by Linda McMillan
Twice a week I meet with a group of four-year-olds to review the finer points of counting, coloring, and speaking in English. We use sentence patterns to practice saying things like, “Yes, that is a carrot,” or, “No, that is not a dog. It’s a ball.” And, sometimes, if we are feeling very creative and funny, we will pretend to be the things we are talking about. “Look at me, I’m an apple,” one says puffing herself up and making her body look round. “I’m a pencil,” says another with her hands pointed above her head and rolling on the floor. But, one of my students, little Elna, always says, “I’m a butterfly, I’m a butterfly….” Butterfly has never been one of our vocabulary words, but Elna flies across the classroom anyway.
In one unit we talked about jobs that adults have. Towards the end of the lesson, I asked them what they wanted to be when they grow up. Carol did not know. Carol never knows, she just giggles; and, because she is four-years-old, that’s alright. Bella wants to be a mommy, and she already has some maternal traits, reminding Carol to share the coveted red crayon. Julia wants to be a doctor, and her parents will make sure that she becomes one. But, Elna? Elna wants to be a butterfly.
I left wondering where they had gotten such ideas. Bella’s mommy clearly relishes her role, and she is a good mommy. No wonder Bella wants to be a mommy too. And Julia’s mother is a doctor. Her parents have talked to her about being a doctor… Yes, at age four. That makes sense. But, what of Elna? Who knows? But, some small seed has been planted in her heart.
What of us Christians? What will we become?
In today’s reading, Jesus gives us the first recorded literary reference to mustard seeds. The references which exist prior to this are about its medicinal uses, taste, and growth, not it’s size. The mustard seed is not the smallest seed in the world, by the way, the orchid seed is. The mustard seed is pretty small, though. So, the fact that something big can come from something very small is well-established. My young friend, Elna, would probably like knowing about The Butterfly Effect, the scientific theory that a single occurrence, no matter how small, can change the course of the universe forever. Small things do sometimes have a big effect. Under the right conditions even a small mustard seed might grow into a plant six feet tall, and according to the Aggadah in the Jerusalem Talmud, a man might climb it as he would a fig tree. Not that I’ve ever known anyone to climb a fig tree, but one certainly could.
But, why were the disciples asking for faith in the first place? They already had faith. They had demonstrated big, mustard-tree faith when they were sent, without any money or credit cards, to cast out demons and heal people. All their needs managed to be met by faith alone. Yet, here they are asking Jesus for faith. That seems crazy because you don’t normally ask for something that you already have. So, what’s going on? And, why does Jesus seem so irritated about it?
Let’s take a look at what happened just before this zinger about the mustard seed, and then we’ll peek ahead to see what happens just after:
Jesus had told the disciples that offenses will come. Don’t be surprised when you are offended, he said, that’s going to happen. It was a reality in the first century and it’s a reality now. If you don’t believe me, just go to church for awhile and see how long it takes for you to feel offended about something. It’s part of the milieu. He further warns them to be careful not to be the cause of offense. What Jesus doesn’t say is that if there are offenses, we are as likely as anyone else to commit them. But, thank God, we are forgiven. Right? Whew… So far, so good. But, what about when someone offends us? Well, the forgiven forgive. That’s another fact of life. So, Jesus told the disciples that they should forgive those who offend them. Still, so far, so good. Then, as he often did, Jesus took it a step further and said that if someone sins against you seven times in the same day, and they ask for forgiveness each time, they should be forgiven each time. To my way of thinking, that might require some additional faith.
Jesus is asking for something that seems ridiculous. Forgiving someone seven times in one day seems impossible. It’s too much! I am trying to be a good disciple. I want to do what Jesus says, but let’s be reasonable. I can’t believe that a person would even have time to truly repent seven times a day. How can I forgive someone who hasn’t met my criteria for repentance? And see, there’s the rub… My criteria, not God’s. It seems that The Almighty has very low standards for repentance. Almost any little effort on our part is met by enthusiastic forgiveness by God. We would certainly not run a business, or our homes, or governments with such low standards. But, it does seem that when it comes to repentance, God has low, low standards.
In asking for faith, the disciples have asked for the wrong thing. They should have asked for lower standards.
Let’s look ahead to what Jesus said next. Jesus told the disciples — the men and women who had left everything, given up their own dreams, and followed him — that they were worthless slaves. Talk about offense! He gave the example of a servant which had been working hard all day and said that you wouldn’t let the servant eat and drink when he came in. Instead, you would have the servant get your own meal for you and tell him that he could eat later. Nor would you give the servant any special praise. After all, that is what servants are supposed to do. The servant is like the mustard seed. Servants do what they are supposed to do. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this is a statement about slavery, or serving, or working, or eating. This is a statement about doing what you are supposed to do.
Mustard seeds are supposed to become mustard plants, and that is what they do. They do not wonder what they will become in the future. The mustard seed does not say to itself, “I wonder if I’ll become a tall Oak tree, or maybe a golden sunflower.” It doesn’t work like that. The mustard seed knows that it will become a mustard plant. I mean, if someone planted a mustard seed, and up popped green beans… well, that would be a problem.
When Jesus tells the disciples that they should have faith like a mustard seed, he is not talking about the amount of faith they should have, but the kind. People who have Mustard-seed faith don’t wonder how many times to forgive, what the criteria are for repentance, or whether or not to forgive. Mustard-seed faith is forgiving faith. So, when anger, resentments, and grudges pop-up… well, that’s not what was planted.
God has planted good faithful seeds in each awakened heart, yours and mine. Yet, sometimes there emerge things besides goodness, faithfulness, forgiveness… My own garden doesn’t always bear the fruits of the spirit.
This evening, when the first stars come out, our Jewish friends will begin observing Rosh Hashanah. It’s the new year, a time of great joy. But, it also kicks off the Days Of Awe, that is the final ten days to do teshuva, turning, or repenting before Yom Kippur. The shofar will blow to awaken the spirit, to call us to repentance. It is a time to take one last look over the garden of one’s life and see if there are any weeds growing, anything that has not been planted by God.
It is good for us Christians too, only a few weeks out from Advent, to clear the decks, weed the garden, and get ready for a new year of our own. We have a few weeks left to go. There is time for regret, change, and repentance, to really do the work of teshuva. It is sometimes hard. We don’t want to see our own sins. But, the standards for repentance are blessedly low.
What might you become if you allow the seeds of faithful forgiveness and repentance to grow in your life? How might things be different if you let go of the grudges, resentments, and anger that have been growing in your garden? Sure, you’ve been offended. We all have been. But would you rather stay offended, or grow up? Keep your anger, or get free? Allow resentments to grow, or… You get the idea. How might your life be different? It’s remarkably easy to turn to away from the sin of unforgiveness and back to God. The standards are low. Hallelujah!
Linda McMillan is a native Texan. She lives in Shanghai.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Red is the most popular color in China. Crayola really should put three or even four red crayons in the boxes it sends to China.
The fact that this is the first recorded use of mustard as a literary device comes from Amy-Jill Levine in her book, “Short Stories by Jesus,” published by HarperCollins. Look in chapter 5 for information about mustard plants. Order it from Amazon.
Information about the height to which a mustard plant might grow and the Jerusalem Talmud citation came from The Jewish Virtual Library.
The story about the twelve disciples being sent to cast out demons and cure people is in Luke 9.
The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You can read about it in Galatians 5.
You can hear some amazing shofar playing here. The shofar is hard to blow, harder than you’d think. That makes this selection really magnificent. Listen to the end! When you hear the short bursts, let that awaken your spirit! Pay attention!