Are we literally supposed to be able to move mountains by faith?

Q. Something Jesus said has always been a bit troubling to me. He told his disciples once that they hadn’t been able to cast out a demon “because you have so little faith.” Then he added, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” I have to say I certainly believe I have faith and strive for it, but I’ve never quite been able to make a mountain jump. That said, I have not noticed anyone else making mountains jump either. Are we to assume that no one currently on earth has the kind of faith needed, or was this a parable not to be taken literally?

I believe that Jesus’ comment about moving a mountain is the kind of hyperbole (rhetorical exaggeration to make a point) that we also see him using elsewhere. (This was a favored device of rabbis at the time.) For example: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven”; “When you give to the needy, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”; “If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.”

This device was attention-grabbing, and I think one thing that made it memorable and effective was that listeners were indeed left wondering whether to take it literally, and if not, what it actually meant. I think the main point here is the contrast between small faith and a great mountain.

At this point in Matthew, Jesus has just come down from the Mountain of Transfiguration, so he may well be gesturing towards that mountain, which would be looming above him and his audience. But he made the same point on another occasion, apparently in a different location, by saying, “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.”

So no one should feel that if they can’t imagine themselves literally making a mountain move, they must not have enough faith. Instead, I think we’re meant to apply the image metaphorically and ask, “What is the ‘mountain’ in my life that seems impossible to move? That must be possible for God, because even if I have the tiniest bit of faith, so long as it’s in an infinitely powerful God, this situation can be addressed.”

That last thought relates to the question of why Jesus told the disciples they couldn’t cast out the demon because of their little faith, when only the tiniest bit of faith is required. Did the disciples really not have even a minuscule amount of faith? No, I think we’re supposed to ponder this issue that the statement raises as well and realize that the question isn’t how much faith we have, but how much power God has, who is the object of our faith. We can then put our faith to work and trust God to address any situation where his great power is needed to advance his purposes.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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