Among my kitchen spices I have a small container of mustard seeds. I’m fairly certain I bought it by accident, intending to buy mustard powder and not paying enough attention to the label. I’ve never used any recipe, as far as I can remember, that called for mustard seeds, although logically there must be some since the seeds are sold in the spice aisle rather than the garden center. (Maybe they’re in the garden center too; I’ve never looked.)
The one time I have used that container of mustard seeds was when I was doing the children’s sermon at church and the passage was one of those that referenced mustard seeds. I don’t remember which one – it could have been the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13, Mark 4, or Luke 13). Or it might have been Matthew 17 or Luke 17, where Jesus speaks of having faith like a grain of mustard seed.
Of those passages, the one I most associate with mustard seeds is Matthew 17, where Jesus speaks of faith moving mountains. I had not remembered, until I read Russell Saltzman’s article in First Things, that in Luke 17 Jesus speaks of moving, not a mountain, but a mulberry tree. And like Saltzman, I seriously doubt I could move even the mustard seed by faith, much less the mulberry tree or the mountain.
Most of the time I find those passages discouraging, rather than the encouragement that they seem intended to be. I can believe, intellectually, that things that seem impossible are not actually impossible. But it’s rather like believing that solid matter is mostly empty space – it makes sense with a good explanation, but it is not something I can relate to my daily life.
I don’t know whether Saltzman’s conclusion, that what Jesus was really saying was “work with the faith you have,” is the correct interpretation. But I find it much more encouraging than the thought that my faith must be even smaller than a mustard seed. More like a tiny speck of powdered mustard, perhaps.
I used to worry a lot about whether I really did have faith or not. I read books to find answers to my doubts and to increase my faith, and sometimes they seemed to help – for a little while. But never for very long. I looked for sins to confess that might be the problem, but the main sins I seemed to struggle with were lack of faith, and sometimes envy of those with greater faith than mine.
Over time I came to think more in terms of faith as faithfulness – doing what needed to be done, using my gifts as I was able, participating in worship services and service projects – more than as belief in something. From what I have read, the word used for faith in the Bible encompasses both those ideas, but it is in faithfulness that the will seems to have more of a role than in belief (as we typically use that word in modern English).
So what Saltzman is saying is not a new idea to me, but it may be the first time I have heard that idea given as the interpretation of the passage in Matthew 17. As I say, I don’t know if he is correct in that. But I would like to think so. That way, when I see the container of mustard seeds, I can be encouraged rather than discouraged by its association with faith.