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Ring Around the Mulberry Bush

     The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” He replied, “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 17:5-6 NIV

     The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
—Luke 17:5-6, NRSV

Notice the difference between the NIV and the NRSV in this passage. In both versions, the apostles ask the Lord to increase their faith. In other words, they already have faith, but they want Jesus to increase it. However, Jesus gives different answers in the two versions. In the NIV, Jesus replies, “if you have faith,” affirming that they do, while in the NRSV, Jesus replies, “if you had faith,” rebuking them that they don’t.

I’ll give you an example to make this clearer. Suppose you and I are in your kitchen. You are wracking your brain for ideas for a dessert. If I say, “If [only] you had flour, you could bake a cake,” I am noting an impossibility. What I mean is that you don’t have flour, but if you did, you could bake a cake. If I say, “If you have flour [as you say], you could bake a cake,” I am making a suggestion. What I mean is that since you do have flour, you can bake a cake.

If you had faith…

We normally interpret this passage the way the NRSV renders it: “if [only] you had faith.” We interpret Jesus as saying, “Well, you don’t have faith, do you? But if you had even a teensy bit of faith…” If that were correct, Jesus would not be answering their request. He would be sending them away empty-handed and frustrated. In other words, in this interpretation, Jesus isn’t even paying attention. If this rendition were correct, the apostles would respond, “That’s not what we asked. We already have a little faith, we just want you to give us more.”

Some people take it as a literal mulberry tree and interpret Jesus as saying, “If you could work up enough make-believe, you could, for instance, grab this mulberry tree here with your mental powers and throw it into the sea.” Or, “if you are in denial, and you are sufficiently firm about it, reality will conform to your wishes.” There are two problems with that. The first is that it would put Jesus in the position of training and licensing us to be magicians. The second is that it doesn’t work.

Other people, noting that Jesus does not teach us magic and that one cannot actually plant a tree in the sea, correctly take Jesus’ answer as a metaphor. However they end up at the same conclusion, just in more general terms. They interpret Jesus as saying, “If you have confidence, you can do great things.” However, if that is all there is to it, why did Jesus specify the type of tree (mulberry), its destination (the sea), and what happens to it when it gets there (it gets planted), and what point did the gospel writer intend to make by including those details?

If we understand Jesus as rebuking the apostles for their lack of faith, He is either taunting them with something they cannot do (if we take it as a literal tree), or He is telling them a useless truism with unnecessary details (if we take the tree figuratively). In either case, He is ignoring their request to increase their faith.

If you have faith…

The NIV has it right: “if you have faith [as you say].” It is a more accurate translation. Jesus affirms what the apostles are saying and responds directly to their request. The apostles say, “We have faith, but we need you to strengthen it,” and Jesus answers their request directly: “Well, even if your faith is very small, you don’t need me to strengthen it.”

We can’t just make a ring around the mulberry bush, we have to ask why it is there. In answering the apostles’ request, why did Jesus pick a specific tree (the mulberry) and a specific action (planting) in a specific place (the sea)?

The apostles knew that mulberry trees are prone to attract worms. They associated worms with death, decay, and the work of demons. The mulberry tree therefore exemplifies the apostles’ doubts and nervousness, the very things that have to be cast out if they want stronger faith. Since the apostles shared the first-century Jewish belief that demons can’t tolerate water, ‘planting’ the tree in the sea not only gets rid of their doubts, it vanquishes all the forces of evil that drive their misgivings.

Now we understand this passage correctly. Jesus understands what the apostles are requesting and responds appropriately. The apostles say, “We have faith, but we need you to strengthen it,” and Jesus replies: “Well even if you have teensy faith, you don’t need me to strengthen it. You can get rid of your own misgivings. Just uproot this wormy old mulberry tree yourself and throw it into a vat of insecticide.”

Why did they want stronger faith?

Now why did the apostles think they needed stronger faith? Because Jesus had just asked them to perform a very difficult task:

If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.
—Luke 17:3-4, NIV

How often have you forgiven your brother today? It takes a lot of faith to forgive, doesn’t it? You have to have faith that your brother won’t take advantage of you, and that God will stand by your side. Perhaps if you took that mulberry tree that is infested with your wormy old misgivings and threw it into a vat of insecticide, as Jesus suggests, you would have enough faith to pull it off.