Of Mustard Seeds and Mulberry Trees
Of Mustard Seeds and Mulberry Trees

Of Mustard Seeds and Mulberry Trees

Of Mustard Seeds and Mulberry Trees

I love how God’s Word unfolds and just keeps on unfolding. There is always something that takes new life as the Holy Spirit breathes upon it. We might become old and stale, but God’s living and abiding Word remains fresh and new.

Psalm 119:130 (NASB)
The unfolding of Your Words gives light;
It gives understanding to the simple.

In March of 2023, my daily Bible reading took me to Luke 17 where I was quite surprised when a unique connection between faith, forgiveness, mustard seeds, and mulberry trees unfolded for me in a way I have never seen before. Shortly thereafter, my wife shared this quote from the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744): “To err is human, to forgive divine.” True forgiveness is definitely humanly unnatural for us, but I believe with what I discovered in Luke 17 about faith and forgiveness reveals just how “divine” forgiveness truly is! Let me explain…

• Inevitable Offenses

Jesus starts His teaching by declaring that it is inevitable that offenses will come:

Luke 17:1
Then He said to the disciples, “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come!”

Now, we can only imagine how these twelve disciples may have been misbehaving. Sleeping, waking, eating, and traveling together can bring out the worst in people.

For twelve years, I did missionary work in many different places and with various groups of young adults. I wholeheartedly concur with Jesus: offenses are inevitable! In that ministry, we all knew we were called to serve one another in love. However, I can still fondly remember many apologies, confessions one to another, and even foot-washings as we learned to deal with offenses.

Unsurprisingly, the Scriptures uncovers one of Jesus’ disciples’ ongoing arguments: which of them would be the greatest (see Mat 18:1; Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48; Luke 22:24-30). To the irritation of the other ten disciples, James and John even brought their mother into one of those discussions (Mat 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45)! 

As Jesus taught about offenses, I truly wonder which disciple Jesus may have been looking at when He said:

Luke 17:4
And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, “I repent,” you shall forgive him.

In Matthew 18, Peter must have remembered that Jesus instructed them to forgive up to seven times daily. Perhaps James or John (whom Jesus nicknamed the “sons of thunder”) had already offended Peter eight times. I find it almost comical how Peter runs excitedly to Jesus to ask if he could stop forgiving that person (and perhaps use his fist to even things out).

Matthew 18:21
Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”

How disappointed Peter must have been when Jesus replied:

Mat 18:22
I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.

• Increase Our Faith

Let’s return to Luke 17 and the discipleship training Jesus is giving on how to deal with offenses by forgiving others multiple times. Notice how all the disciples respond in unison:

Luke 17:5
And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

The disciples were struck with the realization that they did not possess the ability to forgive the offenses of others that many times in one day. Their simple request for an increase in faith reveals a vital truth:

Faith and forgiveness are uniquely interlinked.

Faith and forgiveness often pop up together in Jesus’ teachings (e.g., Mat 5:23-25; Mat 6:12-15; Mat 18:21-35; Mark 11:24-26; Luke 6:36-37; Luke 11:1-4; Luke 17:3-4).

In Mark 11:22-24, the most often-quoted verses about prayer and faith, Jesus declares the incredible power of prayer when faith is plugged in:

Mark 11:22-24
So Jesus answered and said to them, “Have faith in God.
For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.
Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.”

Unfortunately, as is our fallen human nature often causes us to do, we tend to overlook the following two verses where Jesus declares that God’s forgiveness is contingent upon our forgiving others:

Mark 11:25-26
And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.

But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.

• Uh-Oh, It’s a Catch-22!

Websters explains that a catch-22 is “a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule.” It also gives us a quote by Mary Murphy (actress) by way of illustration: “The show-business catch-22—no work unless you have an agent, no agent unless you’ve worked.”

So it turns out that the relationship between faith and forgiveness is what could be phrased as a “catch-22”:

(1) Unforgiveness hinders faith

   …and yet…

(2) Faith is necessary to forgive

Can you see the problem? We need faith to forgive someone, and yet the very faith we need to forgive that person is crippled by our unforgiveness! What a predicament, right?

After telling Peter to forgive 490 times, Jesus continues His teaching by telling the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. This parable also reveals the connection between faith and forgiveness.

Matthew 18:24-27
And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.
But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made.
The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, “Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.”
Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.

What happens next is quite disturbing:

Matthew 18:28-30
But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, “Pay me what you owe!”
So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.”
And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt.

Now to grasp the real message here, it helps to understand the difference between 100 denarii and 10,000 talents.

  • 1 denarius = one day’s wages
  • 1 talent = 6,000 denarii = 20 years of daily wages (6-days/week)
  • 10,000 talents = 60 million denarii = 200,000 years of daily wages

What the first servant owed his master would take 200,000 years to pay off. What his fellow servant owed would only take 100 days to pay off.

No wonder the master was enraged to hear what that servant had done:

Matthew 18:32-34
Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me.
Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?”
And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.

Jesus summed up that parable with these words:

Matthew 18:35
So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.

There is one detail that reveals a connection between faith and forgiveness. Pay attention to the servant’s promise to his master:

Matthew 18:26
“Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.”

This servant literally has no idea of how big his debt truly is. He is so deceived that he promises to pay back this debt. 200,000 years of work? Impossible! Scripture clearly says, “…but as he was not able to pay….” In spite of how absurd this servant’s promise was, the master was moved with compassion and forgave that debt.

Now there is a connection between the servant’s promise to repay “all” and his wicked and unforgiving action toward his fellow servant who only owed 100 denarii. His lack of faith in his master’s full forgiveness is what deprived his heart of the ability to forgive his fellow servants.

We can say, therefore, that an unforgiving attitude toward others is a warning sign that we are lacking faith in our Heavenly Father’s forgiveness. Faith and forgiveness are interlinked!

• Forgive Us AS We Forgive

When teaching and giving His disciples an example of prayer, Jesus adds this statement:.

Matthew 6:12 (Luke 11:4)
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.

See how Jesus uses “as” instead of “because.”  “Forgive us because we forgive others” would wrongly imply that God owes it to forgive us because of some works we are doing (forgiving others). This can never be! God owes us nothing! He forgives us only because Christ fully paid our debt. By using “as,” Jesus indicates that God’s free gift of forgiveness can only cover us as – or to the degree that – we forgive others.

At first glance, this next passage probably seems overly harsh:

Matthew 6:14-15
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

However, these verses only appear harsh because we misunderstand how faith and forgiveness are connected. They have nothing to do with God the Father being unable to forgive our sins of unforgiveness. He can definitely forgive us and cleanse us.

The truth revealed here is that God’s forgiveness can only be received based on our faith and trust that Jesus died and rose again to provide forgiveness of our entire debt. Consequently, when our heart harbors unforgiveness and bitterness toward others, it is the same as holding up a sign that proclaims:

 “I do NOT believe in God’s full forgiveness. I can pay my whole debt by myself.”

But if we do that, we miss the whole point of the Gospel!

• This is the Gospel!

Let me share an experience I had that helped me to better comprehend the Gospel and God’s wonderful forgiveness.

It was 1984, and I was pastoring a church in Toronto, Canada. One day I had the opportunity to share the Gospel in an auto repair shop with a group of men who were Hindus. I told them that Christianity is different from all other religions. I explained that in Christianity, God does not start His relationship with us by asking us to fulfill a list of good works. Rather, He enters that relationship with us by first forgiving us. The very moment I mentioned God’s forgiveness, they quickly retorted:

“How can the Christian God be fair and righteous if He forgives people’s sins? What judge would be fair and just if he simply chose to forgive the criminal? In Hinduism, there is fairness because each of us must pay for our own sins.”

These Hindu men were absolutely right. It would be entirely unfair for God to just forgive people. I did not know how to answer. For a brief, uncomfortable moment, I stood there stunned,  but silently praying. Suddenly, the Spirit dropped two clear revelations of the Gospel into my spirit. I told them:

  1. “In your religion of Hinduism, sin must not be very serious if you can pay for your own sin. In the message of Christianity, God is very righteous, and He hates sin. In fact, God clearly declares that it is so grievous that He sets the punishment for sin as eternal separation in a place of torment called hell.”
  2. “God is kind and merciful. God IS love! But, He does NOT forgive us merely because of kindness and pity. No way! He is an extremely fair and just judge. He is far more fair and righteous than any earthly judge!”

Then I segued into sharing the Gospel with them:

“God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, Jesus! God CAN forgive us because Jesus came to earth and lived a life free from sin so He could die on the Cross in our place to PAY OUR ENTIRE DEBT!

Those men did not receive Christ that day, but they certainly had no more arguments! For the first time, they understood that Christianity is NOT just another religion with its own set of rules and lists of good works. Christianity starts with forgiveness because we have a wonderful Savior who gave His life for us. Hallelujah!

Jesus paid our debt which is FAR, FAR MORE than 200,000 years of work! Each of us owed an eternal debt! God can ONLY forgive us and still remain a righteous judge BECAUSE He sent His own Son to pay a debt for sin that we could never pay! This is forgiveness and freedom!

Yes, Christianity starts with forgiveness! This is the Gospel – the most amazing Good News ever!

• Mulberry Tree Roots and Caskets

Let’s return to Luke 17. As I read this passage recently, I noticed for the first time that the word “so” is used to connect verse six to the previous five verses of Jesus’ teaching on offenses and forgiveness:

Luke 17:6
SO the Lord said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” 

I also saw that by using the word “this,” Jesus must have been pointing out a specific mulberry tree.

It was definitely no accident that Jesus and His disciples were near a mulberry tree! The Spirit led Him there so He could use this tree as an illustration for His teaching. I could tell that the Holy Spirit was about to unfold something fresh to me so I decided to do some research on the mulberry tree. The following two facts opened my eyes to behold more treasure in God’s Word:

  1. A mulberry tree has extensive and twisted root systems, which, apart from a miracle, makes it absurdly impossible to uproot. Furthermore, a mulberry tree’s strong roots stretch far down to tap into deep water sources. For that reason, simply cutting the tree down was not a guarantee that the tree would not resurface again. A mulberry tree is tough to eradicate.
  2. In the Middle East, the mulberry tree was the preferred wood for building caskets for two reasons. (a) This tree could grow quickly and virtually anywhere, making its wood accessible. (b) It is a hardwood tree that is durable and difficult for insects to penetrate, making it the perfect choice for something being buried underground.

Persistent roots and hardwood caskets… Hmm…

Interesting connection, right? I could see it for the first time! Jesus used the mulberry tree to represent the unforgiveness and bitterness that come from offenses. Consider these comparisons:

  1. Persistent Roots
    Like a mulberry tree, unforgiveness can grow anywhere. It digs its roots deeply. Stopping its growth is difficult. Merely lopping off a few of its branches or even chopping it down to the ground is entirely insufficient to rid one’s soul of unforgiveness and bitterness. The only method to eliminate it is by starting with the roots just as Jesus
    instructed: Say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea…” (Luke 17:6).
  2. Caskets
    To the devil’s delight, the “mulberry tree” of unforgiveness has become the “casket” for far too many poor souls. It has been clinically proven that harboring unforgiveness toward people produces bitterness and deep-seated, twisted personality complexes, and is a breeding ground for long-term physical illnesses. An unforgiving heart is a hard and impenetrable heart – where faith in Christ cannot exist.

• “Idiot Lights” on My Dashboard

Have you ever seen the red warning lights on your car’s dashboard? They are rightly called “idiot lights” – if we do not take action and make necessary repairs, we may end up the “idiot”! (Please pardon my use of this strong word, but this is how I view it myself when I have recognized the fruit of unforgiveness in my own life!)

Consider the following checklist of “idiot lights” which serve to alert us of any unforgiveness in our heart:

  • anger
  • harsh words
  • grudges
  • impatience with others
  • attitudes about someone’s attitude
  • annoyed easily
  • frustration
  • ungratefulness
  • complaining and griping
  • cynicism
  • hatred
  • belittling people
  • criticizing others constantly
  • gossiping

This checklist only covers a few of the many alerts. The key here is that each of these alerts is triggered by unforgiveness. At first, they may be directed specifically toward the person whom we have not forgiven. However, as unforgiveness thrusts its roots of bitterness deeper within, it begins to transform into one’s very character and it manifests itself toward everyone around us.

Furthermore, these outgrowths of unforgiveness have proven to be generational. Here is an example: A young man’s childhood was riddled with unforgiveness and hatred toward his father who was an alcoholic. Although he vowed to himself a million times that he would never be like his father, he actually ends up becoming an addict of substance abuse just like his father. Frightening, but true and much more common than one would think!

Unforgiveness removes the precious covering of God’s mercy and favor, leaving us totally susceptible to the wiles of the enemy! Paul warned the Corinthians about this very thing:

2 Corinthians 2:10-11 (Amplified Bible)
If you forgive anyone anything, I too forgive [that one]; and what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of [and with the approval of] Christ, to keep Satan from taking advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his schemes.

We must forgive others! As the Word clearly exhorts us:

Ephesians 4:30-32
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.
And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.

• Beware: It’s Contagious

The “mulberry tree” of unforgiveness and bitterness presents us with yet another serious problem. The Word gives us this sobering admonition:

Hebrews 12:14-15 (NASB)
Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.
See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.

Unforgiveness and bitterness will ultimately end up contaminating others. Unforgiveness is a bitter, seething, septic sickness that is impossible to be kept bottled up inside. To release that build-up of inner pressure, they will seek to vomit it out upon anyone with a listening ear. As a contagious disease, it will defile the listener. Hebrews’ exhortation is a warning not only for the embittered soul but also for those who would be careless enough to give ear to another’s bitterness. Gossiping is an “idiot light” on our dashboard, but another “idiot light” should also start blinking its warning at us the very moment our ears begin to hear gossip from others. The Scriptures give many warnings about gossip:

Exodus 20:16 (NKJV)
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Leviticus 19:16-18 (NLT)
Do not spread slanderous gossip among your people...
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
Proverbs 17:4 (NKJV)
An evildoer gives heed to false lips;
A liar listens eagerly to a spiteful tongue.
Proverbs 17:4 (TPT)
Those eager to embrace evil listen to slander,
for a liar loves to listen to lies.
Proverbs 18:8 (TPT)
The words of a gossip merely reveal the wounds of his own soul,
and his slander penetrates into the innermost being.
Proverbs 20:19 (NLT)
A gossip goes around telling secrets,
so don’t hang around with chatterers.
Proverbs 25:23 (KJV)
The north wind driveth away rain:
so doth an angry countenance a backbiting tongue.
[In other words, if you hear someone start to gossip, quickly make an angry face at them!]

Unforgiveness withers faith and results in falling short of God’s grace and hurting many others. An unrepentant, unforgiving person will be held eternally accountable for defiling others with their words of bitterness.

There exists, therefore, this frightening, downward-spiraling whirlpool that can be next to impossible to escape… unless we use what Jesus called the “mustard seed” of faith…

• Replant that Mulberry Tree with a Mustard Seed

The catch-22 of faith and forgiveness is solved down at the Cross where God’s forgiveness never ceases to flow! Receiving forgiveness and cleansing by the Blood of Jesus activates the faith that enables us to forgive. A quick trip to the Cross is where fresh “mustard seeds” of faith are available!

Luke 17:6
So the Lord said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

If any of those “idiot lights” are showing up on the dashboard of your behavior, we only need to come back down to the foot of the Cross in repentance. At Jesus’ feet, God’s forgiveness has been freely flowing for all eternity! Jesus, the “lamb who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), is the Lamb “slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8) as Peter also proclaims:

1 Peter 1:18-21
Knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers,
But with the precious Blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.
He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you
Who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

As we remember the costly debt Christ paid for us, our faith in His forgiveness will enable us to quickly forgive. The moment any “idiot light” shows up on our dashboard, we must confess even the smallest unforgiveness as the ugly sin that it is. Bringing it all out to the light “as He is in the light” makes cleansing in Jesus’ precious Blood abundantly available.

1 John 1:7,9
But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the Blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Therefore, it is vital that we confess our forgiveness for others before the Lord, identifying that person by name:

“Dear Father, I confess my I choice to fully forgive [person’s name]. My forgiveness is not based upon anything I might expect them to do. As You have FREELY loved and forgiven me, I choose to FREELY love and forgive [person’s name].”

Once we have confessed our sin of unforgiveness, believed on Jesus Christ for forgiveness and cleansing, and also confessed our decision to forgive others, Jesus reaches down in His fathomless forgiveness to pull us up from that wicked whirlpool.

Then, as we are cleansed, we can use that “mustard seed” faith to speak to that “mulberry tree.” And it will obey! It will be uprooted (which might be painful for us!), and then it will replant itself in the same sea where God has already cast all our sins:

Micah 7:18-19
Who is a God like You,
Pardoning iniquity
And passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage?
He does not retain His anger forever,
Because He delights in mercy.
He will again have compassion on us,
And will subdue our iniquities.
You will cast all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.

Once in that “Sea of Forgetfulness,” we can put up our official “No Fishing” sign right next to the same sign God put up when He forgave us through His Son, Jesus! Practicing immediate forgiveness on a daily basis will grow forgiveness into a key character of our new divine nature in Christ.

Heavenly Father, Your salvation is so rich and wonderful and Your forgiveness is amazing. Thank You for sending Jesus to pay my debt – an eternal debt of sin that I could never, ever repay. Jesus, You took my place upon the Cross. I have put my faith and trust fully in You and Your finished work on the Cross. You are the Lover of my soul, and I am in a wonderful, eternal debt of love to You!

O Holy Spirit, You are my Helper, my sweet Comforter. I never want to grieve You by being a foolish servant who cannot forgive others of their 100 denarii when I have been forgiven of my 10,000 talent debt! Oh, please help me to daily live in this wonderful forgiveness and to work it out toward others.

Dear Spirit of God, if any “mulberry tree” begins to sink even the tiniest root within me, please reveal it to me, grant me repentance, and quickly draw me back to the Cross of Jesus where I can be cleansed and receive a fresh “mustard seed” of faith in God’s forgiveness to say even as Jesus told us: “O mulberry tree, listen up! Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea of God’s forgetfulness!”

In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

What Jesus said is still true today. Understanding this truth about forgiveness can set us free to be “free indeed”:

John 8:32,36
And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.

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