Monday, November 8, 2010

Grudges and Mustard Seeds

I like to think that I’m not the grudge-holding type. That’s not to say that I don’t observe a person’s behavior and make future decisions accordingly. For example, I once asked a certain friend for help moving a heavy appliance. I will never ask for his help again, even though he remains a friend. That’s not the same thing as holding a grudge.

Judging from the reaction of the apostles in today’s gospel (Luke 17:1-6), grudges were not so easy to let fo of in the Mid-East culture of 200 years ago. For all I know, the problem might persist to this day.

Jesus says something in today’s gospel that shocks the apostles. He tells them first that temptations to sin are sure to come; then that the one through whom the temptation comes is doomed; finally, that they must forgive any sins committed against them. The first two seem reasonable, but the third causes the apostles to beg for more faith.

As I sit here thinking through the meaning of this passage, three possibilities come to mind. First, the temptation and woe verses could be tied to the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), which they immediately follow. The problem here is that it’s hard to tie the source of temptation to any figure in the Lazarus tale. Second the temptation and woe verses could be a stand-alone aside. Such an interjection, however, would seem to interrupt the flow of Luke’s narrative. I have no doubt that some scholars who subscribe to the theory of Markan Priority and the existence of the mysterious Q document probably see this as the most likely explanation.

A third option, however, is that Jesus is drawing a connection between the temptation and its source to the one offended by the sin. In that case, did my brother sin against me because I tempted him to, or is his sin against me a temptation to me to sin in retribution? Is the forgiveness that I extend to my brother for my benefit or his? Is this one of those cases where the answer is not either/or, but both/and?

When the apostles object that their faith is insufficient, Jesus responds that they only need a little: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” Was it a statement of encouragement or frustration? Letting go of the grudge was more than the apostles could imagine.

Even if I can extend forgiveness to others more readily than the apostles , that gives me no cause to look down upon the them. I have my own obstacles that keep me from fully embracing the holiness that is the human vocation. In my imagination, I can picture Him telling me sadly, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed,…”

No comments: