A Grain of Mustard Seed

Monday, 4 October

Reflecting on the events of last Tuesday morning I was thankful that Leonard had chosen to take a break from our work and spend some time with me away from the house, the workroom and Luke. He spoke so freely without the distraction of mixing paints, fixing lighting issues and fiddling with rickety easels and I was far more relaxed and less self-conscious without his critical eye on me for hours on end. The fresh air and picturesque scenery was a pleasant change and it provided a welcome break for us both.

Leonard’s impromptu lecture continued from that point onwards to address the arrogant attitude of the magician in the ancient world and I was interested to discover why the magician would behave so disrespectfully towards the gods by calling himself a ‘son of god’ or even claiming to be a god himself. Leonard explained that the magician took an attitudinal approach towards the gods that was in complete contrast to the mind-set of the pious miracle-worker. Whereas the miracle-worker would claim that his miracles were carried out as a direct result of his prayers to God and it was God who ultimately had the final decision in whether the requested task would be performed, the magician who had successfully gained control over divine powers (either by harnessing the obedience of a divine spirit or possessing divine powers himself) could be identified by his bold and arrogant claims that he possessed unlimited power within himself and that he was able to behave like the gods, performing miracles and achieving impossible tasks entirely according to his own will. I expected Leonard to condemn the magician's boastful conduct, particularly given his earlier comments regarding Luke’s arrogant behaviour, but I detected a slight hint of admiration in his voice when he spoke about them.

Leonard then asked me to bear this distinction between magician and miracle-worker in mind when considering Jesus’ attitude towards his miracle-working power source in the Gospels. He said that if the Gospel writers were keen to present Jesus as an obedient worshipper of God and they sought to demonstrate that Jesus requires God's approval and bestowal of power before a healing or exorcism could take place, then it is surprising that the healing and exorcism accounts do not record any instances of Jesus offering up a prayer or request to God. Jesus simply assumes that a miracle will occur without the need to ask for assistance and therein, Leonard argued, lies the arrogance of a magician who is assured that the spirits operating under his authority will respond instantly to his command or, equally, a magician who has achieved a divine status and does not need to offer a prayer to an external spiritual intermediary since he knows that he possesses within himself the ability to produce miracles.

As an example of Jesus’ arrogant assurance of his powers, Leonard drew my attention to the story of Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. He said that this account is littered with the hallmarks of ancient magic and it not only reveals that Jesus’ will alone is sufficient to bring about a miracle but also that his powers can be exploited for personal gain or mindless destruction. If my reader is unfamiliar with this story then the main points are as follows: Jesus encounters a fig tree on the way to Jerusalem that is not bearing fruit and, as Leonard pointed out, the author of Mark tells us that it is ‘not the season for figs’ and therefore we understand that the absence of figs is entirely natural and the tree is not sick or dead. Since the tree is not to blame for its lack of fruit, Leonard said that Jesus’ tantrum-like behaviour and his subsequent cursing and destruction of the fig tree is not only entirely unwarranted, but Jesus’ aggressive and frivolous misuse of his powers appears to be prompted entirely by his own selfish frustrations and desires and God’s will is notably absent throughout the passage.

“I haven’t read the story in that light before...” I confessed, “Jesus’ reaction does seem a little… extreme...”
“Well then, do you see?” Leonard answered, his tone of voice becoming quite animated, “We are reading an account of an arrogant magician here!”

Leonard then turned his attention to the withering curse that Jesus employs to destroy the fig tree. He said that Jesus’ enraged statement ‘may no fruit ever come from you again’ is similar to the binding curses that are found within the magical papyri which read, for example, ‘may he not be able...’ or ‘let him not...’ and he said that the act of ‘withering’ in particular was closely associated with malevolent magic and the ‘evil eye’ as it involved the drawing out or drying up of life-giving liquids and nutrients such as the milk from cows, the milk from the breasts of women, the semen from men and the juices from fruit, trees and crops.

“But why would the Gospel authors include this story if it portrays Jesus in such a negative light and it is suggestive of malevolent magic?” I asked. Leonard answered that the story is preserved by the Gospel evangelists because it serves an important purpose in the narrative; it is intended to illustrate the subsequent faith teaching that follows...

The faith teaching.

Luke had mentioned this before and I was instantly alert and attentive to every word that Leonard spoke. 

Leonard explained that in the faith teaching that follows the withering of the fig tree in Mark’s account, Jesus teaches that a miracle will occur if the person ‘does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass’, which suggest that the performer’s faith in his own words and actions is the sole requirement that is needed to achieve a miracle. The subsequent addition of the importance of prayer softens the magical implications of this teaching but, Leonard argued, this confidence in a guaranteed response reflects the boastful arrogance of the magician who believes that his authoritative command alone can bring about a miracle.

Leonard then pointed out a similar teaching that appears in an earlier passage in Matthew 17:20: ‘For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as 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 to you.’ He said that it is unclear whether this passage in Matthew’s Gospel teaches the importance of faith in God or faith in oneself. It is presumed that Jesus is addressing the disciples’ faith in God, however since the command is addressed directly to the mountain rather than to God, it appears that God does not have a functional role in the process and the operative faith that is required is the person’s faith in his own skills and abilities. Leonard then quoted Luke 17:6: ‘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.’ He highlighted the fact that the tree uproots itself directly in obedience to the person who is issuing the command, which suggests that the person himself possesses the ability to uproot the sycamine tree and this result is achieved independently of God’s approval or bestowal of power.

I agreed that Jesus’ teachings do seem a little boastful and it is surprising that the will of God is absent in these Gospel passages, but Leonard was keen to demonstrate that the faith teaching had serious implications far beyond anything that I could imagine. He pointed out that if in order to perform a miracle, a person must simply ‘believe that you have received it, and it will be yours’ (Mark 11:24) then this could account for occasions in the Gospels in which an individual’s faith in their own actions appears to directly bring about their salvation. For instance, the haemorrhaging woman in Mark 5:28 and Matthew 9:21 believes that if she touches Jesus’ clothing then she will be healed and this confidence facilitates her healing, which appears to be achieved independently of a bestowal of power from Jesus. Similarly, Jesus tells the possessed boy’s father in Mark 9:23 that ‘all things are possible to the one who believes’ and when Peter begins to sink in the water when attempting to walk on the sea, Jesus says to him ‘O man of little faith, why did you doubt?’ (Matthew 14:31). Perhaps, Leonard summarised, it is not the individual’s faith in Jesus or God that is their saving grace in these stories, but rather the faith and confidence that they have in themselves and their own actions...

I looked at Leonard with complete bewilderment as I tried to process all of the information that he had thrown at me. I was seeing these passages in an entirely different light and my head was spinning with the implications of this new interpretation of them. And then Leonard said and did something that I will never forget. His right hand was flat on the step of the bandstand and beneath it was the lifeless body of the fly that he had killed half-an-hour or so earlier. He lifted this hand, placed it in his lap, looked up into the roof of the bandstand, sighed and said:

“Y'know, the bible is generally useless as a guide for everyday life...aside from a few insightful words in Deuteronomy...but for the mystic and the scholar it offers the key to true salvation. And oh what a terrifying thought for both the ancient and modern fathers of the Church this must be - the possibility that man, independently of God’s will, is entirely capable of saving himself...”
Although I was deeply engrossed in my own thoughts and I paid little attention to Leonard’s movements beside me, out of the corner of my eye I saw him gently unfurl his fingers and I swear that I caught sight of a tiny black shape as it flew across in front of my eyes. Tricks of the light and optical illusions aside, when I looked down at his hand it was empty.