The Gospel this week uses both strange and blatantly uncomfortable imagery, seemingly incongruent with Jesus’ message of raising up the humble and humbling those in power.
As he speaks with his disciples, he uses concepts from the world around him: mustard seeds, mulberry trees, and—unfortunately—the reality of enslavement. It sure sound like Jesus is suggesting that it should be normal and expected for a slave to work tirelessly with no thanks from their master. We blunt our discomfort by using words like “servant,” but the Greek word used really is better translated as “slave.”
As I sit with my own discomfort, I reflect on the words of womanist theologian Dr. Wil Gafney: “Jesus was a rabbi, he would have never wanted us to cling to the letters and syntax of these texts as though they were his very body and blood but rather, his spirit and the Spirit of God, blow through them, ruffling and disturbing them and permitting us to read new truths in and out of them and, not lose sight of the ancient stories that are also part of our shared heritage.”
So what does the Spirit allow us to read as She ruffles and disturbs us with the words of Jesus’ stories?
The disciples tell Jesus, “Increase our faith.” I say “tell,” not “ask,” because it is phrased as a demand, not a question. But behind it you can hear the echoes of the famous question of the first reading: “How long, O Lord?” There is violence and destruction and misery, and you ask us these seemingly impossible things: leaving behind our families to follow you, healing those who are hurting, loving our enemies. Jesus responds with what feels like some sarcasm, essentially saying, “You think you have faith? If you had even a *speck* of it you could replant this mulberry tree into the ocean with only a word.”
And he explains what their faith should be like using the central, uncomfortable image of a slave who, after toiling all day, is told by their master to go and cook dinner and wait on the master before being fed themselves. Here in the U.S., we know in a particular way the evil of enslavement and the horrific abuses it entailed. How on earth could Jesus suggest that that was the right order of things, even comparing it to the relationship between God and God’s disciple?
But let us act on the presumption—maybe faith the size of a mustard seed—that the Spirit of God is blowing through this passage, revealing something to us. Jesus was pointing out to the disciples, who wanted “tree flying into the sea” faith (per Rachel Held Evans), that the faith he is asking for is more grounded, humbler, fulfilling our required duties—though they are duties asked of us by a loving God instead of a harsh master.
It is the steadfastness of doing those small, daily works that “stirs into flame,” as Paul writes, the gift of God’s love and enduring vision for the world. That vision, even though we experience despair and doubt, will be fulfilled and will not disappoint.
- What do you do when your initial reading of a Gospel story feels contrary to how you understand Jesus? How might you approach God in this situation, knowing God is a loving Parent?
- What gift does God “stir into flame” within you?
Katie Lacz is a mother, an M.Div., and a spiritual director living outside Boulder, CO. She currently works as Program Associate for the Women’s Ordination Conference. A former Jesuit Volunteer (Raleigh ’06-’07), she continues to seek the magis while living in the messy and beautiful work of raising her two small children.