The Mulberry Tree and Me
This text containing the mulberry tree has always troubled me. Is it a series of unconnected sayings of Jesus that Luke had left over, didn't know where to put them, and so he placed them here? No, the words about a millstone, faith, a mulberry tree, and unworthy servants hang together.
The Law brings me to the mulberry tree. Jesus warns me about being a deathtrap. The insert translates "things that cause people to sin." The King James translates "offenses" and the English Standard "temptations." The Greek word is stronger. It's the name for the piece of a trap that when the animal triggers it kills him. Jesus says it's impossible for deathtraps not come, but I'm not to be one. It would be better to have a millstone tied around my neck and cast into the sea than to be a deathtrap to little ones. Does "little ones" mean children or newcomers to the faith? It makes no difference. Every Sunday thousands of words spew out of my mouth. It only takes one to be a deathtrap to a little person or new believer.
There really is no limit to my sins, and that's why the next words of Jesus drive me closer still to that mulberry tree. Jesus commands me to rebuke Christians who sin. Do you know how hard that is? Do you realize how much I don't want to this? People are willing to be rebuked for the sins of others. You'll let me preach about self-righteous Pharisees and liberal Sadducees. I'm faithful if preach about harlots and homosexuals, but I'm meddling when I rebuke your sins. Your sins are pets. They're cute and cuddly to you. They're weaknesses, bad habits, poor upbringing, or imbalanced chemicals. I've no business rebuking you, only others.
Actually, rebuking sins isn't my biggest problem. Forgiving them is. There's a limit to my forgiveness. When my kids were small, I can't tell you how many times I thought, and sometimes even said, to the child who was a 7 by 7 sinner, "Sorry isn't could enough." Jesus says it is. "If 7 times he comes back to you and says, I repent," you must forgive him.
Jesus warns me better to be dead then guilty of false teaching, and He commands me to rebuke sin and forgive repeat sinners. This sharp Law drives me right where it drove the first pastors to the conclusion that I need a whole lot more faith to get this done. I need more believing in this wicked little heart than I see or feel going on. "Increase my faith Lord." Note well: this is where I the sinner go. This is where the apostles go, but this is not where Jesus the Lord goes. He goes to the mulberry tree.
Jesus answers my plea for more faith with, "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." How on earth does this help me?
First let's understand the miracle. The tree is really the sycomore tree. It's not our sycamore tree, but a particular type of fig tree that grows in Palestine. The sycomore fig grows to a height of 30-40 feet and produces fruit 10 months out of the year. It is an imposing tree with widespread limbs growing low to the ground. Its root system below ground is as extensive as what grows above ground. They were popular trees to line roadways with. This was the tree little Zacchaeus climbed up.
There are 2 miracles here. One, uprooting such a massively rooted tree. Two, planting the tree back in the ground on the floor of the sea. The tree is planted; it's alive and growing there. Jesus is not just talking about having the miraculous power to uproot a tree, but having the ability to do what we know to be contrary to nature: to plant a tree on the bottom of Lake Travis. To someone like me who has trouble planting trees in his yard this is an amazing miracle. But don't get lost in it. Remember to whom we prayed the Collect: to the God "whose almighty power is made known chiefly in showing mercy and pity." Our Lord's almighty power is shown in His mercy and pity towards sinners, not in planting mulberry trees.
Jesus takes us to the mulberry tree to show us mercy and pity. Jesus preached the Law to me and I wanted more faith to do it. Jesus replied that it's not about the amount of faith. Faith the size of the mustard seed is more than enough. A mustard seed is about 1/20 of an inch in size. Now we would all be toast if Jesus had said, "If you have faith the size of a coconut, or cantaloupe, or watermelon," but He didn't. By referring to what a great thing a small faith can do, Jesus highlights not the amount of faith but the correct faith. A faith based on what God has said is a correct faith, is a powerful, a miraculous faith even if it's no bigger than a mustard seed.
This needs to be repeated. A big faith based on what God has not said is powerless, no miracle, and foolish. For example, believe that whatever you believe you can do you're able to do. If you want to plant mulberry trees in Lake Travis, you can do that. If you want to heal someone of disease, you can. Believe that if you believe hard enough, sure enough, big enough, then you can do anything. Such a faith is not based on a promise of God, a command of God, or the grace of God, so it is empty. It's faith in faith, not faith in God.
Jesus takes us to the mulberry tree not so we can bemoan how little faith we have. The mulberry tree is to get us off our fixation with the faith going on in our hearts. It's like bumping a needle on a record player to make it get off the line it's stuck on. The Law forces us to look inside ourselves until it breaks us, kills us, until we despair of self. But look what happened. Jesus preached about deathtraps, rebuking sinners, and forgiving sins, and that didn't slay me. No, I concluded that if I had more faith I could do these things. Bam! Jesus bumps the record player; He bumps me out of myself showing me what is totally impossible for me to do: Uproot that pecan tree outside our door and transplant it on the bottom of Lake Travis.
Ask yourself: What is able to uproot a tree and plant it at the bottom of a lake? Technology can't do that. Botany can't do it. I can't do it; you can't do it. But God can. He is almighty, so there is nothing He cannot do. Now God never commanded the apostles He's talking to in the text to uproot a tree and plant it in the sea. But He had commanded them to teach all things whatsoever He taught them. He had commanded them to rebuke sin and to forgive the penitent. Can they do all that?
Think I made too big of a jump here? I went round and round the mulberry bush so many times that this weasel popped? Right after the mulberry tree Jesus turns to the example of servants. He could've used household servants, bookkeeping servants, or just servants with no other adjective. But Jesus makes them servants engaged in plowing and shepherding who also serve meals. Hmm? Seems like a description of the ministry doesn't it? When Jesus recalls Peter to the ministry in John 21, three times He refers to feeding sheep. The word pastor means shepherd. In 1 Cor. 3, Paul says pastors plant and water God's field.
So does a plowing, shepherding, cooking servant earn grace, get grace, for doing his duty? That's what Jesus asks us. "Would the Lord have grace towards the servant who did what he was commanded to do?" The word translated "thank" is the Greek word for "grace." In some contexts it can mean "thanks" and perhaps even here, but the relationship between the mulberry tree and me pops into focus by translating it "grace."
Grace can only be given never deserved. This is a very big point that we all assume. We get the fact that only by God's grace, could we ever do the impossible thing of planting a tree at the bottom of Lake Travis. Well it's only by grace that sinners remain in the ministry or in the Church. Even if you could do everything correctly teach, rebuke, forgive, you couldn't earn a place in the Lord's Church. That happens only by grace. Even the servant who plows, shepherds, and serves correctly doesn't earn "grace." He remains an unworthy servant only doing his duty.
Being a pastor is impossible, being a member is impossible, no matter how big, sure, or powerful we think our faith is, but we can be "unworthy," can't we? And it is the unworthy that God graces. Baptism is grace for infants who do absolutely nothing for God. Absolution is the grace of forgiveness that Jesus won on the cross applied to unworthy sinners. Communion is the grace of Jesus' Body and Blood once offered on the cross placed into the mouths of sinners who can never, ever be worthy of them.
You can't deserve to be baptized, absolved, or communed. These Means of Grace can only be given to you for Jesus' sake, based on His worthiness. As it is only by God's grace that a mulberry could flourish on the bottom of the sea, so it is only by God's grace that pastors or church members flourish. We are never to think we have God's grace because we plow well, shepherd well, or serve well. That's a recipe for despair because one day we'll realize that the tasks we thought we did well are really as impossible for us as planting trees in the sea.
Note in this text what Jesus does and doesn't command. Nowhere does He command us to plant a mulberry tree anywhere, but He does command us to say, We are unworthy servants.'" That's a confession you can live with and more importantly die with. That's the confession of the centurion whom Jesus said had "great faith." That's because it acknowledges you can only be the Lord's servant by His grace not by your efforts. Your efforts will always fall short, God's grace in Christ never does. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XX (20071014); Luke 17: 1-10