‘So what seems to be the trouble?’
Matthew 17:14-20; Acts 3:1-16
A few days ago, the Revd Dr Canon Nicholas G. Read called me. ‘Terry,’ he said, ‘Terry, would you like to preach on Sunday, May 10? It’s on Matthew 17.’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Why not?’ After all, what the world needs right now is another one of my sermons. So I went and looked at the beginning of Matthew 17: the transfiguration of Jesus! But I preached on the transfiguration just a couple of years or so ago, and I didn’t really want to do it again. So I looked at the end of Matthew 17 and the story about tax and money and fishes, but decided that would be too weird for a sermon. That left me with the epileptic boy and Jesus’s comments about faith.
Some Bible passages are easy to understand; this is not one of them. I read the passage through once. Then I read it a second time. And then I prayed, read the passage a few more times, prayed, dug out some books, made notes, prayed, and wished I had chosen an easier passage to preach on, like Ezekiel 23 or Obadiah or the entire book of Revelation.
Anyway, I slowly began to see that faith is the heart of today’s passage. Let me share with you some of my thoughts.
First of all, there are three kinds of faith mentioned in the passage. In verse seventeen, Jesus says the generation is ‘perverse’ and ‘faithless’—literally, ‘no faith’. In the first part of verse twenty, Jesus says his disciples have ‘little faith’—they have some faith, enough to distinguish them from those who have no faith, but perhaps only just. What Jesus needs his disciples to have, then, is not no faith, not little faith, but faith—and ‘faith the size of a mustard seed’.
But what does all this mean? No faith should, I hope, be fairly obvious: it simply means having no faith in God or in what God is doing. I imagine that when Jesus talks about the ‘faithless and perverse generation’, he’s meaning the crowd. Perhaps the people were laughing at the disciples as they tried and failed to heal the epileptic boy. Perhaps the disciples had bigged themselves up beforehand and their inability to heal the boy opened them up to mockery. Matthew doesn’t tell us what happened, really, but it was enough for Jesus to call the crowd ‘perverse’ and ‘faithless’.
So if that is no faith, what about little faith? Other than one instance in Luke’s Gospel, Matthew is the only Gospel writer to use this expression, so it’s clearly an important one for him. The phrase ‘little faith’ tends specifically to imply a lack of faith or trust in God’s practical care and support. So perhaps the disciples tried to heal the epileptic boy trusting their own skills and abilities. Perhaps they doubted that God was really going to do anything. Or perhaps they just felt awkward and fake. We can’t say with any certainty what the issue was, other than they had little faith.
Instead, what Jesus encourages the disciples to have is ‘faith the size of a mustard seed’. Mustard seeds are very small and Jesus, by mentioning mustard seeds and mountains in the same sentence, is clearly saying that you don’t need to have huge amounts of faith to do God’s work: ‘faith the size of a mustard seed’ is enough. Jesus isn’t saying that if the disciples had more faith, then the boy would have been healed—at least, I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying. But how is ‘faith the size of a mustard seed’ different from ‘little faith’, when presumably both phrases refer to something very small?
I looked at the other places where ‘mustard seed’ appears in the Gospels. The phrase only appears five times: twice in Luke, once in Mark, and twice in Matthew. In three of those five instances, ‘mustard seed’ is a simile for the kingdom of God and its growth from small beginnings. I might be reading too much into things here, but I can’t help but wonder if Jesus’s use of the phrase in today’s Gospel reading is deliberately bringing the kingdom of God to mind. The Bible translations we use generally read ‘faith the size of a mustard seed’, but the Greek is literally ‘faith as a mustard seed’—size isn’t mentioned, at least not explicitly, and so I’m inclined to think that when Jesus says you must have ‘faith as a mustard seed’, he’s meaning that our faith should somehow be in line with God’s kingdom, which is like a mustard seed germinating. The disciples’ little faith is not adequate because it focuses on how much faith they have; but ‘mustard seed’ faith is not concerned with how much faith they have, but on the kind of faith they have. ‘Mustard seed’ faith is faith borne of the kingdom of heaven.
I chose Acts 3:1-16 as the New Testament reading for today because I thought it might be a useful parallel. We heard the whole of this passage read, but I want to focus here on verse sixteen: ‘And by faith in [Jesus’s] name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.’ In his speech, Peter is clear that he and John had nothing really to do with the lame man’s healing. They had no magical healing powers of their own. It had nothing to do with the amount of faith they had. Instead, they simply spoke the name of Jesus, and the man was healed. Peter and John didn’t heal the man; God in Christ healed the man.
Now we could get into all kinds of debates about why God doesn’t heal more often. But in this instance, I look at Acts 3:4 and wonder how much we should read into that word ‘intently’: ‘Peter looked intently at him, as did John’. I’m inclined to think this is perhaps Luke’s way of saying that Peter and John were somehow hearing God’s Holy Spirit tell them they needed to heal this man now. Were Peter and John demonstrating ‘mustard seed’ faith by listening to God’s prompting rather than by taking the initiative and treating the Spirit as magical healing power? I think so. Luke doesn’t say this, of course, but I do think it is a possibility.
I think this also goes some way in explaining why God doesn’t heal people automatically when we pray in the name of Jesus: it is God who initiates, and we respond. God is not at our disposal; rather, we are disciples of Jesus, and so whom God heals and when is up to God. As I say, we could get into all kinds of debates about why God doesn’t heal more often, especially in these days of COVID-19, but that would require a sermon series or a longer conversation at some other time and place. The point is that ‘mustard seed’ faith trusts—not blindly, but really—in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So to bring all this back to Matthew 17, I think there are obvious questions to ask ourselves: What sort of faith do I have? Do I have no faith? Do I have little faith? Or do I have what I’ve been calling ‘mustard seed’ faith? I can’t answer these questions for you; that’s between you and God. I can exclusively reveal that on a very good day, my faith is probably still little faith. There are days when my faith in God is weakened by my thoughts or my feelings or my circumstances. That is little faith because it focuses on me. Nonetheless, I want God’s Spirit to transform my little faith into ‘mustard seed’ faith so that I will cling to God in Christ no matter what, even as I know that God in Christ already holds me. And I trust that God’s Spirit will do this all in good time. This is what I want for me. Is this what you want, too, for yourself?