Attended a church service last Sunday where the pastors are finishing a series on prayer. The pastor who spoke pointed to Matthew 17:20 where Jesus says “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.” As is typical when addressing this passage, the preacher went on to explain that if we have enough faith, then God will answer our prayers. Much was made of the quantity of faith and nothing was said about the quality of faith. Was Jesus intending to use the mustard seed to speak to how much faith one has, or was he using the mustard seed to illustrate the opposite idea, namely, it does not matter how much faith you have, but what matters is whether you have the kind of faith that God responds to when praying? Here’s my take.
The context beginning with Matthew 17:14ff shows that, despite the disciples’ presumed successes in casting out demons (see Mt 10:1ff), to their surprise they were powerless to exorcise a demon that possessed a certain young boy. The boy’s father then brought his son to Jesus who successfully performed the expulsion. Afterwards, the disciples asked Jesus privately “Why could we not cast it out?” (Mt 17:19). Jesus responds with “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
The question is what Jesus meant by “your little faith” (ὀλιγοπιστίαν ὑμῶν) and the metaphor of the mustard seed gives us a clue. Rather than how much faith, Jesus chooses the smallest of the seeds to show that it is not the amount of faith but the quality or kind of faith that is required for God to act. Jesus does not say “If you have faith as much as a mustard seed” but instead says “If you have faith like [ὡς] a mustard seed.” Jesus compares the disciples’ faith with the seemingly insignificant size of a mustard seed. While size (= quantity) is involved in the comparison, it is the fact that the seed is so small that the amount of faith is not crucial. Don Carson notes that “little faith”
probably does not refer so much to the littleness of their faith as to its poverty…Little faith, like a little mustard seed, can be effectual; poor faith, like that of the disciples’ here, is ineffectual.
(Matthew in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 391)
Leon Morris also notes:
By small faith he is probably referring to the poor quality, the poverty of their faith, for he goes on to speak of even a very little real faith as able to move mountains.
(The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 448)
Grant Osborne’s comments are especially helpful.
The disciples have frequently been chided for their “little faith” ([Mt.] 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8). In those passages we decided this does not refer to total disbelief but rather to a vacillating, struggling faith. Moreover, “faith” does not simply mean certitude that God will grant the request but rather a total dependence on the God who watches after his children. That is the case here. They likely believed their newfound power over illness and the demonic realm gave them status, and they may have been showing off rather than centering on the God who alone has true power. Such self-centeredness guarantees failure.
Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew, (p. 657)
Why does this matter?
My daughter’s A/C just went out on her car and the expense to repair it is enormous (~$1,600)! She, of course as a disciple of Christ, and we are praying that the car manufacturer will perform a “goodwill warranty repair,” since the car’s mileage just went over the full warranty and it’s rare for the problem to occur. At the time of my writing we do not know how this prayer will go. If she does incur the expense, does this mean we do not have enough faith or the right kind of faith? If she does incur the expense, maybe we do have the right kind of faith, but God has something else for us to know that we could not otherwise learn? The burden of having “more faith” if prayers are left unanswered does not seem to be a biblical one. What the inspired texts do suggest is that we must have the right kind of faith if God chooses to move (see Jm 2:19) and if we expect to become mature disciples of Christ.
Accomplishing the works of God’s kingdom through prayer does not require more or less faith, but does require a kind of faith that expects, within the will of God’s providential plan and from a heart of total submission and humility, that changes will occur and favor will be bestowed on those who pray. This is “mustard seed” faith!