Mustard Seeds and Miracles

When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, 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 17:14‭-‬20

In this passage Jesus is again mesmerizing the crowd with a miracle. In this case it is a miraculous healing of a demon-possessed young man who apparently has lost some of his ability to navigate the world safely, “He often falls into the fire or into the water”. This must have been a rather painful and scarring thing for the young man to be controlled in this way.

The meeting between Jesus and the young man’s father begins in a rather strange way. The man brings his son to Jesus and in effect complains that Jesus’ disciples were unable to heal him. Jesus reacts in a way that resembles frustration. He says “You unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” It is not entirely clear if Jesus is talking to his disciples or the man. Based on the later dialogue it seems He was talking to His disciples, and indirectly, to all of us who sometimes struggle with faithful following.

Jesus rebukes the demon which is possessing the young man and drives it out of him. The disciples looking on were probably thinking something like “He makes it look so easy” They hold their tongues until they can get Jesus off by Himself and ask Him “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” Jesus explains that it was fundamentally a faith problem. They did not truly believe God could work through them to accomplish this miracle. They lacked faith. Interesting, it was not the size of their faith, but rather the form that it was taking that seems to be the problem.

Jesus explains that they failed because “you have so little faith.” Jesus goes on to say that even a “little” faith can do amazing things. He uses the example of a mustard seed, “Truly I tell you, 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.”

So it is not the size of their faith that was lacking, it was something about the purpose and place in their soul of that faith that seems to be the problem. Let’s dig into this mustard seed metaphor for a minute and see where it takes us.

The mustard seed is a small seed. Yet is grows into a very large and productive plant. How does it do this? All the knowledge and machinery required to form and produce a huge mustard plant resides in the small seed. All that is required to transform it from seed to bush is water, soil, sun, and time. Jesus is frustrated because the disciples have been given all the Living Water, Soil, Son, and time they need to flourish and grow into productive plants, but they are not doing so. Why not? It think it is because the disciples have their own ideas about what they are supposed to be growing into and it does not always line up with what God intends for them. They are not alone in this.

One thing I have learned as I have floated through the old testament is that we are all flawed followers and we will struggle to discern God’s plan for us. This is a feature not a flaw. God wants us to work through this tension so we invest our energy growing toward God and His plan rather than growing in the wrong direction or into a plant that does not bear fruit, or worse still, a plant that bears bad fruit.

Does this mean that if we pray for a miracle that does not occur we lack faith? I am not sure it is that simple. I think it may actually mean we were not tuned into God’s plan well enough to discern our purpose and place within it.

Prayer: God help us to discern Your plan for our lives so we can have faith that will move mountains and make miracles.

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No One Except Jesus

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. – Matthew 17:1‭-‬8

This passage represents a singularity of sorts. The past, present, and future are together on the mountain. This temporal tempest begins with the transfiguration of Jesus. The witnesses to this event are Peter, James, and John. Why God chose to reveal himself in this way to these men and not others is not clear to me, but it was sufficiently traumatic to make them cower in fear. This encounter with God was apparently far from comfortable for them.

Interestingly, neither the miraculous arrival of Moses and Elijah nor the Godly “glow” imparted to Jesus made the disciples afraid. It was when God Himself showed up in the form of a cloud and spoke to them that they felt afraid.

This confluence of the Cloud and Christ seems to be the crux of the passage. It is where the God of the Old Testament, the cloud, makes it crystal clear that Jesus is His son, the Godly Condensate. This revelation and the way it was revealed had a paralyzing effect on Peter, James, and John. It was not until Jesus touched them that they were able to recover and see “no one except Jesus”. Isn’t that what God is trying to do throughout the New Testament?  God is trying to “un-paralyze” His followers by revealing Hemself in profound and compelling ways.

God wants us to ignore all the distractions that attempt to derail our faithful following of His Son Jesus. We are to fix our eyes on Him with such intensity that He is all that we see. If I am honest I must confess that I rarely attain this level of intensity in my imperfect attempts to follow God. Does that mean I should give up and stop trying? I think not.

God knows we are easily distracted and is willing to grant us grace along the journey. I have no doubt that God rejoices when we can see Him clearly through this hazy veil we call “reality”. “Mountain top” experiences, like the one being described here, are what carries us out of the sometimes vexing valleys of despair which seem to be a part of our experience as God followers.

The God who sees us has allowed us to see Him through His Son Jesus. The cloud, the God of the Old Testament, and the Emmanuel, “God with us” of the New Testament, are in fact different reaches of the same “River”. The One River that flows from the creation of Genesis to the resurrection of Revelation.

Prayer: Thank You God for providing opportunities for us to see you clearly.

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Soul Food

When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.” Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. – Matthew 16:5‭-‬12

The water reference here is the lake, but the real topic is “soul food” and yeast. So bread (generically food) is the fuel and raw material that our body uses to build and maintain itself. Our bodies, as important as they seem to us, are really just containers for our souls.

Food for the soul is very different than the ham and cheese sandwich our body craves to survive. “Soul food” is something much more subtle and often requires special “training” to consume. The disciples are in the midst of that soul training here.

I think what Jesus is trying to teach the disciples, and us, is that the “soul food” the Pharisees are providing is not what the disciples need to build strong and healthy souls. What they need is the soul food Jesus is offering.

The choice the disciples face is between the familiar, and on some level effective, leven of the Pharisees. Their religion and traditions appear from the outside to be nourishing their souls when in fact they are spiritually starving. The real “food” our souls need is the miraculous and magical abundance provided by the Son of God. The “yeast” of the Pharisees appears on the outside to make good bread, but it is all really an illusion of substance that dissolves into nothing when mixed with the “saliva” of our spirits.

The “soul food” Jesus is offering is in some ways just the opposite of the yeast bread being offered by the Pharisees. It sometimes can be mistaken for “nothing”, but when we consume it we find that it has become a seven course meal for our souls, just like the fish and loaves miracles that Jesus provides as examples of real “soul food”. It was not the fish flesh and wheat that nourished the souls of those in attendance, it was God’s spirit through his Son Jesus.

I recently discovered that I am gluten intolerant. Apparently this is because my gut has somehow lost it’s ability to produce the necessary chemical enzymes and machinery to break down gluten. I love bread so this discovery was a bit heartbreaking. I have learned to enjoy a burger with a lettuce “bun”. Now I can honestly say I prefer them that way. I learned that in fact the bun was distracting my taste buds from the real focus of the meal, the juicy burger hot off the BBQ. In a way I think what Jesus is saying to the disciples is that they need to develop an intolerance for the yeast of the Pharisees. They need to learn to appreciate the raw spiritual food that God offers to sustain our souls.

The raw spiritual food that Jesus is teaching about is fundamentally about faith and faithfully following God. The disciples need to realize that no hunger coming from their guts should compete with the spiritual hunger that should be in their souls. The only way to satisfy the soul hunger is to seek out the spiritual sustenance that God provides all those who seek it out and train their souls to consume it on a regular basis.

Prayer: God help us to train our souls to consume the soul food that truly satisfies.

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Healing and Feeding

Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee

Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?” “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.” He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children. After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan. – Matthew 15:29‭-‬39

Jesus continues his “Lake ministry” walking beside the Sea of Galilee (Lake of Gennesaret) in this passage. As I have pondered this passage a question has occurred to me, why did Jesus choose this location near the lake to begin sharing the Good News about the kingdom of God? Part of the reason may have been merely geographic in that Jesus was familiar with this area and it was close to where he grew up in Nazareth. I wonder if there were other reasons as well.

The lake provided easy transportation, especially for someone who can walk on water in a pinch. Numerous times Jesus and His disciples have relied on a boat for transportation and sometimes to provide a venue for teaching to a large crowd. My wife pointed out that this unique venue for teaching may have provided favorable acoustics for teaching to a large crowd as well. Fortunately many of Jesus’ disciples were fisherman experienced in lake navigation and tending a boat.

The lake was where people washed both their bodies and their clothes. They collected food in the form of fish from the lake. The lake provided for them. So it was very fitting that Jesus who came to provide Living Water and food for the soul chose this place to meet, teach, heal, and feed.

I suspect the lake was a community focal point where people met and gathered. Similar to the role of community wells in dryer areas away from the lake. Mountain springs in Haiti are a place where people from all directions gather once or twice a day to fetch water. There is much communication and sharing that takes place at these springs. I suspect the Sea of Galilee was also a place where people met and shared about family news and local events several times a day. Interesting news about a young man who claimed to be the Son of God who could heal the sick and give sight to the blind.

In this passage Jesus leaves the lake to move up onto the mountainside. I am not sure why he does this except that perhaps he is reaching a different set of people than those who frequent the lake. I am not sure. I suppose that if one of His main reasons for going there was to heal the lame and sick it makes sense to go to them since they may not have been able to go to the lake. Whatever the reason Jesus shows compassion for the people in several ways. He heals them, then he feeds them. This is the same process that Jesus promises for all those willing to faithfully follow Him. Healing then feeding.

The healing that takes place in modern day Jesus followers may be physical as described here, but I think even more often the healing is a spiritual cleansing of the soul that takes place if we allow the healer to heal us. He changes and channels our hearts in new directions and feeds us as we continue to learn about this new way of living.

Prayer: God heal the broken and battered parts of our souls so we can move in the new directions You have for us.

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Cleansing for Contaminated Souls

Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” – Matthew 15: 15‭-‬20

So here is the “rest of the story” as Paul Harvey used to say. Jesus provides the explanation for his disciples of the previous conversation with the teachers of the law about hand washing and human traditions. Jesus is not so impressed by the reasoning abilities of the disciples asking them “are you still so dull?”

Jesus goes on to explain that what enters the mouth passes right through the body, but the things that come out of a person’s mouth, words, are what can defile them. The words that a person chooses reflect the state of their heart, and by analogy, their soul. It is the heart and soul of a person that results in “defiling” not what they eat or whether they wash their hands before they eat.

From a secular perspective the washing of hands on a regular basis can prevent all sorts of physical illness and contamination from the food and water we consume, but Jesus knows this. Yet He still makes this point that it is not physical illness or contamination that we should worry about — it is soul defiling or contamination. So what is soul contamination? What are the symptoms of it? More importantly how do we prevent it from happening?

Jesus provides a list of some of the symptoms of soul contamination. I am pretty sure this is not exhaustive, but He specifically lists “evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” If everyone could avoid this list of soul contamination symptoms the world would a pretty different place. Just the sort of place that Jesus was trying to usher into the world through the disciples and His teaching.

It turns out the list is pretty comprehensive in that it includes that all encompassing first item, “evil thoughts”. This would include all thoughts that are out of sync with the will of God for our lives. I think Jesus was trying to make the point that following God in this new way is much harder and more comprehensive than the list of rules and practices that the teachers of the law were practicing. They were stuck hoarding their “old treasures” at the expense of a more effective way to follow and love God.

So back to the original question swirling about in this eddy of epistemology; do we need to wash our hands to be clean? Maybe from a purely physical perspective it is a good idea, but we should not fool ourselves that cleaning of that sort, or any other physical act, can take the place of the deep soul cleansing accomplished on the cross.

Prayer: God help us to accept the deep soul cleansing accomplished on cross that was freely given to all those willing the accept it.

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Hand Washing and Human Traditions

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ ” – Matthew 15:1‭-‬9

The purveyors of the “old treasures” show up again in today’s passage. They did not get the memo about sharing new treasures as well as old.  They are upset that the followers of Jesus are not washing their hands before they eat. They admit that this is a tradition rather than a command from God, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” So it seems they have tacked a human tradition onto the old commands and rituals about being clean and ceremonial cleanliness found in Leviticus and Numbers. Most of this washing was about gaining access to the temple and God’s presence. These teachers of the law have failed to recognize the “Godly Condensate” right in front of them.

Jesus does not answer their question directly.  Instead He bring up what would seem to be a somewhat strange topic given what the teachers just said.  Jesus brings up the command to honor mothers and fathers. Reading between the lines it sounds like there is a dispute about a practice that has risen up related to parental inheritance and caring for aging parents. Jesus seems to be calling these teachers out on a practice of using items or “treasure” that has been devoted to God to care for aging parents.  Perhaps the parents dedicated certain items or wealth to the church then found themselves needing some of these resources and the scribes and pharisees were reluctant to release them. They were holding onto the tradition of devoting items to God at the expense of a more important commandment to honor your father and mother.

Why does Jesus choose to bring up this seemingly tangential human tradition at this particular moment?  As I have thought and prayed about this it occurs to me that this command to honor their earthly mother and father is connected to honoring their spiritual Father, God. So what Jesus is reminding these teachers about is that they are not honoring their spiritual Father, who happens to be standing in front of them in the flesh. The reason they are doing this is that they are valuing human tradition over a heart to heart connection.

Jesus calls them hypocrites, which I have always thought is an interesting word.  Apparently, the word hypocrite is from a Greek word that essentially means a stage actor playing a role. So these “actors” were playing the role of religious teachers but their heart was not “all in” for God. Jesus quotes Isaiah “these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” The caution here is to avoid decorating the altar with things that don’t matter and distract from a vibrant relationship with God.

Our relationship with God is supposed to be heart to heart and soul to soul. It seems that human traditions have a way of getting in the way of this close connection and relationship. God wants to channel our hearts toward Himself and some of our human traditions can form barriers to this channeling process. Sometimes these barriers may need to be torn down in order for us to reach the connection to One River that God desires for us.

My take home from this passage is that one must be very thoughtful about the traditions in which we choose to invest our time, energy, and treasures. I am not saying we need to forsake going to church and hold up in a mountain top monastery. I think this misses the point Jesus is trying to make here. He wants all our human activities and actions to be take place within the context of a vibrant living relationship with the Living Water that keeps us healthy and fit.  Some traditions may seem to be very “God honoring” on the surface, but if they get in the way of an intimate relationship with God they must be set aside, at least until we are able to see them with the proper posture and perspective.

Prayer: God help us to keep our human traditions in proper perspective so that we can have hearts that are channeled by You. 

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Walking on the Lake

The Struggle

The Struggle Painting by George Richardson

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” – Matthew 14:22‭-‬33

This is one of the passages that inspired the title of this blog, “Walking on Water”. It has to be one of the most well known passages from the life of Jesus. The connection to water is clear, but there are many eddies and undercurrents to explore here that sometimes get lost in the familiarity. In the first part of the passage Jesus reveals His heart and need for alone-time to be with God and pray. As  someone who appreciates alone-time myself I can relate to the need for some space.

Jesus sent the people away, which it seems would have required divine intervention as it seems there was always someone who needed something from Him.  He sends his disciples away in the boat across the lake too. This must have been somewhat puzzling to them at the time. Did they think he would hitch a ride on another boat or walk around the lake on foot? I suspect the idea of him walking across the water on foot did not occur to them. Jesus sent them on a difficult and dangerous path but he did it for a reason.

So the disciples are in a boat that they apparently just spent the night in during a wild storm.  They may have been grumbling a bit about Jesus sending them out on the lake into a storm. It does say “Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side”.  This is not the first time that Jesus has “forced” the disciples to do things that they thought were hard or out of their comfort zone. They are wet, tired, afraid, and probably unsure about their decision to follow this young man who sent them out on the lake alone.

It is at this time, in their darkest hour just before the sun rose, that God showed up. Jesus clearly shows up in a way, and at a time, that they were not expecting.  The Jewish people were also looking for the Messiah to show up. Jesus showed up in a way, and at a time, they were were not expecting.

The “walking on the lake” miracle has not been mastered by many other humans before or since. Clearly God wanted to use this suspension of the normal laws of physics for a reason. I do not think it was “rough magic” used simply to impress the disciples. He was pushing them to understand that not only do the waves obey Him, but He has mastery of the water itself. He is leading them by this difficult path to the only conclusion that is possible, that “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Peter, my namesake was called on to take a few extra steps down the difficult road.  His difficult road led him right out of the safety of the boat and into the arms of Jesus. As long as his eyes were fixed on Jesus the way was clear and he was able to walk on water. There have been many times in my life when God has called on me to do hard things. None so difficult as Peter when he stepped out of that boat, but I think I can imagine the way he was feeling. Sort of like standing next to a steep cliff looking over the edge. Maybe he was thinking is this really where you need me to go Lord?

What I find interesting about these times is that when I look back on them the reason I was sent on the difficult road, or given the challenging task, is usually different than the reason I thought I was setting out on the road for in the first place. The disciples set out across a lake because Jesus asked them to and they found the very God who had sent them in the first place. This is a reassuring thing indeed and gives me confidence when I find myself embarking on a difficult road being distracted by the waves.

Prayer: God You are both the maker of waves and the one who can calm them.  Help us to boldly set our where you need us to go. 




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