Having just previously discussed with His disciples the necessity of forgiving those who are struggling in faith to overcome moral weaknesses, the Twelve realized this was a huge task. While others might struggle over some of the simpler demands of faith, they knew this demand to forgive so readily and repeatedly would require more faith from them. So they asked Jesus to increase their faith, to make them stronger in trusting the Father.
Jesus wanted them to see how far they had yet to go on that path. So He mentioned how just a tiny measure of faith, rather like the minuscule mustard seed, could perform miracles they couldn’t imagine. There’s a bit of context here that is easy to miss. In Hebrew culture, trees often symbolized relative strength of faith and shalom, as did some other plants at times. So Jesus mentioned the common mustard seed, likely a reference to black mustard. The seed was used for flavoring, but could also be planted to grow the plant. The seed varied between 1-2 millimeters in size, but the plant grew as high as 8 feet (2.4m).
Meanwhile, the tree he indicated they could replant in the sea with just a mustard seed of faith was a sycamine, also known as the sycamore-fig. They could easily be 65 feet (20m) tall with a massive spread that provided fruit virtually year round. It was a very dramatic contrast between how much faith it takes and what it can accomplish. We could say the power of faith is exponential in modern vernacular.
So how does one go about developing just a mustard seed of faith to do such things? It’s not obvious to our Western minds what Jesus means as He offers another image to explain. He mentions how one might own a slave or bond-servant and have him out working in the field, plowing with oxen. This is a very physically demanding job. But when dinner time comes around, who in their right mind calls that slave in to recline at the table for a meal? The slave would be just as shocked as anyone observing such a thing. This is not what slaves expect in their servitude.
Indeed, the slave would be more likely to have another couple hours of work ahead of him after plowing all day. In the absence of kitchen servants, he would end up coming in and cooking the food and serving it, as well. Slaves took it all in stride because whiners were often sold off to even worse masters. Most slaves knew to shift gears and handle the next job, after which they could eat their own meal.
Now, the imaginary thanks that Jesus refers to is an extravagant show of gratitude common when someone of great social stature graciously does you a favor. Does the master offer such thanks to a slave? Hardly. Jesus used a common phrase much like our loud, “I don’t think so!” A master might praise a really good slave with a brief, “Good job.” That’s about as much as one would expect.
This is how we should approach things with God. We are the servants. If we are any good at all, then He keeps us as His own. But we should understand that, if we were to arduously perform without complaint everything God requires of us, how praiseworthy is that? All we’ve done is our duty. It’s not that God doesn’t rejoice with each step of faith we take; that’s not the point. The point is that humility He talked about when He mentioned forgiveness for those of weak faith. Are we so much better than they? Or are we just fellow servants with no room to grouse, since we are also struggling to obey?
The faith to cultivate the Garden of Eden as Adam did before the Fall is there within reach, but the gateway is the Flaming Sword we must first turn on ourselves before we can pass. It demands we do it to ourselves. It’s not possible to earn that kind of faith, so if you keep dreaming of ordering trees to migrate on your whim, you are on the wrong path. But if you had the kind of faith to do such a thing, you’d surely have something more important to occupy that faith.