaac?
God: Your son by Sarah.
Abraham: Who’s Sarah?
God: Your wife. Remember? I renamed her, too.
Abraham: What did we call her before?
God: Sarai. Could we get back to the subject at hand, please? As I was saying, I will make a covenant between you and me and will multiply you greatly. Sarah, your wife, will bear you a son.
Abraham: Er…wha??? (Thinking: my old lady’s ninety years old. I must have heard him wrong.) Uh…yeah, yeah…so, uh… yay for Ishmael, right?
God: ARE YOU DEAF????
Abraham: Yes! I’m a hundred frickin’ years old!
Jesus’ disciples, who could always counted on to be dumb as rocks, provide another good example.
Jesus predicts his death and resurrection (Mark 8:31-33)
And Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly, so that even a thick git like Peter could understand. Alas, all was vanity. For Peter took him aside and rebuked him, saying, “You speak an infinite deal of nothing!”* But turning and seeing his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter right back and said, “Get over thyself, thou blunt monster of uncounted heads! You do unbend your noble strength, to think so brainsickly of things.”**
My point is that faith is difficult. Paul tells us in a moment of rare clarity, that the promises of God depend on faith, not on the law; i.e. God’s grace, not our effort establishes the kingdom of heaven. Which is brilliant, because if the Father of Monotheism and the Rock Upon Which Christ Built His Church couldn’t muster enough faith to actually believe what they were hearing without rationalizing or denying it outright, what hope do mere schleps like us have?
The problem, to our modern brains, may have more to do with semantics than actual practice. Faith gets a bad rap in the English-speaking world because it’s synonymous with “belief.” And “belief” is a word that’s reserved for encounters with the unlikely and outrageous. We never say, “I believe in gravity,” or “I believe in Starbucks,” because these are accepted as ubiquitous realities of life, even if we can’t see them.*** Rather, the word “believe” is frequently invoked in conversations about God, the Tooth Fairy, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. For the purposes of living a life of faith, however, it would be more productive to embrace the meaning the of the word “believe” in another way, like when I say, “I believe I’ll have another cookie,” which, translated, means, “I’ll just take the box, thanks.”
The word “faith” implies less a suspension of disbelief in something static (“I have faith in the Easter Bunny”) and more the ability to trust in a future outcome. Abraham didn’t have to believe in God – he and God were friends, for cripe’s sake. That would be like saying, “I believe in my chiropractor” while he’s readjusting my thoracic vertebrae. But James tells us, “’Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God. “ This is fundamentally different from believing in God. Anybody can believe in God. It takes someone in relationship with God to have faith in God.
Paul says that God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” I can only assume he’s lumping unshakeable faith in with “things that do not exist.” But, if unshakeable faith doesn’t really exist, and we need faith to claim the inheritance of Abraham, aren’t we caught in a cosmic double bind?
I don’t think so, because the Gospels suggest that it’s enough to give it our best shot. There’s that great scene from Mark where Jesus tells this guy that all things are possible if you believe and the guy comes back with, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” I love this scene, because it speaks to both our good intentions and God meeting us where our good intentions fizzle out. “I believe!” is our mustard seed and I expect that’s enough for a God who, above all, desires relationship with us. But we get hung up on things like, “Jesus said if I had faith, I’d be able to cast a mountain into the sea!” And I don’t know about the people you hang out with, but I have been working on that one for years and can’t get it to work.
It may be infinitely more miraculous for us to acknowledge and honor the trust and faith we do have, no matter how piddling it seems, than it is to cast a mountain into the sea. And that wee little offering, Jesus says, is enough to motivate mighty acts. As people of faith, we need to learn, not only how to believe in the mighty acts themselves, but to believe that our modest faith and mighty God are up to the task.
If God gives us a mustard seed, at the very least, we need to entertain the idea that lunch it on its way.
* Do you ever find yourself in need of a real crushing insult? Are you ever tongue-tied in the presence of a moron? Do you wonder if you could get away with more smart-ass remarks if you couched them in Elizabethan code? If this sounds like you, then you need the Shakespearean Insulter! Thousands of jabs, gibes, and jeers at the press of a button all for the low, low price of whatever you pay Comcast each month.
** Peter’s diatribe is from The Merchant of Venice. Jesus’ first slur, which I thought had an appropriately satanic quality to it, comes from Henry IV, Part II, and the second comes from the Scottish play.****
*** If you live in a place where you can’t see five Starbuck’s from the nearest street corner, let me know. I want to move there.
**** Since this blog post contains an element of drama (see the bit about God and Abraham), I don’t want to jinx the enterprise by coming right out and saying “MacBeth.” Oh, crap.
© Marian the Seminarian, 2012