Small Seeds, Signs, and Wonders

The Mulberry Tree by Vincent van Gogh

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Luke 17:5-10

So often it seems that Jesus was not really listening. He seems not to have listened to what people asked him or said to him, or maybe it is just that his responses were so unexpected.

His disciples, some of them, maybe all of them, however many there were at this moment—nothing here mentions a number—ask Jesus to increase their faith. It’s unclear what they expect. Maybe they thought he would touch them, or wave his hand over them, or speak a few words like a prayer, and they would have enough faith to work miracles.

Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh
Tree Roots by Vincent van Gogh

Signs and wonders. That is what they wanted to work, signs and wonders, and that is why they asked for more faith. And who could blame them? They had grown up hearing about floating axeheads, of poison made harmless with a little salt, of bears and of drought and of rain and of fire falling from heaven. Never mind Moses, the Hebrew superhero of the ancient world.

Instead, Jesus tells them that it doesn’t take much faith, not really. It’s the famous mustard seed line—if you had faith as a grain or seed of mustard, you could command mulberry trees to leap into the sea. (What did he have against mulberry trees?)

Maybe he meant that a tiny amount of faith was enough. It isn’t about the size of one’s faith, but of God’s power. That sounds ok, doesn’t it? After all, if we go around trying to measure faith, trying to determine how much is enough, enough to be thought faithful, enough to be thought good, enough faith to be thought a child of God, then where would it end and how much would be enough?

Jesus went on to remind them all that they were no better than slaves, that the work they did was only what was expected. So what if they managed enough faith to order trees around, or to work miracles, it was only what was expected.

There are problems with that line of thinking, of course. We don’t go ordering trees around, and if we do, they do not listen. It was never about hurling mulberry trees into the sea anyway.

Almond Blossom by Vincent van Gogh
Almond Blossom by Vincent van Gogh

It is an appealing thought, this notion of having command over nature, ordering trees and rocks to do as we see fit. It’s wizard stuff. All in the service of God, of course—if one ordered a tree to jump into the ocean, it would be in the service of God, wouldn’t it?

Only how does that work? Why would God empower us to command trees? To impress unbelievers? That would probably work wonders on church attendance, though God could come up with more impressive displays. It is an odd image, suicidal trees, like wooden lemmings leaping from a cliff’s edge.

Why would Jesus offer such a thing instead of, say, telling us we could heal the sick, or raise the dead? Wouldn’t healing the sick be at least as impressive as bullying trees, and be of direct benefit to the sick?

No, it was never about the trees. And a tiny amount of faith is enough, he says, to work astonishing miracles, at least the ones that matter.

Maybe that is it.

Jesus is not only ascribing a size to our imagined faith, but taking the air out of our self aggrandizing miracle balloon. Our tiny faith would be sufficient, since God is sufficient. On the other hand, God isn’t asking for anyone to work flashy miracles. God asks for day to day things: plowing a field, tending sheep, serving a meal, all of which are miraculous in an everyday way, when you think about them. Planting a field of grain and watching it grow is astonishing. Working wool into a blanket is miraculous, especially in the winter. To serve a meal is to sustain both life and civilization, embodied in a single simple act.

Maybe we could paraphrase Jesus.

“If you had any real faith, the tiniest bit, you’d already be working signs and wonders. You’d be growing things, growing one another, tending to one another. Feeding people, meeting their needs. Those are signs, and wonders, enough for anyone. And you wouldn’t go around expecting thanks either. You’d do it because you ought to do it, because what you are doing becomes who you are. You’d do it because that’s what God’s people do. You’d do it because that’s what God does.”


Still, a little of that commanding mulberry trees kind of stuff would be useful. Or fire from heaven.

The Mulberry Tree by Vincent van Gogh
The Mulberry Tree by Vincent van Gogh

A Man Called Lazarus

By Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov -Притча_о_Лазаре._1886.jpg, Public Domain,

Luke 16:19-31 | Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Only one character has a name out of all of the parables that Jesus told, and his name is Lazarus. That is almost as remarkable as the fact that the miracle of raising the other Lazarus from the dead is only told in the Gospel of John; the synoptic gospels—Mark, Matthew and Luke—never mention it. That other Lazarus is raised from the dead, being four days in the grave, and it gets no mention. Yet here in Luke, the only place the parable of the rich man is told, the poor beggar gets the same name.

To be fair, in the oldest manuscript (P75) containing this story, the rich man is said to be known “by the name of Neues…” The Vulgate translation gave us ‘Dives’, but that simply means “rich man” and was not intended as a name. Elsewhere, the rich man is as nameless as the Pharaoh of Exodus.

By Meister des Codex Aureus Epternacensis - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain,
Lazarus and the Rich Man, Codex Aureus of Echternach, c. 1030-1050

Maybe the poor man is called Lazarus because there is a mention of resurrection: ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ If there is a link between the Lazarus of John’s Gospel and this parable, it is tenuous.

Ironically, the main action of the story takes place after this Lazarus is dead.

The imagery of this parable contributes to our notions of heaven and hell. Of course, it is not clear that Lazarus and the rich man are in different places—they might be in the same overall place, a Hades something like the notion of the afterlife we find in Greek mythology but separated into different areas, like the dead who come to speak to the Greek hero Odysseus in Homer’s story. It could also be that the parable is describing heaven and hell after all, with the surprising aspect of making each visible from the other but divided by a chasm that cannot be crossed.

It is a mistake to take any of these details literally. As in any mythological tale or great story, the point is truth, not facts. (Facts may be true, but they are not truth, not the kind of truth that can make life worth living.) Abraham, the gate keeper figure of this parable, might have been Saint Peter had the parable been told a few centuries later—the role is the same as in later notional tales where Peter is the gatekeeper of heaven.

One oddity of the story is the lack of detail regarding why the rich man is condemned, and there’s a second oddity in the peculiar detail that is present:

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.’

Anyone who believes that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and that poverty a sign of the lack of it, an idea that emerged early in Old Testament thought but one that the prophets thoroughly trashed and discarded (a theological trajectory of understanding moves through scripture), should hear a word of warning. We assume that the rich man’s offenses are self-absorption and a lack of compassion for Lazarus. What the Abraham character (and therefore Jesus) tells us is more straightforward but perplexing—the rich man received good things in his lifetime, but Lazarus only suffered. There is a sense of balance, but there is little that matches up with any expectations of a final judgment and of God’s justice. Still, there is one more aspect of the rich man’s life that is mentioned, and it may be the critical element of the entire parable. He did not believe.

The rich man’s response to God, or rather the lack of it, is the true basis for his present condition. In fact, it is because of this same indifference on the part of his brothers that the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn them. Surely, the rich man says, they will believe if someone rises from the dead.

Here is the early kerygma of the Church, the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus and the demand that faithful people respond to it. The demand is not simply to live a moral life, not to feed the hungry or help the poor: those are baseline behaviors expected of any decent person. The critical matter in the Christian proclamation is the response to the presence of God as witnessed in the resurrection of Jesus. Of course, anyone responding to such love in God would also respond to a poor man starving on the steps.

Hendrick ter Brugghen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Rich Man and Lazarus, by Hendrick ter Brugghen, 1625
Feeding Lazarus would have made the rich man more of a decent human being. It would not have addressed the central question Jesus is posing—how do we respond to the presence of God? To put it another way, why are we going to feed Lazarus? Because it is the decent thing? Because there but for grace and accident of birth or opportunity go we? Or are we going to feed Lazarus because we recognize the presence of God in the person of the beggar at our gate?

Boundaries, chasms, and gates fill this story. The rich man reclines inside his walls, beyond his gates, unreachable by the beggar Lazarus who lies dying outside. Then the rich man is in torment inside the walls of death, outside the gateway of life, watched by Lazarus, who never speaks a word throughout the entire parable.

The other Lazarus of John’s Gospel lay dead inside a tomb, cut off by the dual obstacles of stone and of death. In that story, Jesus removed the stone, but he stood outside and called to Lazarus. What if that Lazarus had been like this rich man and all his brothers and refused to respond? What if Lazarus had closed his ears, refused to listen to the echo of Jesus’ voice reaching into the darkness of that tomb, calling him back to life?

We might wonder the same thing about ourselves. We might stop to listen, and go to see who is waiting outside the walls we have built.

By Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov -Притча_о_Лазаре._1886.jpg, Public Domain,
Lazarus at the Gate of the Rich Man, Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov, 1886

The Rascal, Jesus, and Crashing Heaven’s Gate

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Luke 16:1-13

It is hard to know what to make of the story Jesus tells—a dishonest manager shrewdly casting his employer’s bread upon the waters, illicitly reducing their debts so as to bind them in obligation to himself.

By Phillip Medhurst - Photo by Harry Kossuth, FAL,
The Unjust Steward by Jan Luyken

You can almost imagine the fellow trying to slip past the pearly gates, telling St Peter that he is only visiting friends: go ahead and buzz them, if you don’t believe me. The rascal is honestly praised in the story for his brazen and brilliantly manipulative deception.

It gives the lie to the notion that good people do well in this world. We know that story. We have all heard it, whether we believe it or deny it. Work hard, do the right thing, always be honest, and all will be well with you.

In heaven, maybe. Here, not so much. Here, Balzac’s observation that behind every great fortune is a crime seems closer to the mark.

Neither does Jesus meet our expectations. We always hear about his kindness, his patience, how much Jesus loves us, but in this passage Luke captures another side—the satirical Jesus, ripping into the crowd with his sharp words.

“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” It’s tweet-worthy. You can imagine it on social media today, a zinger from @JesusHimself perhaps.

The Unjust Steward, by Andrey Mironov
The Unjust Steward, by Andrey Mironov

What if we are wrong, and there is no afterlife? What then? Paul wrote to the rowdy bunch in Corinth that if there is no resurrection, if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:19) Is an afterlife the only way to understand Jesus? Without a second life of greater reward, are we fools to live lives of honest work and simple means? Perhaps, if this heaven is a future place, that might be so. On the other hand, we might well note that such an afterlife is the one in the expectations of the audience, not one that Jesus elaborates upon in this passage. After all, Luke is the gospel where Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is within you.” (17:21) It is the modern church insisting upon future rewards, not Jesus.

The kingdom of God is within you, he said. Present. While we hope for a life beyond death, something new, something more, we are promised something now. One does not preclude the other. There is no either-or, no choice between a future and a present. We need not wait for that second life to embrace the gospel vision of reward. How will you be trusted with the true riches? Who will give you what is your own? Jesus asks interesting questions. And what is eternity if not the present?

God, of course, gives the true riches, and what is our own is within us. All the riches of the world can be taken away, but that which is within you is eternal.



Finding the Small Things

Nine Coins

Luke 15:1-10 | Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

A shepherd finds one sheep that was lost, a poor woman finds one coin that was lost, and they stop to celebrate something found, something redeemed, something made whole.

One sheep out of a herd of a hundred, one coin out of a collection of ten—these are not great losses. You might expect to loose a sheep or two over a season. As to the coins, while a ten percent loss is noteworthy, it is not unheard of. Ask anyone who has money invested in the stock market.

CoinsfromJarVertYet in these two stories Jesus tells, the losses matter. A shepherd goes out into wilder places looking for one lost sheep. Is it because this sheep matters more to him, or because this sheep needs him more? Jesus makes the odd claim that anyone hearing his story would do the same thing, but would they? An old woman turns her household upside down to find one lost coin, and Jesus claims there is nothing notable in her determination to find it. And both the shepherd and the woman are delighted to find what they have lost, calling friends and neighbors to celebrate such good fortune.

Maybe Jesus included his audience ironically. How many of them would have gone into dangerous places to find one sheep, or would have put so much energy into finding one coin? Some of them would have, but many would not. Most of them would have at least noticed what they had lost. Would we?

These stories speak to the way we value things. In our modern state of distraction, our telephones ringing and chiming, our jobs and families and televisions pulling at us, we lose things. Small things go missing. We lose parts of ourselves, our time, our focus, and in our distraction we fail to notice the loss. If we do notice, we find ourselves carried along by the current of demands so that we fail to stop and look for things, fail to reclaim our time, our interests, the small cutaway bits of well being that go missing, get lost, or are stolen.

Perhaps that is how we modern folk tend to die, not like a hero in the climax of a story, but little by little before we go altogether, not noticing what we lose and let go, until at the end there is nothing of us left but the expectations of others. We become what the world has expected that we will become, a small shriveled thing about to disappear entirely, and along the way we tacitly agreed to the loss.

Small things matter. That is one message of the stories Jesus tells these people. Small things matter to us, should matter to us, and we should not allow the world to shove and bully us into submission. Hold onto the good bits of your lives, he is saying, and don’t allow them to be lost, sloughed off, eroded like a stone turning slowly into sand.

There is another message here. We are all small things, one sheep among many, at best one coin in the collection. Take a walk down the busy streets of New York or Calcutta, and part of you is lost to the elbows of passersby and to the realization of smallness that slips into the mind of any reasonable human not suffering a Napoleon complex.

Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa was just proclaimed a saint by Pope Francis. If any of us have been saints, surely she was. Going out into streets and searching for the lost things was her occupation. She found lost sheep, picked up small coins, and treated the least of them with compassion, dignity, recognizing their importance. She made the outrageous claim that each person matters to God, that in each small, wrinkled, dying human face, she saw the same Jesus who told these stories.

That is also one of the messages. We small things matter to God, despite much evidence that the world would suggest proves otherwise. Where was God when this happened or when that tragedy befell? Where was God when refugees lost their homes to war and to famine, when governments failed and gave way to pirates and violence, when floods and earthquakes and now even the lowly mosquito come bringing doom?

Saint Teresa would tell us that God is present in each person lost, and that God watches it all, seeing it through our eyes. Rather than ask where God is, we do better to ask where we are, where our feet have carried us and what our hands are doing, how we are looking after the other sheep, even the ones who are strange to us, and where we are putting our coins.

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I am very happy to announce that the new website is up and running.

Many of you know that my daughter, Lauren, has been contributing artwork and graphics to CRTaylorBooks for some time. At 13, she is already an artist and graphic designer in her own right. You may even be wearing a t-shirt that she designed. Those designs, and many new ones, will now be available on (we’ll be closing the storefront on CRTaylorBooks.) celebrates art, science, and literature with designs for people who think, at least a little. Well-loved art and works of literature are available as shirts, all-over printed wearable art, and mugs, with more designs being added all along. We’re both very pleased to be a part of it, and we hope that you will visit and enjoy what you find.