Uprooting Your Sukaminos Trees

Have you ever heard someone read a familiar Bible passage–something from the gospels, for instance, which you’ve read many times before–and spotted something entirely new to you? It’s been right there the whole time, but you’d never noticed or thought about it before. That happened this past Sabbath when our pastor read Luke 17. He stopped after just a couple verses, but I kept reading and something struck me.

In Matthew, when Jesus says “if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed” He follows that up by saying you can move mountains (Matt. 17:20; 21:21). In this chapter of Luke, though, Jesus says faith like a grain of mustard seed can do something else. He’s using the analogy in different situational contexts. The one in Matthew’s gospel comes after the disciples couldn’t cast out a demon and Jesus had to take care of it. In Luke, it comes after a conversation about forgiveness. Let’s take a look at that:

Jesus said to his disciples, “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. Watch yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” So the Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this black mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled out by the roots and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Luke 17:1-6, NET

I find it interesting that when Jesus told the apostles they needed to forgive people more freely and more often, they responded by asking for more faith. Then Jesus used the mustard seed analogy to say your faith could root up a “black mulberry tree.” That’s the part I hadn’t noticed before. He changes the analogy for this conversation about radical forgiveness. Why?

A Stubborn Root

Answering the question “why a black mulberry tree?” is complicated by the fact that we’re not 100% sure how to translate the word used there. It’s sukaminos in the Greek (G4807). There are two different trees that this word might represent:

Black mulberry tree (Morus nigra). This is the translation chosen by several modern translations including NIV, TLV, and NET. The NET’s footnote says, “A black mulberry tree is a deciduous fruit tree that grows about 20 ft (6 m) tall and has black juicy berries. This tree has an extensive root system, so to pull it up would be a major operation.”

Sycamine tree (Ficus sycomorus). This is the translation used by the KJV and WEB (among others). Thayer’s dictionary says it has “the form and foliage of the mulberry, but fruit resembling the fig.” This tree also has an extensive root system and it’s fruit is so bitter if you want to eat it raw you need to eat it in tiny pieces.

With either translation, the tree Jesus is talking about has a large root system. It would be extremely difficult to dig a large, full-grown mulberry or sycamine tree out of the ground–much less pluck it up by the roots. Yet Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this sukaminos tree, ‘Be pulled out by the roots and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” This impossible thing is made simple with God’s help.

God’s perfectly capable of moving trees, but the chances of you literally needing to yank up a tree with faith are slim. Jesus isn’t talking about how to clear land here; He’s talking about faith and forgiveness. And it’s not just any forgiveness–this is forgiveness that keeps giving over and over again. From other scriptures, we know that someone doesn’t even need to turn to you and say “I repent” in order for you to forgive (Matt. 6:15; 18:21-35). We need to forgive always, in every situation where someone offends, hurts, or sins against us. We’re called to participate in God’s forgiveness–showing to others the same sort of mercy God shows toward us.

Rooting Out Bitterness to Produce Better Fruit

One of the reasons some translators opt for sycamine tree over mulberry tree is because the sycamine’s fruit is so bitter. This makes the tree a great analogy for the “root of bitterness” that can block us from forgiveness. The Bible does speak of people being rooted in bad things that aren’t associated with bitterness (for example: “the love of money is the root of all evils” [1 Tim. 6:10, NET]). However, if we’re looking for verses that speak of a specific thing that can take root in us, damage our hearts, and block forgiveness then bitterness is the most likely suspect in both the Old and New Testament.

Neither do I make this covenant and this oath with you only, but with those who stand here with us today before Yahweh our God, and also with those who are not here with us today … lest there should be among you a root that produces bitter poison; and it happen, when he hears the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying, “I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart”

Deuteronomy 29:14-15, 18-19, WEB

See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through it many become defiled.

Hebrews 12:15, NET

The Hebrew words rō’š (H7219) and laʿănâ (H3939) for “bitter poison” refer to gall, venom, and poisonous plants (BDB Dictionary). Greek is similar, with pikra (G4088) literally meaning bitter gall and poison, and figuratively covering bitterness, hatred, and bitter roots that bear bitter fruit (Thayer’s dictionary). Considering scripture’s emphasis on us bearing good fruit, the possibility of producing something bitter, acrid, and poisonous should make us sit up and take notice.

On the topic of roots, God’s word spends more time urging us to root ourselves in good things than it does warning us away from bad things. The person who trusts in God will flourish, rooted in righteousness (Prov. 12:3, 12; Jer. 17:7-8). God promised His people a day when they would take root and thrive, bearing good fruit even though they’d failed to do that in the past (Is. 27:6; 37:30-32; Hos. 9:15-17; Mat. 3:9-11). This fruitfulness is enabled by the prophesied Messiah, “the root of David” (Is. 11:1-3, 9-10; Rev. 5:5; 22:16). Now, with Jesus Christ dwelling in our hearts, we can be “rooted and grounded in love” and in Him rather than in bitterness or other unstable foundations (Rom. 11:15-18; Eph. 3:16-18; Col. 2:6-7).

Image of a shovel digging into dirt, with text from Ephesians 4:31-32, NET version: "You must put away all bitterness, anger, wrath, quarreling, and slanderous talk—indeed all malice. Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you."
Image by Goumbik from Pixabay

Connecting To Forgiveness

It is imperative that we put away things like “bitterness, anger, wrath, quarreling, and slanderous talk—indeed all malice” and replace that with the compassionate, forgiving nature of God (Eph. 4:31-32, NET). That’s the main emphasis in this passage of Luke. We’re supposed to change. Once we’re following Jesus, we don’t react to people who offend us or sin against us the way that our human nature typically wants to. Rather, we’re to forgive them in the same way that we want God to forgive us. Let’s go back to Luke 17 and read a little farther this time. Here’s the whole conversation:

Jesus said to his disciples, “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. Watch yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” So the Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this black mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled out by the roots and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”.

“Would any one of you say to your slave who comes in from the field after plowing or shepherding sheep, ‘Come at once and sit down for a meal’? Won’t the master instead say to him, ‘Get my dinner ready, and make yourself ready to serve me while I eat and drink. Then you may eat and drink’? He won’t thank the slave because he did what he was told, will he? So you too, when you have done everything you were commanded to do, should say, ‘We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what was our duty.’”

Luke 17:1-10, NET

This sort of deep change requires time, faith, and God’s spirit inside us transforming us to be more and more like Him. We need to commit to this change and work with God as He works in us. Forgiveness is part of our duty as people serving God the Father and following Jesus Christ. It’s not even like Jesus is asking us to go above and beyond–when we forgive the way that He does “we have only done what was our duty.”

God expects that we’ll get rid of “bitter jealousy and selfishness” and replace it with “the fruit that consists of righteousness” and the wisdom that is “first pure, then peacefulgentlereasonablefull of mercy and good fruitswithout partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:14-18). He knows it’s an ongoing process, but He does expect us to work toward this goal of having His character and nature define us. In the final week before Passover (which we’ll be keeping April 14th after sunset), let’s consider and pray about whether there’s anything like bitterness that we should dig-up out of our lives. We can ask for faith, just as the disciples did, and God will help us move the stubborn struggles in our lives no matter how deeply rooted they are.

Featured image by Susan Cipriano from Pixabay

Song Recommendation: “Lord Reign In Me” by Vineyard

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