Monday, July 18, 2011

Can Faith Really Move Mountains?

Once upon a time, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you" (Matthew 17:20).
Was Jesus being serious? Can my faith or your faith really move mountains? Or heal people, as in "faith healing?" Or help me become wealthy? If I have more faith, is it more likely that God will grant me what I ask for?
I don't think so.
Actually, few texts in the Bible have been so misunderstood as Jesus' words about faith moving mountains. This mostly stems from the fact the people try to read the Bible "literally" instead of as literature. The two words are similar, but they don't mean the same thing. You read the Bible as literature when you try to understand it in its own ancient literary context. But reading it "literally" means that your fallback position is to read the Bible as if it is as direct and easy to understand as a contemporary newspaper report. I don't recommend the latter.
At one level, we understand this. For example, few of us mistake biblical parables for straight reporting. Parables are fanciful stories that teach profound spiritual lessons, much like Aesop's fables teach moral lessons. The Psalms are a songbook. While the music might be lost, we understand that the words are what we would call lyrics--and that the words of the Psalms often make their point in lyrical, figurative ways.
On the other hand we don't always recognize what kind of literature or literary devices we are reading in scripture. And then we compound the problem by trying to interpret these "difficult" passages literally. This is a common problem especially when it comes to creation and flood stories in Genesis and the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation.
Jesus' suggestion that if we had faith as large as a mustard seed we could move mountains is a good example. I did an internet search and found several articles that suggested that we could actually move mountains if we had enough faith; or (more likely) that we could heal ourselves or others if we had enough faith. Other articles were "how to" articles about building a faith to mustard-seed sized proportions. Of course these approaches suggest that when mountains stay put, or when healing doesn't come, the problem is that we didn't have enough faith.
But that literalistic approach is all wrong. Jesus was actually using a literary device called hyperbole. That is, in this statement he used outrageous exaggeration to make an important point.
No one has ever had faith large enough--that is, at least as large as a tiny mustard seed--to throw a mountain in the sea. Such faith is the domain of Jesus alone. In this passage Jesus is actually pointing out that humans always limp along, faith-wise. That, in fact, is one of the reasons he must die, the topic he next turns to in Matthew.
The apostle Paul plays on this statement of Jesus when he says that even if (and Paul knew that this was impossible) he had the faith to move mountains, but did not have love, he would be nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2). More hyperbole, but with a lovely twist. The focus of scripture is not what faith is good for, but how love is everything.

1 comment:

  1. are you just trying to get attention?


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