A couple of weeks ago in Harare, early one evening a dog started barking next door. Now I hate barking dogs. This one barked and barked until I was about to get into bed and then it stopped. ”Lord” I said in one of this little arrow prayers to which one is a bit ashamed to admit, “please don’t let it start barking again”. It didn’t! I had a lovely night’s sleep. Had the Lord answered my prayer? Actually, no. I went to sleep quickly but apparently the dog started again and kept my hostess awake till midnight. I could argue that God helped me sleep the sleep of the just despite the dog but that doesn’t show much divine consideration for my hostess, who is much more just than I am.
Today’s gospel brings us up against this problem of unanswered prayer. Jesus makes it sound so simple: if you have just a grain of faith you could move a mulberry tree. Whenever Jesus makes simple remarks like that we can be sure the truth will be much more complex than it appears. It is true that I have never tried to move a mulberry tree. That may be because I have no faith at all that God would want me to do that. That may be the first layer of meaning to be found in this story. Faith in God suggests a certain knowledge of what sort of God he is. I don’t believe God is the sort of God who will move mulberry trees, find me parking places or even infect the people I don’t like with horrible diseases. So I don’t ask for that sort of thing.
There are, however, lots of things which really do seem to me to be good; they seem to be the sort of thing God would like me to ask for – stopping the war in Syria for instance, or curing some people I know who have terminal cancer. Can I ask for that? Well Jesus does tell us to do just that “Ask and you will receive…your father in heaven gives good things to those who ask for them”. God does expect us to ask for things we want for ourselves and for other people but there are two things of which we must be aware in our asking. First, it is not our faith which achieves the miracle; it is God. That may be why Jesus speaks of a grain of faith. We only need a grain of faith to ask God for something we think should happen. That grain is our belief in the goodness of God. After that it is up to God. It would make no difference if I had a great mountain of faith; I cannot bully God into acting. I can’t force God to act no matter how much I shout, scream or display my great faith. It is God who decides; we can only ask.
The second thing is that we don’t actually know what is best. It may seem obvious to us what is best but God sees deeper than we do. For instance, two months ago there was a stolen election in Zimbabwe. The government is vastly unpopular and widely hated. They are also very good at rigging elections. Thousands and thousands of people had been praying for a different result. Why didn’t God give it? Well, I do not presume to know the mind of God but the fact is that if the governing party had lost the election there might well have been a military coup. That could well have led to civil war, especially in the townships of Harare. Thousands of people could have been killed. As long as Mugabe is around he can hold the party together and make them fight for survival. Once he goes it could well fall apart, peacefully. At the moment also the opposition is disunited and poorly led. They would have struggled to form a government which the dissident forces would obey. If Mugabe had lost the election the country could now be in the turmoil of civil war. The result was not a just result but it may well have been the best one.
One trouble, though, with this line of interpretation is that it can lead to a kind of fatalism: “God knows best. Who are we to question his judgement?”. Or worse: “Everything is in the hands of God. We don’t need to worry”. Too often that has left Christians complacently going along with all kinds of terrible suffering; suffering they could easily have prevented. God does expect us to worry. He does expect us to pray. He does expect us to act in every way we can to bring about a better world. Yet he also wants us to know we are not on our own. He is there. There are two heresies we are liable to fall into. One leaves everything to God and piously says it is not for us to interfere in the work he is doing. The other forgets that God is also working. As Jesus said in John’s gospel: "My father works and I work too". It’s not all up to us. I suspect many lay Christians suffer from the first heresy and don’t seem to realise that going to church on Sundays should have profound implications for what we do on the other six days of the week. Clergy suffer from the second heresy and run their parishes as if it is entirely up to them whether the Kingdom of God comes or not. So you have clergy working so hard they have no time to say the Office, no time to take a day off, no time to read a book and what happens? Their marriage breaks down or the priest breaks down, all because he, or she, forgot that God is there too and can be trusted to get on with the parish work that we can’t manage and can even to help us with the parish work we do actually manage.
So the text we began with is neither a ridiculously optimistic text, which could send us out doing good spectacularly with a wave of our hands, nor is it a depressingly limiting text telling us to leave it all to God. It is a humble, realistic text. We only need a little faith, a tiny fragment of faith in the goodness of God to be able to work with him and find the most amazing, good things happening around us.
Three years ago a student from this College came with me to Zimbabwe and we went to a refugee camp. The people there wanted a church and this student decided to raise money for the church. I should have stopped him but I didn’t. He raised a huge amount of money first by praying for 24 hours solid, then by walking 300 miles with no provision for the journey. The first part of the church was built and then got stuck. For two years not much happened. Then another young man, a Zimbabwean , stepped in. Between January this year and September he got the walls up, the roof on, the floor completed. I said mass there for the first time two Sundays ago. There you had two amazing young men, both with faith, both willing to fling themselves into the work – and of course God, to whom be honour might, dominion and power now and to the ending of the age.
Nicolas Stebbing CR