Sometimes I wonder if the disciples had a little game going among themselves ; whatever the contest, the result was always the same : Loser gets to ask the Master a question or demand something. After all their time with him, they must have known that the answer wasn’t going to be easy, that it might even sting a bit. Today, some unlucky disciple has to say : “Increase our faith.” As usual, Jesus doesn’t play along ; instead, he gives an answer that puts his questioner back on the wrong foot :
“Oh.” Embarrassed silence follows. And not just among the disciples. We, too, should probably feel a bit foolish right about now, since nobody up to the present moment has ever managed to persuade that mulberry to move even one inch, let alone go galloping into the sea. It’s a tree that’s heard it all, and it’s not budging.
But seriously, what could we take from this little exchange ?
Well, one thing to understand right away is that Jesus uses exaggeration to make his point : faith can do great things. He’s not at all interested in marine mulberries or displaced mountains or any other feat of similar hocus-pocus. He wants to talk about faith and what faith can do in the life of a person – and, by extension, what that person’s faith might do in the lives of others. For Jesus, faith is not a thing so much as it is a movement toward the Other.
What does it means to have faith ? Is it some kind of commodity that can be “increased” by some formula ? Is faith a kind of intellectual assent to a series of dogmas and doctrines ? Or is it like something practiced by the Red Queen of Alice in Wonderland ? (When Alice tells her, “one can’t believe impossible things,” the Queen answers : “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”).
We may scoff at the Queen, but isn’t there a little bit of her in most of us ? Over many years of teaching university students, I grew used to hearing them say : “I can’t have faith because I can’t believe all that stuff.” What stuff ? I’d ask. “Oh, you know, stuff about sex and turning water into wine and walking on water and like that.”
But faith isn’t first and foremost about “that stuff,” I’d say. That would be the moment that most would wander off to carve their names in the mulberry tree ! Some, however, would stick around to hear me out. They were the ones who heard me when I suggested that faith isn’t about ticking off a series of beliefs but rather about entering into a relationship of trust with God, a movement toward the Father that can happen in as many different ways as there are different persons. That it was, as they liked to say, “complicated.” But one thing, however, was sure — as the Prophet Habakkuk says, a relationship like that needs time to develop, time to be felt and lived :
For the vision still has its time,
presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint ;
if it delays, wait for it,
it will surely come, it will not be late.
The rash one has no integrity ;
but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.
The loving trust of Jesus “the just one,” in his Father, that is, his faith, gave him his identity, made him who he was. And despite their inability to understand, he had faith, too, in the disciples. Even though they lacked faith in him, his faith in them – and in us — led him all the way to the cross.
Thinking back to his comment in today’s gospel, you might say that his faith really could move mountains ; after all, he’d been there at their creation. But Jesus isn’t into Olympian-style party tricks. Instead, he chooses to bring his faith to bear on something far more complicated than mountains or mulberries, that is, on the human heart. Accepting and respecting the decisions of those hearts, never forcing anything or anyone, his faith can move us to love, move us to forgiveness, move us to become more deeply the “us” that our God never stops dreaming of.
Sr. Nuala Cotter, USA