“I’m telling you the truth: if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. But this kind only comes out by prayer and fasting.” Matthew 17: 20,21
Jesus’ claim here is weird because it seems so preposterous. If an itty-bitty display of faith on our parts can move a mountain, why is it that so often the “Mt. Everests” in our lives have an annoying habit of standing still, despite our best efforts to believe in God’s healing? The dear friend dying from cancer whose healing we have prayed for over and over again. The broken marriage that we keep pouring our best into with the hope that God will restore it. The homeless person you pray for every day, who is still jiggling their tin can at the local CVS asking for money while high on crack.
When Jesus makes this bold statement, he is responding to his disciples’ unsuccessful attempt to heal a man’s epileptic son. Which is notable in itself because the text tells us that the disciples have already witnessed many displays of divine power in answer to their prayers: when Jesus had sent them out in pairs in the power of the Holy Spirit, they had healed the sick, raised the dead and cast out demons (10: 8)- but here the disciples find themselves in a bind. This child’s condition is a tough nut to crack even for these spiritual heavyweights. Which can leave us feeling a bit inadequate. I mean, if we were at the gym, these guys would be pushing the 200-pound barbells while we would be flexing those wimpy 5-pound dumbbells. Where does this leave us?
The answer, Jesus says, is faith the size of a grain of a mustard seed.
For a long time what has made this passage so difficult is my presumption that Jesus had to be talking literally here. That when he says “I tell you the truth” there is no note of hyperbole in his voice. That he is rattling off a fact like any other, so that he could just as well be talking about today’s weather. Which is a strange inference, really, because there are plenty of places in Scripture where Jesus is clearly using exaggeration to make a point- “it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than a camel to enter the eye of a needle” being just one example.
But if Jesus is talking literally here, can our faith really move mountains? Many Egyptian Christians think so. They record the tenth-century story of a Muslim caliph who came to the Christian patriarch, Abba Abraam, asking the very same question we are, only with an accompanying threat to make the skin crawl: if the Patriarch and his Coptic Christian flock could not make the mountain move, their God was false and they would be put to death; and they had three days to come up with an answer. All the Copts fasted and prayed for three days, at the end of which the Patriarch was led in a dream to humble, one-eyed Simon the Tanner, whom God had chosen to move the mountain. Tradition holds that Simon, the Patriarch and their Coptic Christian flock all went out to the mountain with their Muslim interlocutors and prayed, chanted and bowed some forty times; and most remarkably, every time they raised their head in prayer, the mountain moved up, and every time they lowered it, the mountain moved back down again.
This story may be true- as true as stories of manna from heaven and the parting of the Red Sea centuries earlier. But whether or not it is true, and whether or not Jesus is talking literally here, I suppose the point is not so much our faith as it is God’s greatness. Greatness in the fact that even the things that we puny human beings think are totally impossible are of little difficulty to an all-powerful God.
I’ve often heard it said that we human beings use anywhere between 2 and 10 percent of our actual brain capacity. Which always leaves me wondering how I might tap into the other 90 to 98 percent. (Any ideas?) I can’t help but wonder if Jesus is sharing a similar sentiment when it comes to our spiritual life. Maybe the disciples had become smug in thinking that God’s healing depended on their own efforts. Maybe they had begun to doubt that God really was nearer than breath itself, all the while waiting for us to reach out in faith and claim God’s promises. Maybe they had fallen back into living in that 2 percent zone in which God was safely relegated to prayers for parking spaces but couldn’t be appealed to for help with the much bigger stuff.
Yet Jesus here seems to be saying that there is so, so, so much more available to us in the way of God’s healing power. All we need to do is reach out and ask for it- sometimes with our whole being, in prayer and fasting. And in this sense, yes, our faith can move mountains.