Overwhelming Faith

Luke 17:5-10

Why the mulberry tree?

Apparently Jesus is trying to quantify faith here—to place some concrete, tangible measurement on it.  “Increase our faith!” the apostles pleaded.  And Jesus likens their faith to a tiny mustard seed in contrast to a mulberry tree:

“If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus says, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

But if size were the main issue at hand, wouldn’t it be better to use the same contrast found in St. Matthew’s Gospel?  There Jesus said, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move” (Mt. 17:20).

As for sheer volume, without a doubt the mountain wins over the mulberry.  So, why didn’t Jesus say mountain here in Luke’s Gospel?  Why the mulberry tree?  Something other than sheer volume must lie behind this contrast.

The mulberry is a strong, hardy tree indigenous to the Mediterranean region.  It grows near bodies of water—along the banks of rivers and lakes, even along sea beaches.  In fact, it is arguably the most durable tree of the Mediterranean region: mulberries are the oldest trees as well as some of the hardest and tallest.  Even their big leaves convey strength and sturdiness.

The plant that grows from the mustard seed, on quite the other hand, looks small, fragile, and by all appearances temporary.  Birds nest in its branches, Christ tells us.  But this is only so that they can eat the seeds, and only at a certain time of the year: just before the plant dies and falls to the earth.  Mustard plants are annuals.

Yet somehow our faith, when it is as fickle as a mustard seed, is actually more durable than a mulberry tree.

But how?  Another example from biology illustrates.

Are you familiar with the aspen tree—sometimes called the quaking aspen?  It is a tall, thin, straight, and somewhat delicate-looking tree.  It grows abundantly in parts of North America, including the Rocky Mountains, where there is a well know ski town named after it.  Its paper-thin leaves rustle in the slightest breeze, offering a sort of shimmery, surreal appearance and sound—a “quaking” experience, if you will.

I used to do a lot of backpacking.  One of my favorite things to do on a backpacking trip was to find a grove of aspens on a sunny afternoon—after setting up camp, of course, and taking care of chores in preparation for the darkness to come.  There, beneath the canopy and the warm sun, I’d stretch out to the sound of aspen leaves rustling in the breeze and the sight of shady light dancing on the backs of my eyelids—an activity that almost always resulted in a nap.

Anyway, what a contrast to the mulberry!  For the outward appearance of the aspen suggests tender youth, softness, and fragility; not the gnarly durability of the mulberry.

But if we were to look beneath the forest floor, we’d see an entirely different story.  For underneath an aspen grove there is an ever-growing and spreading root system.  And as the root system spreads, baby aspen trees spring up at the system’s edge.  In fact, this is how the trees propagate.  Or I should say, rather, this is how the tree propagates.  For that grove of aspens I napped under when backpacking was actually a single organism.

That’s right!  Those beautiful, shimmering, delicate-looking trees are really just part of the same, single, much larger organism.  If a forest fire decimates a grove of aspens, no matter!  Saplings will soon emerge from the root system.  That’s why, too, when you’re in the middle of an aspen grove, you’ll see no other trees, only grass and ferns with short root systems that are not choked out by the much larger (and deeper) aspen root system.

In fact, it is thought that an aspen grove named Pando, found in Fishlake National Forest in Utah, is the most voluminous—the heaviest—living organism on the planet, weighing in at over 6,500 tons.

So much for Utah.  Let’s now return to the ancient Mediterranean.

In 66 BCE a certain Roman leader was given a charge to rid the Mediterranean Sea of pirates.  He was also given a charge to protect the eastern borders of the Empire, not far from Judea.  This leader’s name was Pompey.

Because of internal unrest in Jerusalem, in 63 BCE Pompey besieged the city for three months, eventually capturing the Temple.  He then put the Jewish factions to rest and essentially let Jerusalem get back to business as usual.  Point is, Pompey figured prominently into the recent Jewish history of Jesus’ day.

During Pompey’s campaign to end piracy—which he succeeded in doing rather quickly—he built new harbors in the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and the Black Sea.  His engineering crews faced the challenge of digging away rugged, difficult terrain—tall, durable cliffs lined with mulberry trees, for instance.  But a certain engineer discovered a plant with a root system like that of the aspen.  It planted easily, spread invasively, and grew quickly, sucking nutrients and moisture from the soil.  So effective was this plant that occasionally an entire hillside, mulberry trees and all, would simply crumble and fall into the water.  Building Pompey’s harbors came easily after that plant had done its work.  That plant, by the way, was mustard.

Do you see now how mustard contrasts with mulberry?  No doubt, with Pompey’s infamy, Jesus’ apostles saw the contrast too.  Easily!  With enough faith—as Pompey’s engineer showed—even a tiny mustard seed can overwhelm the mighty mulberry tree.

Are you like the apostles?  Do you want the Lord to increase your faith?  Faith starts out small.  But in time it can grow into something that seemed impossible only a short time ago.

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