Matthew 8: 1-13, Mark 6: 1-6
“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” ( Luke 17: 6 )
“Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” ( Matthew 17: 20 )
These two very similar sayings seem to imply that it’s not the amount of faith that matters so much as the existence of faith. With no faith nothing can be done, but with some faith, however small, great things can be accomplished. True faith will always have its effect and, like a seed it can grow. It is a living thing.
In the ministry of Jesus we can see three different incidents, each of which illustrates a different kind of faith. And also one incident which shows unbelief.
1) Complete faith ( Luke 7: 1-10, Matthew 8: 5-13 )
There was a Roman army officer, a centurion, who lived in Caphernaum. This man had a much-loved and valued servant who was seriously ill. Now the centurion was on friendly terms with the local Jewish community so he asked some of the Jewish leaders to go to Jesus to ask him to heal his servant. This centurion was, of course, a Gentile but he had the most amazing faith. For he sent a message asking Jesus not to bother to come to his house. “I am not worthy for that: just say the word and he will be healed.”
This was tremendous faith, and even Jesus was astonished by it. “I tell you, I have not found faith like this, even in Israel.” None of the Jews had believed in Jesus like this – not even his disciples. But the centurion knew all about authority. He knew that he had authority over his soldiers ( authority which had been delegated to him by Caesar ) and he believed Jesus had a like authority ( from God ) to heal and to save.
Well, he was right and his faith was proved by what happened next. The messenger returned and found that the servant had been healed.
There have been other such people of faith down through history:
George Muller in the C19th. had no money, and yet he founded an orphanage to provide for hundreds of children. He did it all by faith – never asking for money or advertising the need. He and his helpers prayed, and believed, and the money came in – sometimes at the very last minute! As a result of this faith thousands of orphans were given Christian care and upbringing.
In the 1950s David Wilkerson was an ordinary minister of a little country church in the USA. but he felt called by God to go to the big city and to evangelize in the slums of New York. He went among drug pushers, pimps, prostitutes and teenage gangsters who were armed with knives and guns. In his book The Cross and the Switchblade he tells how may of these hardened young men turned to Jesus. They had killed people, they had peddled drugs, they had stolen, they had been involved in the occult – but they were transformed by Jesus Christ. All this came about through David Wilkerson’s faith. Because he believed that God loved these young men and could change them.
People like George Muller and David Wilkerson are a tremendous inspiration and a great challenge to us.
We move on to our second incident in the Gospels:
2) Partial faith ( Mark 1: 40-45, Matthew 8: 1-4 )
Once in Galilee a man with leprosy came to Jesus, got down on his knees and begged him to heal him. “If you are willing you can make me whole!, he said. Jesus was filled with compassion and touched him saying, “I am willing, be whole.” And the man was instantly cured.
This man’s faith was somewhat defective. He was in no doubt that Jesus had the power to heal him, but he wasn’t so sure that Jesus had the will to do it. “If you are willing” – does Jesus really care enough about me to want to heal me?
According to the Law of Moses anyone who touched a leper was unclean. Jesus surely could have avoided contamination and healed this man at a distance ( as he had done with the centurion’s servant ). He could have just given a word of command, but he chose to touch him as well – to show that he really cared, that he did indeed will to heal him.
This man’s faith in Jesus was only partial, but it still had its reward. Are we not sometimes a bit like this man? We doubt God’s love for us even when we believe in his power. Perhaps we think we are not worthy to experience his healing and saving power. “Oh yes Lord, you can help other people but you can’t help me,” is what is in our minds. Jesus shows us by his actions here, that his compassion is endless, that he is always willing to help those who come to him in faith. Even when that faith is partial. “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed …”
Our third incident shows another kind of incomplete faith:
3) Wavering faith ( Mark 9:14-29)
It happened just after Jesus had come down the Mountain of Transfiguration with Peter, James and John. They found a large crowd gathered around the remaining disciples and there seemed to be bit of an argument going on.
A man in the crowd explained: “Teacher, my son is possessed by an evil spirit which has robbed him of speech and ever so often sends him into a fit. Your disciples have not been able to do anything about it.” When they brought the boy to Jesus, immediately he went into a fit and fell to the ground, foaming at the mouth.
“If you can do anything, take pity on me and help us!” cried the man, in distress. “If you can?”, said Jesus, “Everything is possible to him who believes.” The man immediately said, “I do believe – help me overcome my unbelief!” Jesus rebuked the spirit and delivered the boy.
Now this man had doubted the power of Jesus – he had seen how his disciples had been unable to do anything and he doubted whether Jesus could either. Jesus’ reply to him was intended to inspire faith within the man’s mind. “Yes, the man said, “I do believe” – but at that very moment he was assailed by doubts, his faith ebbed away. “Help me overcome by unbelief!”, he cried. One moment he had faith, the next it had almost gone. It was a wavering faith.
Did this man deserve to have his request answered? Some would say “no”. Some Christians can see no room for doubt at all. Everything has to be black and white. But Jesus saw that, despite the doubt, this man really wanted to believe – was desperate to believe. It is the will that is important, rather than the feelings. He didn’t feel very believing, but he desperately wanted to believe. And his cry for help was answered – his son was cured.
I think most of us are like this man at some time in our lives – we have a wavering faith. I know I have been like that at times. Let us not despair – at the very moment of doubt we can at least cry out, “Lord,help me overcome my unbelief.”
You see, it’s not the amount of faith, nor the depth of faith, nor the breadth of faith that is important – it is the mere existence of faith. Even a tiny bit – a mustard seed bit – can do great things. After all, a mustard seen can sprout and grow into a huge plant.
The question is not, “Is my faith great?” but, “Have I got faith at all in Jesus Christ?”
We can contrast unbelief with faith:
On one occasion Jesus returned to his home town of Nazareth and went to the synagogue to teach the people. ( Matthew 13: 54, Mark 6:1 ) Because the people did not believe in him “there he could do no mighty works” ( Mark 6: 5 ) They despised him as the carpenter’s son. They thought they knew all about him and his brothers and sisters. But they had really no idea of who was – the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, the Saviour of the world.
So today, in our post-Christian society people think the know all about the Christian faith and they dismiss it as something unpractical, simplistic and outdated. Just as the people of Nazareth dismissed Jesus 2000 years ago, thinking they knew all about him: so today people dismiss him and refuse to believe in him. But it’s that unbelief that does the harm. How difficult it is to preach the Good News in an atmosphere of unbelief. Even Jesus couldn’t do any great work in Nazareth.
But wherever there is faith in Jesus, however little, then there is hope. If you have faith as small as a mustard seed you can do great things. May we have such faith today.