Scripture: Luke 17: 5-10
Let me start by reminding you of a recent date in history: June 1, 2022. Our Atlanta Braves were behind the New York Mets by 10-and-a-half games in the National League East… a lead that seemed insurmountable, at least to many Mets fans. And some of them were happy to say so, on Twitter, on sports radio, and on cable TV. Take, for instance, one particular sports radio personality from New York, Sal Licata. On May 31, he said the following:
The NL East is over. That’s right! It’s a wrap! No one is touching the Mets. Tweet me the hate all you want about the jinx. Nonsense! The Mets will be National League East Division Champs. And I don’t even think the Braves are going to challenge them… And even if the Braves do turn it around, it will be too late!
Good old Sal continued to mock the Braves throughout the summer, and on September 7 he fake-congratulated our team for tying the Mets briefly before falling behind again:
Just wanna send my sincerest congratulations to the @Braves on tying the Mets for 1st place in the NL East for about 15 hours. Been a long road. Well deserved celebration. Congrats!
And then on September 11, he said:
Oh and Braves fans—screen shot me the standings now, will ya?
Because the Braves were a couple of games back at that point.
It’s as if this poor guy never heard of Aesop’s Fables, and the story of the Tortoise and the Hare! I’m sorry for him that the New York public education system failed him so badly!
Obviously, when the Braves did sweep the Mets last weekend and when they finally clinched the division on Tuesday, well… Braves fans were more than happy to send Sal a screen shot of the standings!
It was an unbelievable pennant race, and an unbelievable comeback story for the Braves. But between June 1, when they were down 10-and-a-half games, and last Tuesday, they needed something more than what they already had to win the division: They needed, for instance, right-fielder Ronald Acuña to get back to full health. They needed 21-year-old Mike Harris II to be called up from Double-A in late-May. They needed another 21-year-old, Vaughn Grissom, to be called up from Double-A later that summer. At the trade deadline they needed another bullpen arm on the roster, so they acquired Raisel (Rah-zell) Iglesias.
The Braves realized they needed help; and the Braves organization gave them the help they needed to be successful in accomplishing this very difficult task.
And so, in today’s scripture, Jesus’ twelve disciples realize that they need help to accomplish the difficult task that Jesus asks them to accomplish—in this case, to forgive almost without condition or limit—because that’s what Jesus has just been talking about in verses 3 to 5… and they’re like, “We don’t have what we need to do that!” So they ask for help in verse 5: “Increase our faith.”
And then Jesus talks about “mustard-seed faith.”
And that’s what this sermon is about. And I want to make three points: Point Number One, the test for determining whether or not you have “mustard-seed faith.” Point Number Two, “mustard-seed faith” really can uproot mulberry trees. And Point Number Three, I’m calling, “Oh to grace how great a debtor”—I’ll explain it when I get there.
But on to Point Number One, how to determine whether you have “mustard-seed faith” or not.
First, let’s notice verse 6: The disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, and Jesus says, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
If you hold a mustard seed in the palm of your hand, it would look no bigger than a speck of dust. It was practically the smallest thing imaginable—in these days before microscopes, for instance. The point is, the disciples would not have heard these words and felt intimidated, like, “My faith is too small”… Because from their perspective, what could be smaller than a mustard seed?
They would have understood Jesus to be referring to the smallest thing imaginable. So they wouldn’t think, “If only my faith were as big as a mustard seed, then I could do these powerful things!” No, instead they would have heard Jesus makes these ambitious promises about “mustard seed faith” and thought, “Wow! Is that all the faith it takes? Obviously, if I have faith at all, I have that much faith. I can muster at least that much faith! I can muster mustard-seed faith! So I already have all the faith I need!”
Besides, if these twelve disciples don’t have enough faith yet—or I should say, eleven of the twelve disciples, because I’m not counting Judas—but if even these eleven disciples don’t have enough faith yet—then who on earth would… other than Jesus, I mean?
No, Jesus’ point seems clear enough: his words about “mustard seed faith” are meant to reassure Jesus’ disciples—not to discourage them, or intimidate them, or make they think that they don’t have enough faith… already!
Speaking for myself, however, I haven’t usually felt reassured when Jesus talks about “mustard seed faith.” I usually feel intimidated. I feel like my faith isn’t big enough. I do not feel reassured. And I suspect I’m not alone. And I can think of at least two reasons we often feel this way.
The first reason is, I misinterpret the meaning of “mustard-seed faith,” because of what Jesus says about it in Matthew chapter 17, verses 14 to 20…
So—to give you a roadmap of where we’re going—I’m going to take a detour…I’m going to spend a little bit of time looking at Matthew 17, because that’s another place in the gospels where Jesus talks about “mustard-seed faith.” We’re going to compare and contrast what Jesus says about “mustard-seed faith” in Matthew 17, and I want to show you that Jesus isn’t saying something different there. And then we’ll come back to today’s scripture. Okay?
In Matthew 17, a father brings his demon-possessed son to Jesus for a miraculous healing. Except first he goes to Jesus’ disciples and asks them to heal his son—and the disciples, for some reason, are unable to heal the boy.
And after Jesus heals the boy, he says words very similar to the words he speaks in today’s scripture. He says, “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.’” 1
So… that’s almost the same: I mean, a mountain is much bigger than a mulberry tree, but moving either—by faith alone—seems sufficiently impossible, right?
Besides, in the context of Matthew 17, the disciples have already failed to work a miracle—and not even a miracle as “big and dramatic” as moving a mountain—I mean, they couldn’t even heal this man’s son of his demon possession. So the moral of the story seems to be, “You don’t have enough faith. Your faith isn’t eventhe size of a mustard seed. Because if it were, why couldn’t you heal this boy?”
And here’s my problem… This is why I’m not reassured by Jesus’ words about “mustard-seed faith.” Because I typically interpret Jesus’ words to mean something like this: As small as a mustard seed is, somehow my faith must be even smaller… Otherwise, why can’t I perform miracles?
Also… Is Jesus contradicting himself? I mean, in one case he says, “If you have faith at all, you have ‘mustard seed faith,’ and you can work great miracles.” And in another case, he says, “Your problem is you don’t even have ‘mustard-seed faith,’ and that’s why you can’t work miracles!”
And my answer is no. Jesus is not contradicting himself.
Here’s why: I’ve said before that we have to interpret difficult scripture in light of other scripture that’s clearer. 2 So, in this case, Mark’s gospel comes to the rescue. Because while Mark’s account of this event doesn’t include Jesus’ “mustard seed” saying, it does include these straightforward words—which nicely explain why the disciples failed to heal the man’s son. Let’s look at verses 28 and 29 of Mark chapter 9: “And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’” And here we might expect Jesus to say, “Because you don’t have enough faith!” But that’s not what he says. He says, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
Now remember: this is the exact same event as in Matthew 17… We have four gospels in the first place because each contributes different nuances and details—all of which are true, and all of which help us understand what’s going on. And here, Jesus tells the disciples plainly—without using figures of speech—why the disciples failed to drive out this demon. So putting Mark chapter 9 together with Matthew chapter 17, here’s how the conversation likely went: Jesus said, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, then you could move mountains.” And the disciples asked: “What does that mean?” And Jesus said, “It means that your problem is not so much your faith as your failure to pray. You forgot about prayer.”
In other words, you thought that performing this great miracle was up to you. It was something that you had to perform. You thought that the main thing was this inward, spiritual quality called “faith”—and if only you had more of it—if only your faith were big enough—then of course you could work this miracle.
But no… It’s not about how big your faith is; it’s about how big your God is!
It’s not about how big your faith is; it’s about how big your God is! Amen?
New Testament scholar Tom Wright puts it nicely in his commentary when he says this:
It’s not great faith you need; it is faith in a great God. Faith is like a window through which you can see something. What matters is not whether the window is six inches or six feet high; what matters is the God that your faith is looking out on. If it’s the creator God, the God active in Jesus and the Spirit, then the tiniest little peep-hole of a window will give you access to power like you never dreamed of. 3
And this brings us right back to today’s scripture, Luke 17: The reason his disciples can be confident and secure and self-assured that they already possess enough faith is because they have enough faith to ask the Lord Jesus to give them more faith! Do you see that? When the disciples come to Jesus and ask, “Increase our faith,” they’re already doing something that they failed to do when they tried to heal the man’s son in Matthew 17: they’re praying. Literally praying… They’re literally looking away from themselves and turning to the Lord… And asking Jesus to increase their faith… These disciples understand that if they’re going to solve this problem, it’s not going to depend on them, and their own efforts, on what they do; it’s going to depend on Jesus!
Their only effort that makes a difference is going to Jesus and asking. The only effort that counts, in this case, is prayer! They’re trusting in Jesus to do the rest!
That’s “mustard-seed faith”! And the very fact that they’re praying in this way proves that they already have it!
And it’s the same with us! If we are sons and daughters of God through faith in Christ and we’re praying… then we can be sure that we already have enough faith! We have “mustard-seed faith”!
One theologian, Frederick Bruner, agrees, saying there isn’t much difference between Christian prayer and “mustard-seed faith.” He says, “Perhaps ‘mustard-seed faith’ is simply praying faith. Faith is the inside and prayer is the outside of a single thing—a true relation with God.” 4
So… Point Number One: If you want to know whether or not you have “mustard-seed faith, here’s how you can know: Are you praying?
My problem—and maybe yours too—is that when I’m confronted with a big problem, praying that the Lord would solve it isn’t usually first on my checklist! Like the disciples in Matthew 17, I have to strike out on my own and fail first, and then I’m like, “Oh, yeah… I forgot to pray!” Ugh!
Point Number Two: “Mustard-seed faith” really does uproot mulberry trees. I promise!
I said earlier that there are two reasons I’m often not confident and reassured that I possess “mustard-seed faith.” The first I’ve already discussed. The second reason is… let’s face it… when have I, through faith, ever moved a mountain… or even a mulberry tree? Never!
Therefore, maybe I don’t have “mustard-seed faith.”
But I want us to consider this: There is no record of anyone uprooting a mulberry tree in the past 2,000 years, including Jesus himself… No one, as far as we know, has ever uprooted a literal mulberry tree and planted it in the sea.
What purpose would that serve, after all? That would be trivial miracle, a frivolous use of God’s power, if ever there was one!
In the summer of 1984, there was a popular music video on MTV of the hit song “Magic,” by a band called The Cars. And at one point in the video—through the magic of special effects—the singer, Ric Ocasek, appears to be walking on water. It just so happens I was at youth-group pool party, and one of the youth ministers was trying to relate the Bible to pop culture and she told us, “I know that video is meant to be make-believe, but if you had enough faith you could walk on water.”And at the time, none of us disagreed with her. We all thought, “Well of course we could walk on water if we had enough faith!”
But not so fast… When Jesus walked on water, that was, as far as I know, a once-in-history kind of event. In Acts 27, by contrast, the apostle Paul is on a ship bound for Rome on the Mediterranean. But a storm comes up, and the ship Paul is on sinks off the coast of Malta. And when it sinks, it’s not like Paul—who had a lot of faith—says, “Don’t worry, guys! I have enough faith. I’ll just walk from here. See you on shore… unless you drown first!”
No… My point is, we’re not going to be able to do anything—even with mustard-seed faith—that isn’t God’s will for us, or that isn’t part of his plan, or that doesn’t bring glory to him! After all… “Mustard-seed faith” means that we’re not the ones doing the miraculous deed—God is doing it!
All that to say, Jesus isn’t speaking literally when he talks about uprooting mulberry trees; he’s using a figure of speech; he’s speaking metaphorically.
Okay, but what does the metaphor mean?
Consider this: Scholars tell us that a mulberry tree has a famously deep and extensive root system. These trees had deep roots that didn’t easily let go of the earth in which they were planted. They were stubbornly difficult to uproot or remove…
While I have personally have never once needed God to uproot a mulberry for me, I have plenty of other deeply rooted problems and weaknesses and obstacles and shortcomings and, yes, sins in my life that I would love for my “mustard-seed faith” to uproot. And I’ll bet you do too.
But let’s not be discouraged: The disciples also had deeply rooted problems, weaknesses, obstacles, shortcoming, and sins… For instance, what was Jesus just talking to them about that made the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith in the first place? See verses 3 through 5: It was because of their inability to be as merciful and gracious and forgiving as our Lord wanted them to be. That’s a sin problem, after all, the same one that rears its ugly head, for instance, in Luke 9:54, when James and John ask Jesus if they can call fire down and destroy a hated Samaritan village. Needless to say, these are a bunch of people who are going to have a hard time forgiving their enemies, and turning the other cheek, and “doing unto others as you would have others do unto you”!
But we can be sure that sooner or later—if we keep trusting in Jesus with our tiny “mustard-seed faith”—he will uproot these “mulberry trees” of sin that still reside in our hearts! He’ll make a start in this world, but we can be sure he’ll finish the job in the world to come!
Of course, the “mulberry trees” in our lives aren’t just problems with sin… What about when we pray that God would give us something that we genuinely think that we need… Something good…?
I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in Luke 11, verses 11 and 12, when he says, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”
It’s a rhetorical question. The answer: No father would give his child something bad, likea serpent or a scorpion, instead of something good, like a fish or an egg.
I take this to mean that like any good father, our heavenly Father will only give his children what’s good for them. We talked about this last Wednesday night, but one problem we finite, sinful, very limited human beings have is, we often can’t tell a snake from a fish, or a scorpion from an egg.
I can’t… Let me give you an example… For whatever reason I’ve always been an ambitious person—even decades before I became a pastor—and I’ve often prayed for a more worldly manifestation of success than the success that God has given me. I’m not proud to admit this; it’s just the truth.
But I have to trust that God knows what he’s doing. God knows, for instance, that that “fish” or “bread” of success that I was praying for 25 or 30 years ago… had I received it… would have destroyed me. With my pride… Are you kidding? My pride is bad enough, but if I God hadn’t kept my ego in check over the years, I would be ruined. God knew that 30 years ago when I prayed for a more worldly kind of success.
When we pray that God will uproot “mulberry trees,” we simply aren’t in a position, a lot of time, to know what’s good for us—or what’s best for us… We’re also not in a position to know how the “uprooted mulberry trees” in our lives will affect other people… even if it doesn’t harm us directly, for all we know it’ll harm someone we love. We can’t know that, but God can.
I said this last Wednesday, but I believe, along with many Christian thinkers I admire, that when we pray, God hears not only the prayer itself, but the “prayer underneath the prayer.” In other words, maybe the “mulberry tree” that we’re asking God to uproot wouldn’t ultimately be good for us, and our Father knows that… But he also knows full well the need within us that causes us ask God to do this for us. And he will always meetthat particular need…
Our “mustard-seed faith” does uproot mulberry trees, just not always the ones we think need “uprooting.”
And that’s Point Number Two.
And this last point, Point Number Three, I’m calling, “Oh grace how great a debtor”—a line from a popular hymn.
What a strange parable Jesus tells here in verses 7 through 10! A servant does exactly what’s expected of him. He shouldn’t expect any special treatment because he’s simply done his duty. And that’s the meaning of verse 10: “‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Unworthy simply means—as the Amplified Bible puts it—“undeserving of praise or a reward, for we have not gone beyond our obligation.”
Jesus’ one-and-only point is, we can never do anything that puts God in our debt. We can never do something to cause God to “owe us a favor.” This servant, after all, was likely a bondservant, or an indentured servant, who was literally paying off a large debt he owed to his master. Therefore, whatever good things this master does for his servant, he does out of grace and for no other reason. Because, again, the master owes this servant nothing.
In the same way, none of us—no matter how great our faith is—will ever reach a point in our relationship with God in which God owes us his favor; in which we’re now earning his favor.
We are not, in other words, like the Atlanta Braves, who fighting and clawing to “close the gap” between themselves and the Mets, until eventually they caught up… In other words, living a Christian life is not fighting and clawing to “close the gap” between ourselves and God, until eventually close the gap, dig ourselves out of the hole, and make ourselves worthy to be God’s children… That’s not who we are in Christ!
The moment we receive Christ as Savior and Lord, we instantly become “number one” in God’s eyes. And nothing changes that, so long as we keep trusting in Christ!
Therefore, God is never going to say to us, “I would love to uproot that mulberry tree for you, but I can’t—or I won’t—because, after all, what have you done for me lately? You’ve been pretty half-hearted in your commitment to me. You’ve sinned and sinned and sinned. You need to get your act together first, and then we can talk about uprooting mulberry trees.”
The good news is, that’s not how our Father relates to us!
All the good things God does for us, he does for us not because we’ve shown him how worthy we are, but because God is gracious. Because God wants to show us his favor. Because God wants to give us his grace. It pleases God to do so.
So… what “mulberry trees” does God need to uproot in your life?
Exercise the “mustard-seed faith” that you likely already possess… and ask him to do it! Amen.
- Matthew 17:20
- I owe Frederick Dale Bruner for the following insight about “mustard-seed faith” and prayer, which he uncovers in his commentary The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 191-2.
- N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 204.
- Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 191.