27th. Sunday, Year (C)
(Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4; 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; Luke 17:5-10)
My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, our first reading from the prophet Habakkuk contained one of the most famous phrases in Scripture:
The just shall live by his faith.
This phrase has been repeated directly and indirectly time and again in the New Testament:
Romans 1:17 For in it (the Gospel) is revealed the righteousness of God from faith to faith, as it is written, The just shall live by faith.
Galatians 3:11 That no one is justified before God by the Law is clear, for the just man shall live by faith.
Hebrews 10:38 Now My just one shall live by faith; but if he draws back, I take no pleasure in him.
As you can see faith was a central and an essential point of Christian teaching for St. Paul. Why is faith so important? Well, just recall the Gospel reading.
The Apostles -- perhaps after the failure of nine of them to heal an epileptic boy brought to them, a failure, Jesus had said, due to their lack of faith; and also, perhaps, after the other three, Peter, James, and John, had felt themselves so totally overwhelmed on the Mount of Transfiguration where they heard the voice of the Father speaking from the cloud and had witnessed Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah – the Apostles, all twelve of them, had come to recognize their need, above all, to grow in faith; and they turned to Jesus and besought Him, saying:
Increase our faith.
How those recent experiences seem to have affected them, for they had felt compelled to put a very simple and childlike request before Jesus, a request that made it evident that they were indeed in the process of being formed as children of God!
However a childlike spirit should never be allowed to become childish, and so the Lord replied:
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.
A mustard seed is the smallest of seeds in the lands of the Bible as St. Mark tells us:
A mustard seed, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth (4:31).
That you may have a clearer idea of the significance of Jesus' parable, let me now give you a short description of the mulberry tree which could top 35’ (Barnes' notes):
Look, now, at this tree: its ample girth, its wide-spread arms branching off from the parent trunk only a few feet from the ground. Next, examine its enormous roots: as thick, as numerous, and as wide-spread into the deep soil below as the branches extend into the air above. What power on earth can pluck up such a tree? Heaven's thunderbolt may strike it down, the wild tornado may tear it to fragments, but, surely, nothing short of miraculous power could pluck it up by the roots."
The Apostles were only beginning to understand the treasure which was theirs. In true spiritual childhood they had asked for greater faith to be given them, but they could not be allowed to childishly think that only God’s giving was involved … they had to grow in understanding and realize that all gifts of God require our co-operation if we are to appreciate them aright and profit from them. They wanted an increase of faith, a greater amount of faith to put it more concretely, and they were told that, even if their faith was no bigger than the proverbial mustard seed, if they really believed, they could even uproot a mulberry tree and throw it into the sea.
St. Paul did understand this unimaginable power of faith after the Resurrection of Jesus, for in a letter to the Christians at Ephesus (1:18-21) he says:
May the eyes of (your) hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to His call, what are the riches of glory in His inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power for us who believe, in accordance with the exercise of His great might, which He worked in Christ, raising Him from the dead and seating Him at His right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come.
That is the full understanding of the wondrous power and final purpose of faith: through our faith, the power of God which raised Jesus from the dead unto the right hand of the Father in glory can be at work in us too.
It is not the quantity of faith we may have but its quality: having received the initial gift of faith, it is not a matter of our asking for more to be given us by God so much as our co-operating more closely and whole-heartedly with what we have already been given; it is a matter of whether we allow faith to work freely in us, to guide and even determine our lives, or whether we put all sorts of worldly considerations in the way as obstacles to its development, whether we allow personal timidity and self-centeredness to constrict our heart and inhibit our commitment.
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.
Even if your faith be like a mustard seed, allow it to work freely and fully in you and it will prove to be an ever-increasing and ultimately irresistible force in your life until it brings you to fulfilment.
We are told that throughout His earthly life Jesus was being perfected, as a man, until He was totally committed with the fullness of His humanity – at every level and to the fullest extent of all His human powers and potentialities – to His heavenly Father and to us:
Son though He was, He learned obedience from what He suffered. And when He was made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him. (Hebrews 5:8-9)
There was so much He could not appreciate and embrace as a child … only as full-grown man, for example, could He appreciate the loving obedience of suffering and embrace the sacrificial commitment of death … and only when having become absolutely perfect in His humanity, could that humanity serve as the source of our eternal salvation.
Throughout creation life engenders life, life alone nourishes life …. What has never been alive can never serve to nourish and sustain the living. Our Blessed Lord brought new life for mankind; He is the unique source of that life able to promote the fullness of humanity and share in the goodness of divinity. That is why we are not ashamed to say that we eat the Body and drink the Blood of Christ:
Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me and I in him. (John 6:53-56)
Jesus’ humanity was irrevocably perfected throughout His life on earth because He was, from beginning to end, the only-begotten Son of the eternal Father being led by the Holy Spirit; and a like process of perfecting cannot begin in us until we become children of God through faith in Jesus. It is our faith which sets that process going; you can say faith is that power of perfection in our life which leads, under the guidance and power of Jesus’ gift of the Spirit, to eternal glory in heaven.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us not only treasure, but let us also understand the nature of, our faith: it is a vital power of personal communion, becoming more and more fulfilling as we let it take ever greater control of our lives; it is not an inert parcel of something which can be given and received in bigger or smaller portions and which -- remaining the same as when originally given -- might cause us to ask: ‘Give us more, please.’ No, our faith is a living process of dialogue, appreciation and commitment, which of its very nature goes on and on (if indeed we let it and follow it) until we reach the perfection of our being and the fulfilment of our personal identity. Although nothing can resist it -- it could uproot even a mulberry tree, transfer a mountain into the sea -- we ourselves, however, can slow it down; indeed, we can even stop the process of its growth by our indifference, ignorance, worldliness and sinfulness.
Let us turn to St. Paul again, as you heard him speak in the second reading:
Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit Who dwells within us.
Paul urges us to co-operate with the leading and protecting power of God’s Holy Spirit and learn to delight in and work with our treasure trove of ‘faith and love in Christ Jesus’:
Therefore I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power, love, and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for His sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.
We are not to repeat the failure of those in the time of the prophet Habakkuk who in the weakness and hopelessness of unredeemed humanity cried out:
Why do You let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife and clamorous discord, yet You do not listen, You do not intervene.
The time of rest, the time for rejoicing over the ultimate conquest of evil is not yet. Jesus Himself is indeed in heavenly glory, but we His disciples still have work, much work, to do for Him -- for His Body, the Church – here on earth:
Prepare something for My supper, and gird yourself and serve Me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink.
It is for that purpose we have been gifted with "the faith and love that is in Christ Jesus"; let us then aspire, with sure confidence and firm hope, to the fulfilment of His promise:
Blessed are those servants whom the Master, when He comes, will find watching. Assuredly, I say to you that He will gird Himself and have them sit down to eat, and will come and serve them. (Luke 12:37-38)