We need mulberry trees -- and the more the better! Ignoring the steady ooze of purple syrup dripping from ripened berries, we can close our eyes tightly and command each tree to leap into the sea. Blinking open our eyes, however, we will most likely find the trees are still in place, rooted to the ground. Determined to have faith larger than a mustard seed, we try again, perhaps focusing on a new tree. Eyes closed, once more we repeat our command, "Be uprooted and be planted in the sea!" To our frustration, the outcome is the same: the tree hasn't budged. The only conclusion we can arrive at is that either mulberry trees prefer land to sea, or that we lack faith.
In dark times when, like Habakkuk, all we can see is violence, destruction, misery and injustice, it is difficult to be faith-filled. Our guiding institutions have failed us; pollution is destroying all life-forms; our food and water are no longer safe; and divisions within nations and between nations are negatively affecting international relations and the global economy. Add to this mix right-wing extremism at home and abroad, as well as a rise in cruelty and barbaric crimes, and it is little wonder that the future seems bleak.
But this is precisely where mulberry trees and faith come in: even if the mulberry trees prove willful, we must still cling to the vision of an alternative future:
"For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint,"
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith." The Lord replied, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.
LK 17: 5-10
The apostles' request that Jesus increase their faith seems randomly inserted into Lk 17 and, in fact, has no thematic connection to the verses which follow and which form most of today's Gospel reading. True, one could make a connection between
"The Saying of Faith"
"Attitude of a Servant"
but this would have more to do with the skill of the preacher than the unity of the text! Instead,
"The Saying of Faith"
makes a good sequel to our first reading (
HAB 1:2-3; 2:2-4
) in which God promises that
the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late."
This vision has a specific historical/ theological context:
1) The Kingdom of Judah has turned from God and is overrun with violence, corruption, political intrigue and idolatry;
2) God has chosen King Nebuchadnezzar to punish Judah through military conquest, the destruction of the Temple and the exile of most of the population to Babylon;
3) Despite the approaching calamity of the Babylonian Conquest and Exile, the righteous, because of their faith, shall see the day of salvation.
The vision that God refers to, then, is the vision of a new day-- of the return of the exiles, the restoration of Jerusalem, the rebuilding of the Temple. No matter how dreadful their sufferings, the righteous will know God's compassion and mercy. Habakkuk, at the end of his dialogue with God, asserts that he awaits the "day of distress" that will come upon the Babylonians because of their crimes against Judah; more importantly, the prophet declares that he will rejoice in the God who saves, the God who is his strength (Hab 3:18-19).
To have faith is not literally about uprooting mulberry trees and transplanting them into the sea, but about believing that the Reign of God will come, despite all the chaos, violence, corruption, and other manifestations of evil that surround us. Uprooting the mulberry tree is a wonderful image of the power of faith but
faith is believing that God's justice will prevail, no matter how dark the days ahead of us. It is the belief that there
a Divine Intelligence at work in the universe and even when we are convinced there is no hope for humanity, even when we cry out against all the atrocities, double-dealings and exploitation of the poor, still God hears us.
Today, as I headed for a bus in downtown Chicago, I saw a diminutive woman whose shopping cart was piled high with plastic bags, each filled to capacity. As she rummaged through her humble belongings, I stopped to give her a dollar. Greeting me with a smile, she began to tell me about some woman who had assassinated her father; it turned out that she was less interested in the dollar than in having an audience. Anxious to catch my bus, I thought there was going to be no end to her recital. Then, abruptly, she changed topics and began to speak of the God who is with us in every circumstance.
"We have to believe,"
she said, smiling at me
. "God never abandons us. Do you believe?"
"Yes, I believe!" I said. and ran for my bus.