Every so often I write about topics in either Bible or ethics on this blog. Today I’d like to discuss the “faith of a mustard seed” simply because the passage is so often misunderstood.

And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you. (Luke 17:6)

The bottom line is that the Lord isn’t saying that if you had the very least amount of faith then you could command sycamore trees to replant themselves into the ocean. Rather, Jesus is giving us an amazing example of faith that should be an encouragement to all who believe. Then, together with this example, he describes what can be done with this kind of faith.

Jesus doesn’t Belittle

Let’s back up, though, and walk through the passage. After Jesus teaches a message on forgiveness, the disciples decide they are going to need more faith.

And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith. (Luke 17:5)

Jesus replies with,

And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you. (Luke 17:6)

Let’s rearrange this exchange into something that might be more familiar, just so we can look at the structure of the logic taking place.

Fig 1. Is a mustard seeds faith a high bar of faith to meet?

First, the disciples ask for help.

Help us! [A bad paraphrase]

Now, let me ask, which of the following two answers would you expect from the Lord: is he an impossible task-master who would belittle his own disciples and tell them there’s no hope to be had for them, since they can’t even pass the minimum bar?

You are so pitiful, you don’t even have the smallest miniscule amount of of faith to do anything useful [Not what Jesus said]

Or is He instead a loving friend, who would rather encourage the disciples he is training so that they would then be equipped for success? That is, would he rather teach them how they might go about having more faith?

Here’s how to achieve the greater faith you have asked for … [another bad paraphrase]

I’m going to go with this latter possibility, since Jesus was known for the love he had for his disciples.

Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. (John 13:1

Let’s go look at the rest of the evidence, and see if this reading holds.

Other References to Mustard Seeds

A quick search through the Gospels reveals that Jesus discusses mustard seeds four other times. Of these four other times, it is only in one of them that he appears to be teaching the same lesson. The other three appear on a first glance to be part of a different lesson, but I think we’ll see below that all five mustard seed passages form the same lesson of faith.

Fig 2. Five passages discuss mustard seeds

In the case of the one other verse that looks similar, Jesus had just come down from the mount of transfiguration with his inner circle only to find an impatient crowd waiting for him. The crowd centered around a man with a demon possessed son. Apparently, his disciples were unable to cast out the demon this time. After Jesus then casts out the demon, the disciples then ask him why they couldn’t cast out the demon.

Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? (Matthew 17:19)

Jesus answer appears very similar to the one we started from in Luke.

And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. (Matthew 17:20)

Note that the same phrase appears to be repeated, “If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed”, and in both cases the ability to do something apparently impossible is promised. It would seem to me that this message and concept was so important to Jesus that he needed to repeat it to his disciples more than once. This is confirmed to us by the surrounding details of the passage: The lesson in Luke was taught as part of his many lessons to his disciples, whereas the lesson in Matthew was taught to only a few after He came down from the mountain.

As for the other three times Jesus mentions mustard seeds, they are all part of parables Jesus uses to describe the Kingdom of God.

Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. (Matthew 13:31-32)

Here, a mustard seed is the least among all seeds, but becomes the greatest of all herbs.

And he said, Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it. (Mark 4:30-32)

The comparison here is subtly different, but it has the same purpose. I’ve argued in the past that Jesus was known for teaching the same message from one place to the next with only slight differences, and this fits into that same mold. For example, the sermon on the mount was later repeated in the valley. It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, to hear this same teaching more than once in multiple contexts.

Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it. (Luke 13:18-19)

Jesus disciples apparently felt that this teaching was so important that each of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all wanted to record it.

It’s also notable that Jesus emphasized both the small size of the mustard seed, as well as the large size of the mustard tree that grew from the seed. Another important detail, common to all three of these passages, is that the resulting tree grows so big that it provides rest for the “fowls of the air.”

What’s not quite so apparent is what these latter three passages have to do with the other two passages on the faith of a mustard seed. As we’ll see in a moment, though, these extra three passages are really the key to understanding the whole concept.

What is Faith?

Before we can go any further, we need to back up for a moment and understand what “faith” is in the first place. The Greek word for faith, pistis, is translated into English as either “faith”, “believe” or “belief”, or “trust”. The difference in word choice between these three is primarily based upon which grammatical form the word is used within, more than it is the meaning. “Trust” and “believe” are both verbs. Faith is a noun describing someone who trusts. Indeed, biblical faith, trust, and belief are just three words that each describe the same concept.

This simple reality will help you dispel many of the false teachings of faith.

  1. Faith without an object is meaningless

    Perhaps you’ve heard people teach that, “You must have faith.” Unfortunately, unless the object of that faith is apparent from the context, such a statement is as meaningless as if they were to have said, “You must trust.” Trust what? Trust whom? Without answering the question of who or what you are supposed to trust in, the word “faith” loses all of its meaning.

    Perhaps these well meaning individuals have wished to imply providence, as in “You must just trust that all things will somehow work themselves out”? Even that’s a hard pill to swallow, given the number of folks for whom providence hasn’t been very kind. Consider, for example, the passengers on board the Titanic. How many of these individuals were saved by providence? Sure, history records that many individuals were saved from the sinking Titanic, just not all. Moreover, providence didn’t seem to pick and choose among those it saved based upon who trusted in it or not.

    No, the object of your faith is just as important, if not more so, than the existence of your faith in the first place.

  2. There is no “power” in faith

    Just as trust has no power on its own, neither is there any power in faith. The “power” that is often associated with faith actually comes from the one who is trusted.

    The God who holds the universe together, however, has a lot of power. Any God who can create the world in six days, together with everything within it is a powerful God.

    How powerful is He? He created the sun in a day. He flooded the entire world, sparing only eight people. He parted the red sea so His people could cross on dry ground. He even raised Jesus from the dead.

    That’s a powerful God.

Fig 3. Faith requires a promise
  1. Faith isn’t blind

    Our faith is built upon what we know of the individual we place our faith in. In general, there are a couple of questions you will want to ask yourself when placing your faith in another. 1) Has the other person, the one I wish to trust, promised me that he will do something that I wish to trust him to do? This usually requires some form of promise. 2) Is the other person capable of doing what I am trusting him to do? 3) Is he trustworthy? That is, can I trust him for this purpose?

    Notice how Paul puts it, when he describes how he has been persuaded,

    … for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day. (2 Tim 1:12)

    This is not blind faith. It is well reasoned faith. It describes the man who, upon examining God and His word and getting to know Him, is now so persuaded by the evidence that he is willing to trust God with his very life.

    Or, as Job puts it,

    Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him. … (Job 13:15)

    Why, even Jesus instructs us to count the cost before making any commitments.

    For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, (Luke 14:28-29)

The misunderstanding common to the passages discussing faith and mustard seeds is that “faith” cannot plant trees into the oceans any more than it can move mountains. Those things require an actor, rather than a vacuous “trust”. Not only do they require an actor, but in these examples God is the only actor capable of moving mountains or causing trees to pluck themselves out of the ground and replant themselves into the ocean. The first lesson of Jesus teaching on mustard seeds, therefore, is that we must place our “trust” in the one and only Almighty God.

Faith is Evidenced by Action

The second lesson of faith is that it is revealed by action.

Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. (James 2:18)

Fig 4. Is a mustard seeds faith a high bar of faith to meet?

This is the key to understanding the faith of a mustard seed: a mustard seed’s faith is made known by what the mustard seed does. This isn’t to say that faith and works are the same thing, see for example Fig. 4, but rather that a man’s works reveal who it is that he is choosing to trust.

Okay, so what does a mustard seed do that reveals its faith?

It becomes a tree.

So what? Isn’t that what all seeds do?

Not quite. Let’s go back and look at the lessons above a bit more. Did you notice how Jesus made a point that these mustard seeds were the “least of all seeds”? Why is that important?

Fig 5. True faith leads to, and is evidenced by action, but action does not create faith on its own

Like any seed, a mustard seed is called upon by God to put a root down into the ground to find water and food within the soil, and then to send a shoot up into the air to find sunlight. If it cannot find food, water and sunlight after breaking open its shell then it will die. To make this possible, seeds have a limited amount of energy stored within their seedpod. The bigger the seed, the more energy the seed has to find food, water, and light.

The mustard seed, however, is the “least of all seeds.” It has less energy than any other seed to find food, water, and light and live.

With so little energy, it doesn’t have enough energy for a second chance. It gets one chance to find food, water, and light, and even then it only has a bare minimum of resources to do it with.

Now, place yourself in the position of such a seed. You have barely any money in your bank account–perhaps no more than a dollar to your name. What would you do with it? Since you only have the one dollar, you only have enough for one chance. Who would you trust to advise you on how to spend your only dollar?

Now, and perhaps only now, does the faith of mustard seed come into play.

The mustard seed is known for its faith because, having no other option, it must choose to trust God and give everything it has to either become a tree or die trying.

This is Jesus answer to the disciples request, “Lord, increase our faith.” Instead of belittling his disciples, Jesus is encouraging both them and us by giving us an example that describes the incredible faith of another. If a mustard seed can trust God with its life, then perhaps we can too.

As Jesus explains in John,

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. (John 12:24)

Jesus then truly took his own message to heart, and died on a cross only to rise again three days later. He gave everything at God’s command, trusting God to take care of Him.

Like the mustard seed and like Jesus, you and I have only one life to give.

The Tares

There’s another very profound lesson for us in Matthew 13, just before Jesus discusses mustard seeds, that fits importantly into this lesson. In this parable, Jesus tells of a man who sows “good seed” into his field, only to watch as the field produced tares as well.

But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? (Matt 13:25-27)

The lesson I wish to draw here is so obvious that it shouldn’t need saying, but sadly it does: Wheat seed produces wheat, not tares. The householder’s servants realized that tares would only grow from tare seeds, not wheat seeds. Forget what you were taught in evolution class, scientists can’t repeat any of those theories in a lab anyway. Apple seeds produce apple trees. They do not produce not cherry trees. Mustard seeds produce mustard trees, not pineapple trees.

And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. (Gen 1:11)

Trees and herbs reproduce after their kind. This statement matches all scientific observation to date, in spite of any Darwinian theories you may have heard teaching otherwise.

My point is simply this: When a mustard seed trusts God to break from its shell and grow, it doesn’t get a choice of what it will become. It will either become a mustard tree or it will die trying. That’s the only choice God gives it.

You and I are no different. Only a young “Jonathan Edwards” will ever grow up to be a mature “Jonathan Edwards”. Forget what all those motivational speakers tell you about growing up to be whoever you want to be. You will grow up to be you, just like a mustard seed grows into a mustard tree and not an apple tree.

What if you want to grow up and be someone else?

Then you will lead a very frustrated life, since you will never be that someone else you wish to grow into. You will only ever grow up to be you, just as wheat seeds only grow up to be wheat, and mustard seeds only grow into mustard trees. You are already the seed of who you will become. It is up to you to discover who that is going to be.

Replanting Trees and Moving Mountains

Of course, the obvious next question is, why doesn’t anyone have this kind of faith? Or, alternatively if they do, why haven’t we seen trees replanted into the sea or mountains moved into the sea? If Jesus wasn’t belittling our faith, then who can ever have this kind of faith?

These are good questions, and they shouldn’t be dismissed. They are also why Jesus, once he finishes discussing the faith of a mustard seed in Luke, immediately switches into a following parable. The two lessons go together. If you separate them, you’ll miss the meaning of the parable of the mustard seed.

But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. (Luke 17:7-10)

This parable points out that the life of faith, that is to say, the life of someone who trusts God, isn’t a life of service to self. The person of trusts God will do what God says, and so be His servant.

As God’s servant, it is not your place to ask or worse to demand that God move a mountain for you. God is not your servant, slave, or puppet. That was never His purpose in calling you to be His servant. His purpose was instead to have you serve Him. If He tells you to move a mountain, then go tell that mountain to move by His authority knowing ahead of time that it will obey you.

Personally, he hasn’t asked me to move any literal mountains … yet. He hasn’t asked me to tell trees to pluck themselves up and to replant themselves into the ocean. He has asked me to do some other, less obvious, impossibilities–but those are all stories for another day.

At this point, I need to point out that the Bible is filled with examples of individuals who were asked, by God, to do the impossible. Shall we take a look at just a few of them?

The Dry Bones

Have you ever read Ezekiel’s prophecy of the dry bones?

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.

And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live?

And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest.

Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the LORD.

So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.

The story goes on, but at this point the theme should be apparent. First, God presents an impossible situation to His prophet. He then asks a question about it, “Can these bones live?” Personally, I’d be pretty certain the answer would probably be no, but Ezekiel hedges his bet and figures the Lord wouldn’t ask him this unless He already had something planned. Instead, Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, thou knowest.”

Then God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. He gives Ezekiel a message to give to them. As a faithful messenger, Ezekiel speaks the message, and the bones come to life.

That’s the kind of faith a mustard seed has.

Ezekiel had no power to raise the dead. He had no power to cause dead bones to take on flesh. What he did have was the power to speak, and to speak as he was told. The rest was up to God.

Naaman the Leper

Okay, I’ll admit that although the story of Ezekiel with the dry bones was pretty amazing, it seemed kind of … ethereal? I mean, didn’t he start out the whole account by saying that it took place while he was “in the spirit”? How about something more concrete?

What about Naaman then, the captain of Syria’s army who was also a leper.

Naaman found his way to the home of the prophet Elisha, asking for help. (If you haven’t read how he ended up at Elisha’s residence, then I’ll just point out that the full history is quite humorous.)

Elisha then told him to wash in the Jordan seven times.

Much to Naaman’s surprise, Elisha didn’t even come to the door. Elisha didn’t accept any gifts, and only spoke to him through his servant. Naaman was quite offended at this, and didn’t want to wash in the Jordan of all rivers. Didn’t Syria have better rivers, he wondered out loud?

Eventually, Naaman’s servants convinced him to wash in the Jordan.

Nothing happened after washing six times. What good was there in washing again? But after washing the seventh time, he was cured .

Here we see the faith of a mustard seed again. Naaman was given a command. He had only the choice to follow the command or not. Like the mustard seed, whose choice is to open up and send a root down and a shoot up, Naaman chose to obey and was made whole. His life was never the same again.

Jesus rose from the dead

Perhaps the most striking example of faith is the example provided by Jesus Himself, who chose to endure the cross knowing He would be raised back from the dead following it.

Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father. (John 10:17-18)

My point here is simply that Jesus already had the command from His Father. Before He stepped out onto His own leap of faith, that of dying on a cross, He already had the commandment from the Almighty that He would be able to raise Himself back up again from the dead.

Let’s see, do we have all the elements of faith there?

  1. Has the other person promised to perform something?

    Yes. God had given Jesus the command that Jesus had the power to both lay down His own life and to raise it up again.

  2. Is the other person capable of doing what I am trusting him to do?

    Jesus certainly believed so.

  3. Is He trustworthy?

    In this case, history teaches us that God did indeed raise Jesus from the dead.

Now, if God told you that you could die and rise again, would you believe Him? What kind of faith would that require? What kind of life would you then live?

Heroes of the Faith

I could go on, since there are so many other examples prevalent in the scriptures. Abraham was asked to leave his home, to follow a God who would lead him to a land he could call his own. Moses was asked to lead the children of Israel through the red sea. David was promised that he’d become the king, and on the strength of that promise challenged Goliath knowing that he hadn’t been crowned king yet, and that God’s promise would hold. Elijah was told to tell Ahab, the king of Israel, that it wouldn’t rain again until Elijah said so and then told by God to run. It didn’t rain for another three and a half years, until God told him to pray for rain.

I’d love to go on, but space here will not permit much more.

For now, remember this: the mustard seed’s faith was not defined by its small size. Rather, the faith of a mustard seed is revealed by what it does with the little that it has. You see, it is only the mustard seed that is willing to give everything in obedience to God that will ever become a mustard tree. The faith of a mustard seed therefore isn’t a put down. On the contrary, the mustard seed’s faith is a great example that should be an encouragement for all of us to follow.