Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Obstacles are sure to come, but alas for the one who provides them! It would be better for him to be thrown into the Sea with a millstone put round his neck than that he should lead astray a single one of these little ones. Watch yourselves!
If your brother does something wrong, reprove him and, if he is sorry, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, “I am sorry,” you must forgive him.’
The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’ The Lord replied, ‘Were your 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 17:1-6
It is difficult to see the connection between these three snippets of wisdom from Jesus: do not place obstacles in the way of the ‘little ones’ who seek faith, reprove and forgive those who are sorry, and finally, that even the tiniest seed of true faith can perform miracles. Quite possibly they are unrelated and were simply catalogued this way post factum. And yet we are led to believe that God’s Spirit was at work in the Church even as she collated and canonised the Scriptures, so we should not be surprised if, in prayer and reflection, we uncover some unsuspected commonality after all.
As a school chaplain, I take the first snippet very seriously indeed. It seems to me that the modern culture of relativism, and particularly the idea that leaving ‘little ones’ alone in vast supermarket of ideas to pick and choose their own constitutes responsible parenting, presents significant obstacles to growth of faith. People who would not dream of leaving their children alone in a room of Sabatier kitchen knives in the hope that they might make themselves the next Gordon Ramsey at the same time profess that children abandoned in a marketplace of harmful ideologies will somehow learn to become paradigms of morality. Watch yourselves, Jesus says to us.
And yet, in the next breath, Our Lord reminds us that there is always a second chance: and a third, and a fourth, even up to seven, the Jewish cipher for eternity - and hence infinity. There is always a chance to repent. This calls to mind the Presupposition of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola (naturally), which in sum says that for spiritual growth, we need always to live on the assumption that our neighbour means well and is speaking with good intent. If, on reflection, he or she really doesn’t and isn’t, then it is time to have the courage gently and subtly to reprove. For me, I think this means I need to watch that I am preaching for people and not at them, ever a danger in my line of work. Hectoring does not build faith or trust. So, apologies for the last paragraph.
Finally, the Apostles ask for more faith themselves. The Lord seems to be replying that they do not have any. If they had even a mustard seed’s worth, they could achieve the impossible. So what is this ‘faith’ thing, anyway? Professor John Milbank describes it as complete trust in the unknown - an echo, to my ears, of the mediaeval Japanese Buddhist Shinran’s elevation of ‘deep entrusting’ as the sole criterion for enlightenment. So, faith is easy, in one way, the gentle yoke: all you have to do is trust. And yet trust can be the most difficult path, the narrow way, as anyone who has engaged in ‘corporate team building exercises’ knows.
So here is the connection. What obstacles are we putting before ourselves and each other in the way of deep entrusting in God? How might presupposing the good in others break down those obstacles, and lead us to the trust which can move not just mulberry bushes, but even mountains?