Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Lessons in Faith and Faithfulness (Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time)

"By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God [Vatican II, Dei Verbum 5]. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, 'the obedience of faith' [cf. Rom 1:5; 16:26]." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 39.
What exactly is faith? How is it lived out? These are the lessons taught to us in the Scripture passages read from the lectionary this Sunday. Let us look at them in some detail.

The First Reading: Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4

Habakkuk was a prophet in the late seventh century B.C. In his day, the destruction of the southern kingdom of Judah was imminent. The Book of Habakkuk explains that God's judgment is about to befall Jerusalem in the form of the conquering armies of the Babylonians, who would destroy the city and the temple and carry the Jews off into exile.

In chapter one he laments the injustice he sees all around him, calling out to the Lord:
"How long, O LORD? I cry for help
but you do not listen!
I cry out to you, "Violence!"
but you do not intervene.
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. (Hab 1:2-3)
Although it is not read in the lectionary, the next verse describes "the law" as "paralyzed". This seems most likely a reference to God's Law. In short, the prophet seems to indict his own people for failing to remain faithful to the Lord. Indeed, Jeremiah, a contemporary of Habakkuk announced a similar message (cf. Jer 7:3–6; 9:1–6; 12:1–4; 15:10; 20:7–8; 22:3, 13–17).

Habakkuk seems to indict the Lord: how could he abide this situation?

The Lord makes it clear that while the prophet may be tempted to think his prayers have gone unheard, this is simply not the case. God explains: "I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told" (Hab 1:5).

What is the Lord about to do? He is about to use a Gentile nation--Babylon--to bring his recompense. 
Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets,
so that one can read it readily.
For the vision still has its time,
presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
if it delays, wait for it,
it will surely come, it will not be late.
The rash one has no integrity;
but the just one, because of his faith, shall live." (Hab 2:2-4)
God is not working on Habakkuk's desired timetable but this does not mean the Lord has ignored the injustices taking place. Justice will come. The vision of judgment "will not disappoint". It may seem as if it "delays" but "it will not be late".

The critical lesson one must learn is to trust in the Word of the Lord: "the just one, because of his faith, shall live" (Hab 2:2-4). The righteous one will have life so long as he has faith.

This passage is famously used by St. Paul to illustrate the importance of faith (cf. Rom 1:17).
 However, it is important to point out that faith here is more than mere "intellectual assent". The Greek word for "faith" here has a range of meaning; i.e., it can simply mean "believe". But for Paul saving "faith" is more than just intellectual knowledge.

James makes this point crystal clear; even the demons believe in God, i.e., they have "faith" inasmuch as they intellectually assent to his existence (cf. James 2:19).

Actually, in Greek the term translated "faith" may best be understood in terms of "faithfulness". In light of this Habakkuk's meaning is made more clear. Habakkuk condemns the unfaithfulness of his people. Yet, though God's people are unfaithful to the Law, God himself remains faithful. He is faithful to his Word.

God will make good on his promise to carry out judgment; and those who live by faith--i.e., faithfulness--will live.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 95
--> The psalm used for the Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 95, is a psalm that is used regularly in the Liturgy of the Hours (the Divine Office). It draws heavily from Israel’s wilderness experience, once again highlighting God's faithfulness in the face of Israel's unfaithfulness. Once again, the reader is urged to fidelity to the Lord.
R. (8) If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD;
let us acclaim the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us joyfully sing psalms to him. 
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us bow down in worship;
let us kneel before the LORD who made us.
For he is our God,
and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides. 
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
"Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the desert,
Where your fathers tempted me;
they tested me though they had seen my works." 
Its opening reference to singing to the Lord God, described as the “Rock”, evokes Deuteronomy 32. In fact, Psalm 95 appears as part of a collection of psalms (Psalms 90-100) that all appear to draw upon or allude to this important passage in some way or another.

Specifically, the invitation to praise God and its declaration, “For the Lord is a great God” (Ps 95:3) evokes the opening of the Moses’ Song: “Ascribe greatness to our God” (Deuteronomy 32:3). The psalm also evokes the sea imagery of Exodus 15: “The sea is His, for He made it” (Psalm 95:5).

The reference to the "rock of our salvation" likely alludes, however, not only to Deuteronomy 32 but also to miraculous rock that gave Israel water. Interestingly, St. Paul explains in the New Testament that the "rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4). 

Of course, in the story of the miraculous rock we also hear about Israel's grumbling against the Lord and lack of faith. Indeed, the rock itself ultimately was the scene of Moses' own failure to trust in the Lord.

Psalm 95 ends with the recollection of Israel’s disobedience in Exodus 17.

Set in the context of the exile, which Habakkuk announced, Psalm 95 calls upon Israel in the wilderness of the nations not to forget the works God has wrought in the past, while at the same time, giving rise to the hope of a future miraculous deliverance.

The Second Reading: 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14

In the Second Reading, St. Paul exhorts Timothy to faithfulness, noting that faith itself is not merely the result of human effort. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him" (no. 153). 
I remind you, to stir into flame
the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice
but rather of power and 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.

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
that dwells within us.
Here we can note two things. First, Paul recognizes the "faith" and "love" are found "in Christ Jesus". Faith is not merely a human virtue; it is a supernatural virtue that is only possible through union with Christ. These are to be guarded as a "rich trust" and can only be maintained "with the help of the Holy Spirit".

In short, to view faith as the result of human effort is to misunderstand it. Faith is ultimately "a grace". Again, the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this point beautifully. Under the subheading, "Faith is a grace", we read:
When St. Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus declared to him that this revelation did not come “from flesh and blood,” but from “my Father who is in heaven.” [Matt 16:17; cf. Gal. 1:15; Matt. 11:25]. Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him. “Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and ‘makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth.’” [cf. Vatican II, Dei Verbum, no. 5]
Let our prayer be that of the man in Mark 9:24: "I believe; help my unbelief!”

Second, Timothy has been established by Paul in his ministry through the laying on of hands. Here we have one of the earliest texts identifying what would later be understood as the sacrament of Holy Orders. Timothy hasn't simply been appointed for ministry because of his natural gifts; he has been given a supernatural gift to empower him to fulfill his ministry. 

Timothy is called upon to persevere in the midst of adversity but he is not to do this without divine assistance: his faithfulness will be the result of the working of the power of the Spirit "that dwells within us".  

Gospel: Luke 17:5-10

The Gospel begins with the apostles petition: "Increase our faith!"

Jesus goes on to explain, however, that even a little bit of faith goes a long way. Indeed, all he needs is for us to have "faith the size of a mustard seed". With that, great things can be accomplished:
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith."
The Lord replied,
"If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
But notice that "faith" here is not simply "belief". In other contexts this saying is related to confidence in prayer (cf., e.g., Mark 11:23-24). In Luke 17 Jesus is not simply speaking of practicing a form of "name-it-and-claim-it" spirituality. (Nor is that really in view elsewhere but I digress). Here Jesus describes "faith" in terms of "faithfulness":
"Who among you would say to your servant
who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field,
'Come here immediately and take your place at table'?
Would he not rather say to him,
'Prepare something for me to eat.
Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink.
You may eat and drink when I am finished'?
Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?
So should it be with you.
When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, 'We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.'"
To the apostles' request, "Increase our faith", Jesus responds with a teaching about doing "all you have been commanded".

Faith is ultimately not simply "believing in". Faith entails faithfulness. Faith is a gift, but it also entails a human response; it is a human act made possible by God's grace (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no 154).

That I think is the point of the readings this Sunday. In fact, the subtext is that God is faithful even though we are not. Let us turn to him and ask him for his grace so that we may be faithful ourselves.  


John Bergsma said...

Nice! Thanks so much for the analysis!

Fr. Mark Noonan said...

Awesome. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Very nice. I like the idea of faithfulness in helping to illuminate the whole faith and works discussion.

Recently I have been pondering the idea that I can - potentially - carry out perfect acts for a day as far as a third party can see. But I know that many of those acts were done begrudgingly. I really wanted to watch the game rather than run to the store for my wife. This seems to point out that God is looking for a transformed heart rather than good works. But I also know that practicing these acts can lead to a transformed heart as long as I am open to that outcome. So I would be faithful to keep on following the commandments and trust in the Lord to transform my heart over time.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Dr. Bergsma.

When the Apostles say, "Increase our faith," I agree with your analysis, but I think I would put it into my own terms, thus:

Faith is a gift, but it is an act of the will, the free will. The Apostles are almost looking for a way around a commitment of their will, but are asking for the decision of the will for Jesus to be made for them.

On the other hand, sometimes all we humans can do is a kind of prayer that God will "create in us" the desire for the good. Even this little bit, this "flicker of so little as our pinky finger," is rewarded by Jesus, so long as we behave in a faithful manner, even though not necessarily possessing the inner disposition.

Patrick L. said...

Thank you Mr. Barber for your analysis on this Sunday's readings. I have a quick question...

I am 19 years old and often find myself in situations defending the Catholic faith around my friends and peers alike; something I thank God for the opportunity to do. However, one question that continues to be brought up is the question of "predestination". (Some of my friends are protestants, who were raised as Calvinists). With that in mind, how am I to respond when they present the truth that faith is a gift, and then suggest due to that truth, it is ultimately God's decision for humans to either become a Christian or to go to hell? Does God grant this gift of faith to some and not to others? If He chooses not to grant this gift of faith at any point in someone's lifetime, does that insinuate that He has "predestined" them to hell?

I know and believe the Catholic Church's teaching that God sends no man to hell... it is his own choosing to be separated from the Lord for eternity. Does this mean every one has the opportunity to receive the grace/gift of faith and some choose to ignore or refuse it with their free will?

Any light you could shed and share on this would be most appreciated! Thank you!