October 6, 2019 • 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading 1: Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2–4
Psalm 95:1–2, 6–9
Reading 2: 2 Timothy 1:6–8, 13–14
Gospel: Luke 17:5–10
In our readings today, the writers seem to equate faith with endurance, perseverance, and fidelity, which of course makes a lot of sense, because the strength or weakness of our faith will determine how well we run the race for our salvation. Great faith brings great endurance, much perseverance in spite of troubles, and unwavering loyalty to the cause of the King of Kings, even if it results in death.
The reading from the minor prophet Habakkuk is especially inspiring to me because I have wondered aloud the same things he has! How many of us have said these things to ourselves or even dared to say them to God: “How long, God? Why aren’t you listening to me, God? How can I endure this world any longer, God; just look at how those people are behaving!” These questions are reflecting the fact that we are creatures living in time. We are finite. We cannot see the future, nor can we understand fully the workings of the present. As we ponder these questions, they test our faith, because answers don’t come when we want them, and at times, God appears to be silent, even though we cry out to Him in pain.
But the answer God gives to Habakkuk assures us that God himself knows the problems, and he knows the answers as well. He is infinite, and he knows all things all at once. He reminds Habakkuk that there is an appointed time when things come to fulfillment, and that it will be the perfect time. He reminds the prophet that he is very aware of the proud and unrepentant people whose “spirit is not right within them.” And he reminds Habakkuk, the people of Israel, and us, that we are NOT called to know all things, nor to judge these evil men. We are simply called to live by faith.
I say “simply called,” but it isn’t simple when you are in the midst of these troubles. Faith is hard work! You have to force yourself to trust God. You have to cast your mind back to other times when he has “come through.” Like Israel of old, it is a good habit to reflect upon those times often, setting up “memorial stones” in your mind, so that when the going gets tough, you can easily take your heart to those memorials and find your peace again. It is hard work to live in the present without slipping into despair about the past or becoming terribly anxious over the future. Knowing how frail we are, Jesus reminded us that today has enough troubles of its own. It takes a great deal of discipline and faith to deal with what is going on today while retaining our peace about tomorrow, all the time leaving it firmly in God’s good hands.
Our psalm gives us some hints about how to do these things. It tells us to choose joy, to choose thanksgiving, to sing God’s praise, to worship him, and to recognize his constant care for us. Only then will we be able to have enough peace to listen closely and hear his voice. Only then will our hearts remain soft and pliable to do his will in the moment at hand.
Notice how these are things we can only do in the present. We cannot choose to be joyful or thankful yesterday or tomorrow. We can only choose those things moment by moment in faith as the day rolls out before us. In 2 Timothy, St. Paul reminds Timothy and us again that faith is not a thing once received. Sola Fide says, “This is the ordinance of God, that he which believeth in Christ should be saved without works, by faith only, freely receiving remission of his sins.” Now I am no theologian or scholar, but by my way of thinking and observation, there is a fundamental error in this statement. Ephesians 2:8 says, “For BY grace you have been saved, THROUGH faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.…”
There is a subtle difference between by and through. Quoting from an online dictionary: “A preposition is a word that indicates the relationship between two things. (By and through are both prepositions.) The main difference between these two prepositions is that by is mostly used when referring to a means of something, while through is used in relation to a process.”
Now, St. Paul tells us in Ephesians that we are saved, not BY faith, but rather BY grace, which is the free gift of God. God is the means of our salvation. How we are saved by this free gift is THROUGH faith. THROUGH tells us that there is a process going on, a process of faith, which must be nourished and fed. BY tells us that the grace has been given already, and that it is the means of faith. This is what I meant when I said that faith is not a thing only once received. It must be continually “walked in,” honed, nourished, and encouraged, or the process of our salvation may fall apart. The grace part of the equation is done and always remains, but the faith part of the equation is a continual process. Even Timothy must be reminded to rekindle the gift of God, which was given to him at his ordination. It is not going to ignite and grow on its own.
Timothy has been hindering that gift through his anxiety and fear, and so Paul encourages him to realize that what was given to him was not fear, but rather a spirit of power, and of love, and of self-discipline. This is our inheritance, too, but many of us fail to lay hold of it through fear, or apathy, or ignorance, or stubborn independence. We are to hold to “the standard of sound teaching” (yes, you absolutely should pick up that Catechism and read it from time to time, so that you might know what you believe), and we should guard the treasure entrusted to us at our own baptism and confirmation, lest we be robbed of it over time for lack of care.
The two Gospel passages seem at first rather unrelated, but they are not. I love what HW, the commentator for the Universalis app, has to say about these two passages:
The two sections of this Gospel reading appear at first sight to be entirely separate, the first about faith, the second about the reward of service; but they do fit together. The faith required consists not in reciting a creed, but in hanging on by one’s finger-tips, through thick and thin, to God’s power and will to save. In nothing else is there any hope, not in my own power or ability. That is why, in the second section, we have no right to expect any sort of reward as our due from God. Our work is valueless; only our admission of helplessness and our trust in God’s power can save us. However, not all parables should be taken as allegories. The severe master here is not necessarily God, any more than the master who in another parable praises his crooked steward. When we hear the unyielding command of the master to the slave to expect nothing and to set about serving at supper, we cannot forget that at the Last Supper it was Jesus who put on his apron and washed his disciples’ feet. We may be worthless slaves, but this gives us confidence that our Master ministers to us.
This last sentence is a lovely example of the principle of both/and within Catholic teaching. I especially love this part: “The faith required consists not in reciting a creed but in hanging on by one’s finger-tips, through thick and thin, to God’s power and will to save. In nothing else is there any hope, not in my own power or ability. That is why, in the second section, we have no right to expect any sort of reward as our due from God.”
That just puts the whole thing in perspective for me. Apart from God’s power and will to save, there is no hope. But WE are the ones who have to hang on to his power and will through faith; by grace are we saved, through faith! Every day we must fan that flame, encourage our belief, talk to ourselves about God, talk to God about ourselves, choose joy, choose thanksgiving, and choose obedience, praying and trusting that God will give us grace enough to endure, persevere, and be faithful to the end, as we work out our salvation one day at a time.