Posted by: mattcolvin | November 19, 2011

Luke 17:1-19: Mulberry tree? Jesus an unprofitable servant?

Saturday of the 21st week after Trinity: Luke 17:1-19.

This pericope includes one of Jesus’ most misunderstood sayings:

And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
So the Lord said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

Notice the logic of Jesus’ reply. The disciples have asked Jesus to “increase” their faith. They are concerned about how much of it they have. Jesus’ reply is really a rebuke: a mustard seed is a proverbial token of smallness. It appears to be a way of saying “Any amount of faith at all is quite sufficient to do even the greatest works.”

How do we square this with Jesus’ frequent epithet for his disciples, ολιγοπιστοι, “O ye of little faith”?

Second, why a mulberry tree? Did one just happen to be nearby? Jesus’ similar utterance about “this mountain” being “cast into the sea” has been understood by N. T. Wright as an acted judgment on Jerusalem, with “this mountain” being the temple mount. Is a mulberry tree symbolic? There are mulberries mentioned in 2 Samuel 5 (“the marching wood” that is probably the ultimate source for Tolkien’s marching trees that come to Helm’s Deep, and for Dunsinane Wood in Shakespeare’s Macbeth), but it is hard to see a connection. Any BH-style interpretive maximalists able to help me out here?

I have long been fond of quoting 17:10 as a proof text, rightly or wrongly, against Pelagianism and against the semi-Pelagian Roman Catholic idea of merit. I have also suggested to my students that Jesus Himself was not engaged in meritorious law-keeping of the Torah as a “republished covenant of works” because He also, as a human being, was unable to earn merit. I think the passage shows that He may even have had Himself in mind, since the “servant” who comes in to supper after “tending sheep” (7) is said to “gird himself” (8) and serve the master until he has eaten and drunk, just as Jesus does in John 13:4, when he “girds himself with a towel” to wash the disciples’ feet.


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