While she was out on her rounds, a nun working for a local home healthcare agency ran out of petrol. There was a petrol station just down the road. Since the nun was on the way to see a patient, she decided to look through her car for something to carry to the station and fill up with petrol. Always resourceful, she spotted a bedpan that she was taking to the patient. She carried it to the station, filled it with petrol, and carried it back to her car. As she was pouring the petrol into the tank of her car, two men walked by. One of them turned to the other and said: ‘Now that is what I call faith!’
‘Increase our faith’ is the request made to Jesus by the Apostles in today’s gospel. But what are they actually asking for? At first sight, Jesus’ reply to their request seems rather bizarre: ‘Were your 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.’ Who really needs fruit trees growing in the sea? And then Jesus seems to be getting completely off the subject as he tells the Apostles not to expect any praise or special gratitude for the work they’ve done that they were actually told to do. These two parts of the gospel seem to be a bit of a mismatch.
Let me go back to the question I asked earlier: what exactly is that faith that the Apostles asked to be increased in them? I looked up the definition of the word ‘faith’ in an English dictionary; I found nine definitions of the word, and the spectrum was really wide. I learnt that its value is eleven… in the game of ‘Scrabble’. So, going down the dictionary route proved to be a dead end. Next, I went to find out what is in the gospel in the lead-up to the passage we heard today. That was the right move. Jesus warned his disciples against being the cause of others’ sins, followed by a call to forgive others every time they ask for forgiveness. In that context, the Apostles’ request for an increase in their faith becomes obvious. As they realised that Jesus expects from them the attitudes they sensed to be beyond their own capabilities, the Apostles asked that their faith be strengthened to enable them to meet Jesus’ requirements.
The kind of faith that Jesus is talking about is definitely not about a tool for replanting trees in another spot. It’s a vivid picture of the personal struggle that we are called to engage in and carry through. It’s a struggle against our own stubbornness of heart and against complacency with our bad habits. Changing oneself is as difficult as uprooting the whole tree while keeping it alive; planting it in the sea is symbolic of holding values that seem to be incompatible with the cultural and social mainstream of the day. Ultimately today’s gospel is a call to place all our trust in Jesus and to follow him, not because of the prospect of any earthly gratification or prize, but for his own sake. Ultimately faithfulness to Jesus involves the recognition that his way of life is genuinely the best for each and every one of us.
One day a climber named Sean was walking along a steep cliff, when he accidentally went too close to the edge and fell off. On the way down he grabbed onto a branch, which temporarily broke his fall. He couldn’t hang onto the branch forever, though, and there was no way for him to climb up or down the steep face of the cliff. So Sean began yelling for help, hoping that someone passing by would hear him and lower a rope or something. He yelled for a long time, but no one heard him. He was about to give up when he heard a voice. ‘Sean, Sean. Can you hear me?’ ‘Yes, yes! I can hear you. I’m down here!’ ‘I can see you, Sean. Are you all right?’ ‘Yes, but who are you, and where are you?’ ‘I am the Lord, Sean. I’m everywhere.’ ‘The Lord? You mean, God? ‘That’s Me.’ ‘God, please help me! I promise if, you’ll get me down from here, I’ll stop sinning. I’ll be a really good person. I’ll serve You for the rest of my life.’ ‘Easy on the promises, Sean. Let’s get you off from there; then we can talk. Now, here’s what I want you to do. Listen carefully.’ ‘I’ll do anything, Lord. Just tell me what to do.’ ‘OK. Let go of the branch.’ ‘What?’ ‘I said, let go of the branch. Just trust me. Let go.’ There was a long silence. Finally, Sean yelled, ‘Help! Help! Is anyone else up there?’