by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“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…When you have done all you have been commanded, say: ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we have been obliged to do’.” Luke 17: 5-10
In Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, the aging king, on the edge of dotage, set out to judge which one of his three daughters loved him the most. Somehow or other, he had come to think that love was something like a substance that could be measured or quantified. So, when Lear asked his youngest daughter, Cordelia, how much she loved him her reply rightly expressed her filial love, explaining that such love is not easily put into words: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less.” Act 1 Sc. 1
In today’s gospel-reading, the request from the disciples to Jesus to increase their faith suggests that they saw faith as something measurable to which more could be added. Rather, like love, it is an intangible aspect of relationship. Faith, then, belongs to the feeling, emotional, relational part of our lives. We recognise the presence of both love and faith when we see them in action in the lives of real people relating to others, including God. The faith we have in God, the relationship we have with Jesus draw us into a vision of God’s dream for our world in which we are invited to work to make peace and justice real. Yet the very thought of that can daunt us, and leave us longing for something more comfortable, something which we can more easily grasp. In this context, I suggest that the following story, which I have borrowed from the scripture commentator Jay Cormier, is a good illustration of what I’m struggling to explain. The members of a Catholic University admissions committee were hard at work assessing enrolment applications from high-school graduates. The applicants were expected to write a few paragraphs on why they might be given a place in the faculty of their choice. Committee members found themselves dealing with an endless list of submissions from young people who had visions of themselves as having the qualifications to become medical practitioners, politicians, research scientists and lawyers. But one application grabbed their attention for its surprising lack of pretence. This is part of what the applicant wrote:
“I’m neither a high-performing student nor a a leader. You could say that I am average. I work very hard to get pass marks in all my subjects. However, over the school holidays during the last three years I have worked as a volunteer at camps for children with cancer. At the beginning, I was terrified that I would say something insensitive or do something stupid that would add to some child’s pain. But it wasn’t long before I became surprised at how much I really enjoyed working with these kids. I’ve been even more surprised at everything I have learned from them about life and death, coping with illness and setbacks, about what is really good and important.
Eventually, I would like to work with children who are chronically ill and physically challenged. I hope to pursue a degree in education and psychology so that one day I might be able to offer these children something of what they have given me.”
That application found its way to the top of the Admit Pile.
When we come to appreciate in humility that the faith we have is pure gift from God not earned, we begin to realise that, like every other gift we have, it works only when it is shared. Like the mustard seed it becomes a source of abundance in the lives of others when it is patiently nurtured.
While Jesus seems to be quantifying faith in his response to the disciples when he says: “If you had 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” (Luke 17: 6), he is gracious enough not to launch into a discussion about whether faith is quantifiable or not. With the word “size” he uses a quantifying word that matches the language of the disciples. However, he twists it. The disciples seem to think that more is better, that they would be better equipped to follow him if they had more insight, more knowledge, more understanding, deeper faith. Jesus’ reply is a bit like a shock tactic. Effectively, he tells them that, if they had any faith at all, they would be able to do the impossible, like uprooting fruit trees and planting them in the ocean. “Any faith at all” implies that they really have no faith worth speaking of, at all.
But Jesus didn’t stop there. He added a comment that, on the surface, looks a little bewildering: “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field: ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him: ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?’ (Luke 17: 7-8). I suggest that the point he is making is that faith, like lots of other things, develops into maturity by living it. One does not grow in faith by asking for it to be doled out. The only way for faith to grow and mature is to practice it, to live it. So, be wary of thinking it’s going to grow by practicing it just once. It’s a life-long process.
Luke views faith not as a list of theological notions or dogmas to which we are expected to give our assent, but rather in terms of giving our allegiance to the person of Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus is committing ourselves to live in imitation of him. Many of us can remember a time when we described our Christian faith in terms of what we were expected to believe in order to qualify as Christians. I believe that there has been a shift from what we believe to being devoted to the one in whom we believe, to embracing Jesus Christ as our brother and embodying his Gospel in our living.
We know that we all struggle at times to live faithful to Jesus and his Gospel. We know, too, that there are times when the struggles we encounter in life – life- threatening illness, loss of employment, break-up of family, sudden death of a loved one – lead us to question the very existence of God. There are times, too, when we encounter people who are intensely attached to doctrinal correctness that their living seems devoid of compassion, mercy, tolerance and peace of mind and heart.
So, let’s not forget that God’s presence in our world is radiated through creation and in and through the people around us, in the people beside whom we sit when we come to worship. When we live faithful to Jesus, God’s presence becomes visible. The responsibility of all who are part of the people of God is to reveal something of the goodness, love and compassion of God to our world. When we can manage that, we are living in faith. Moreover, our lives will be enriched, as the young man who worked with kids with cancer found his life enriched.