The apostles of Jesus say to him, “Increase our faith.” He replies that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed (which is quite small), we could say to this tree “be uprooted” and it would obey us. In parallel passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus says that if we say to a mountain, “be thrown into the sea,” it will be done. (Hence the saying, “faith to move mountains”). Over the course of my life, I have never prayed or asked that a tree be uprooted or that a mountain be thrown into the sea. But I have prayed for many things. Some of these have come to pass, while many of them have not. What is the issue here? Is there a God? Has God been out of the office, inattentive and uncaring? Have I not had enough faith?
What is faith, anyway? In western Christianity, we tend to think of faith as a mental agreement or assent to a proposition or idea ‒ I believe this or I believe that. But Scripture scholars tell us that in the time and place of Jesus, faith was much more comprehensive or holistic. It involved the whole human being ‒ how one perceives, thinks, feels, values, chooses and acts.
In what should we have faith? There are a number of competing worldviews, each of which involves a way of perceiving, thinking, valuing and acting. For example, in our culture we have multiple world views ‒ the “Tea Party” Republican worldview, the moderate Republican worldview, the moderate Democratic worldview, the progressive Democratic worldview, the fundamentalist Christian worldview, the progressive Christian worldview, the Islamic worldview, the Buddhist worldview, the atheistic worldview, the capitalistic worldview, etc. Each of these worldviews has a way of perceiving, thinking, valuing and acting. Differences between them are at the foundation of many of the conflicts and challenges that we face in our country at this time.
Scripture scholars tell us that Jesus had a certain worldview. Embracing this world view holistically (in how one perceives, thinks, values and acts) is at the heart of his understanding of faith. For example, his worldview is implied or understood, in his comments such as “if you have the faith the size of a mustard seed…” What is the worldview of Jesus? While volumes of books have been written about this, for our purposes let us briefly consider the broad strokes of the major points of his worldview.
- There is a God that we can intimately know; Jesus’ view of this God is as a loving parent.
- There is a certain relationship that God desires with each of us. God created us in love and loves each of us as we are; God invites us into close, intimate friendship and wants the best for us. God understands that we are not perfect (God made us that way!) and has never-ending compassion with us in our imperfections; God never leaves us.
- There is a certain relationship that God desires that we have with each other. We might summarize this in terms of unity, compassion, love and justice. Unity: God regards each one of us (no matter how much we disagree with each other) as God’s beloved child, and as such, we are all sisters and brothers in God’s family. God desires that we recognize and honor our common unity. God wants the best for all of us. Compassion: God desires that we treat each person with compassion ‒ even those with whom we have differences ‒ and particularly the poor, the outcast and the marginalized. God desires that our compassion extend even to enemies and to those who we do not know. Love: God desires that we let love lead us in our lives; that we love all of creation ‒ our families, friends, acquaintances, strangers, enemies, animals, nature, the planets, etc. Most of all, our love be evident in service. Justice: God desires that our relationships, our organizations and our social systems be inherently just; that we strive for justice in all things, in all situations, at all times. Most of all, justice be reflected in how we, our systems and our society care for the least among us.
- There is a certain perspective about life, centered in God. Briefly, the perspective recognizes that there will be struggles and set backs, false accusations and persecution, trials and suffering and even death. But through it all, God remains with us and never leaves us; God is the source of our strength, perseverance and renewal. And in the end, unity, compassion, love and justice will prevail; God is present and active in the unfolding of our lives, and the unfolding of history and will never leave us.
“If we have faith the size of a mustard seed…” Jesus seems to be saying that “having faith” involves embracing this worldview, which is centered in God, holistically ‒ in how we perceive, think, value and act. In fact, it is the holistic embracing of this worldview that allows us to persevere along the path of unity, compassion, love and justice. It is embracing this worldview and living from within it that opens the window through which God’s Holy Spirit flows into our hearts, relationships and social systems. And it is embracing this worldview that unleashes the energy of God’s Holy Spirit among us, moving us toward the realization of that worldview (which might be thought of as the kingdom of God in our midst).
It is a nice theory. But, where is there any evidence that it works? Where is there any evidence that this is real and not just pious mumbo jumbo? Who among us has ever had enough faith to move mountains? I have not, but in fact, some have. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi come to mind. Certainly, others could be added to this list. As we read their biographies and become familiar with their life stories, we learn that they were each like us; imperfect people who were caught up in the day to day activities of their lives. But over time, they each gradually came to holistically appropriate and embrace the worldview of Jesus. (Even Gandhi, who was Hindu and not Christian, meditated daily for many years on the Sermon on the Mount, regarded Jesus as the greatest practitioner of nonviolence the world has ever known, and often echoed the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25 regarding care for the least among us.) Living holistically from within this worldview enabled them to persevere over the long run, through the ups and downs of life and often in the face of persecution and violence. And their perseverance moved mountains; or, if you will, allowed God to move mountains through them.
Rev. Thomas Altepeter is an Ecumenical Catholic priest and pastor of St. Clare Ecumenical Catholic Community in Spokane.
He is also a licensed psychologist and has previously served as pastor of an ECC community in Wisconsin, been employed as a university professor, served as a director of a large behavioral health department, and worked in private practice as a psychologist.