There is a legend about a traveler making his way to a large city. One night he meets two other travelers along the road–Fear and Plague.
Plague explains to the traveler that, once they arrived, they are expected to kill 10,000 people in the city. The traveler asks Plague if Plague would do all the killing. “Oh no,” Plague responded. “I shall kill only a few hundred. My friend Fear will kill the others.”
Fear, whether real or imagined, can discourage us, overwhelm us, and strangle us. Fear is widespread ranging from fear of failure to fear of war and terrorists.
The disciples of Jesus experienced many of these same feelings. In Luke 17:5-10, we read of their beseeching Jesus to increase their faith. Perhaps this is a cry or prayer you may have said at one time or another, “Lord–increase our faith! Help us believe enough so that we can do what it is that you have commanded us to do–help us to trust enough so that we can live as you say we should be living. Lord, take away our fear!”
How does Jesus respond to their pleas? Does he lay his hands on them and pray and give them more faith as they asked? Does he snap his fingers and grant them a double dose of the Holy Spirit? No–instead, he says to them: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry, ‘be uprooted up and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” I imagine the disciples looking at one another with the unspoken question: Do you know what Jesus is talking about?
I think Jesus’ odd response to the disciples can be explained through the concept of “the butterfly effect.” The notion in chaos theory is that no matter how complex a system is the slightest change in initial conditions can have far-reaching effects, changing a system dynamically. Edward Lorenz first observed and proposed this theory back in the 1960s when he was running computer models of weather measurements. When he entered even the slightest difference in the initial number in his equations, the resulting outcomes were dramatically changed. His paper submitted for a scientific talk he gave in 1992 was titled, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?”
Might there be something in the butterfly effect that Jesus is trying to tell us? Possibly that even the smallest intention and action toward following Jesus, toward doing the good, the smallest glimpses of that holiness and wholeness in the midst of our fear and brokenness can help bring the kingdom of God into being?
In the novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird, the character Tom, an African-American, is wrongly accused of assaulting a white teenage girl and he is held in the town jail. A group of white men approach the jail with the intention to lynch and kill Tom. On the front steps sits Tom’s lawyer, Atticus Finch, the moral center of the novel. Atticus’ daughter, Scout, runs to Atticus’ side and she watches the men. Her father tells her to run away and go home. But Scout doesn’t run, and she doesn’t fight. Instead she finds the right words that become a kind of mustard seed.
Scout looks at one of the men in the mob and says, “Hey Mister Cunningham, don’t you remember me? I go to school with Walter. He’s your boy, ain’t he? We brought him home for dinner one time. Tell your boy ‘hey’ for me, will you?” There was a long pause. Then Cunningham responds to Scout: “I’ll tell him you said ‘hey,’ little lady,” and he turns to leave. With Cunningham’s departure, the rest of the mob begins to break up and leave.
Scout offered a small, gentle reminder of God’s goodness. And what she said was a mustard seed–nothing courageous and noble– because she saw Mr. Cunningham’s humanity and touched that humanity enough to bring him out of his irrational inhumanity. It was a “butterfly effect,” a tiny mustard seed that changed the events of that night.
I am reminded of the prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi:
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy ….”
In this world where doubt, hatred, and despair reign so supreme, it seems almost impossible that such small seeds of faith, love, and hope have much chance of surviving. No wonder we cry out with the disciples, “Increase our faith!”
Remember: “The slightest change in initial conditions—no matter how complex–can have far-reaching effects.” Mustard seeds matter.