...And so in response to that request, Jesus gives the apostles a parable:
“If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, ‘Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Okay, so, first thing here. Notice here that Jesus is using two images from the natural world to give this parable. The first image is that of a mustard seed, and the second is that of a sycamine tree—or a sycamore tree, or a mulberry tree, it’s translated in different ways. So let’s look at each of those in turn. The first image is that of a mustard seed. In the Greek, it’s synapi
. Proverbially, it was seen as the smallest of seeds. Now sometimes, modern readers get bent out of shape, because they’ll say, “Well actually, in point of fact, the mustard seed isn’t the smallest seed in all of creation.” Well, yeah, that’s true, but in Jewish proverbs or Jewish speech, it was just a kind of axiomatic thing to use as an image of something very, very, very small. That was the mustard seed. So it’s an image of their faith being very, very small, and yet very, very powerful.
And then the second element he uses here from the natural world, he says is: “If your faith were even the size of a mustard seed, you could say to the sycamine tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.” Okay, now there are two aspects of that that are worth highlighting here. First, the Greek word for sycamine or mulberry tree is sykaminos
. Some scholars have pointed out that the words here sound similar to one another in Greek. The mustard seeds, synapi
...the sycamine tree, sykaminos
...that maybe there’s an attempt at a kind of word play here that otherwise explains the strange juxtaposition of these two terms, the mustard seed and sycamine tree. In any case, we’re not sure exactly what kind of tree Jesus is referring to here. Many translations will say it’s a mulberry tree, in particular a black mulberry. Others will translate this as a sycamore tree, and you can hear the Greek word sykaminos
...sounds like the root of our English word sycamore tree. And we’re actually going to see a sycamore tree in Luke 19:4 with the famous story of Zaccheus, who climbs up into the sycamore tree.
In any case, when Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this sycamore tree, be uprooted,” he appears to be drawing on the ancient Jewish understanding of sycamore trees—or mustard trees, it’s true of either one—being a small tree with a very wide and deep root system. We actually know that this was the case from the Mishnah. The Mishnah is a collection of ancient Jewish traditions, and in one of the books of the Mishnah, it gives a law about where you can plant a sycamore tree. Listen to this. In Mishnah, tractrate Baba Bathra
2:11, it says:
A tree may not be grown within twenty-five cubits of a cistern, or within fifty cubits if it is a carob or a sycamore-tree…
So in other words, as you’re laying out a town, if there’s a cistern or a well, you shouldn’t plant a tree twenty-five feet from the well, because the roots will penetrate the well and damage the well. But if it’s a sycamore tree, you shouldn’t plant it, you need to push it even further. It needs to be at least fifty cubits, and a cubit is about a foot and a half—it’s about the size, the length from your elbow to your fingertips, about a foot and a half. It needs to be at least fifty cubits from the well, because that’s how far the root system of the sycamore tree will go.
Now, if you’ve ever tried to pull up a weed, like in your garden, that has a root system that goes out six feet—much less sixty feet—you know how difficult it is to pull a plant out of the ground...even a small plant, if it has a widespread root system. It’s basically impossible, in other words, to yank up a sycamore tree by the stump—or by the trunk—because the root system is so extensive. So Jesus is presuming his audience is familiar with that reality of what a sycamine tree is like, so he’s saying “even if your faith was as small as a mustard seed, you could say to the sycamine tree”—first point of impossibility—“be uprooted,” and it would. And the second point is “be planted in the sea, and it would obey you.” Now this is a great example of the parabolic twist, right? Jesus always has some element of his parables—or not always, but often—has some element of the parable that’s unexpected or it’s surprising. It’s not what you would think, and it doesn’t actually match life in the natural world. And as a rule, this would qualify. Nobody plants their sycamore trees in the ocean, right? You don’t plant trees in the ocean. They can’t grow there. And yet, what Jesus is saying is, even if your faith was as small as a mustard seed, you can take this sycamine tree, not only uproot it, but you could plant it in the ocean, and it would obey you.
Okay, now he’s got their attention, right? What is he trying to show them in this parable? He’s trying to show them that faith can do what is completely impossible. It’s completely impossible to speak to a sycamine tree, have it be uprooted, and be planted in the sea—just by the power of the word. And yet, Jesus is saying, if their faith was even as small as a mustard seed, they could do that. So the point is that faith can do supernatural things. Faith can do things that are technically impossible, but it accomplishes these things through the power of God. And that’s the basic point of the parable—a very short parable but very powerful parable..
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