A Jewish surgeon said to the mother of a young lady, a dear friend of one of my nephews, “I suppose that in your sense I’m not a very religious man, but I want you to know that before every operation I rededicate these privileged hands of mine to God. I know that during the surgery they are no longer merely my hands; they are really the hands of God.”
That statement introduces very nicely the topic of religious faith.
Whoever the actual author of what is called the Gospel of St. Luke may have been, it seems that he placed today’s account right where it is because he wanted it to follow a whole collection of Jesus’ teachings. Much of those teachings of his were radical, of course, very different from what the apostles and disciples were accustomed to hearing from their rabbis and in their synagogues and temples.
Immediately before making the statement about faith the size of a mustard seed, Jesus had been talking about unconditional forgiveness, something jarringly new to his followers.
He talked about the triumph of carrying personal crosses.
He talked about the renunciation of distracting wealth.
He told the story about the prodigal son with its surprise ending and its obvious contrast between human and divine love.
He taught about the permanence of the marriage bond.
He instructed his hearers on stewardship over personal possessions.
And then, maybe the hardest lesson of all, he spoke about authority seen, not as power over, but as service to others.
All of this was so different from what the apostles and disciples had known and lived that it was a perfect place for the author of the gospel to inject this note: the apostles asked Jesus to give them more faith because they were thinking, “There’s no way we can accept and live these teachings unless you somehow make our faith stronger than it is right now.” “As a matter of fact,” Jesus says, “if you had faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, you could do marvels.”
How can we assess our faith in God, in the Spirit, in Jesus? We can say at least this much: that faith cannot be measured or determined by the emotional responses that may accompany it. And it can’t be the total absence of fear: we know that Jesus was terribly afraid at times while deciding to act boldly out of faith. Faith can’t be the complete absence of sin either; even sinners are called upon to be faithful. It seems that the standard of true faith is simply that it be a sincere trust in the love and the power of God.
Faith is the deep conviction that God is actively, lovingly present to us at all times, combined with our invitation to God to act freely in and through us. Quantity or strength or size has no meaning here: the mere fact that faith exists, that we have it, is enough. It may be compared to the smallest switch that unleashes, that turns on, the awesome power of a great machine.
But our faith can be easily weakened by our fear of where it is going to lead us.
And Jesus urges us to trust God as we once trusted our parents and see what God will do in, with and through us. We’ll find ourselves acting in remarkable ways: we’ll forgive and forget; love and accept; rule by serving; see and understand; suffer and rejoice – all as God does.
Even if we think our faith is weak and small, we must be aware that we have it and that it is our link with God and that through it God can transform us into someone like Jesus!