THE APOSTLES SAID TO THE LORD, "INCREASE OUR FAITH"
Sunday, October 2, 2016
Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Saying of Faith
5And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”6The 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.
Attitude of a Servant
7“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’?8Would 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’?9Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?10So 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.’”
The Cleansing of Ten Lepers
Other readings: Habakkuk 1:2-3; Habakkuk 2:2-4; Psalm 95:1-9; 2 Timothy 1:6-8; 2 Timothy 1:13-14
I must admit that, to a certain extent, I feel disconcerted about the readings the Lectionary presents today. The reason is not only their content as such, but the fact of discovering again how our prejudices and habits prevent us from approaching the Scripture with clear eyes, without projecting our taken-for-granted mental schemes on God's Word. If we were to follow our basic understanding of faith, the apostles' demand would lead necessarily to a weird response from Jesus, because our perception of faith is basically "conceptual." To our Western mentality, "Increase our faith" might mean: "give us a new dogma;" "tell us how many natures you really have;" or "explain to us the precise difference between begotten and not made…" For Jesus, on the contrary, faith means basically personal commitment, fidelity, but not necessarily to a set of defined truths.
That is why Jesus' answer does not seem to have any logical connection with the question or request posed by the disciples. What has Jesus' "faith" to do with the possibility of telling a mulberry tree (or a mountain, in the version of this text in Matthew 17:20), to move to the sea and stand there? This unexpected answer is, in fact, an ironic way to expose the real content of faith according to Jesus' understanding. It is not a question of theological content, of ideological conceptions of reality, even if faith does involve a precise approach to life in all its realms, from ethics to economy. As I have just said, what Jesus demands from his followers goes beyond a mere intellectual assent. As usual, let us go step by step.
First, with regard to faith, "amounts" or "degrees" do not matter. It is the same for one to have a harvest of corn or a simple mustard seed of faith. The point is trusting in Jesus. When the first generation of Christians were confronted with persecution because of their faith, what sustained them in the test was not affirming a dogmatic definition but proclaiming: "Kýrios Christos," i.e., that their only Lord was Jesus, not Cesar or any other worldly power. In that sense, they were not able to throw a mountain to the sea or replant a mulberry tree in the ocean, but to cast away their fear in front of torture or death, just as they had cast away their old human condition and been clothed in their new life in Christ through baptism.
Second, we must remember that no matter the dimension of faith we may want to consider (intellectual belief, confident following of Jesus as our Lord), it is always a gift from God. In that sense, the disciples' request is valid as far as our trust can be stronger or firmer. But again, no matter how strong or firm it may be, it does not entitle us to any special right, nor is Jesus or God obliged by a signature on a legal document. Unfortunately, we too often consider our faith, the fact of belonging to a Church, as a commercial deal or contract. For real believers, loyalty, fidelity to our calling, are not virtues, attitudes or actions taken or put into practice in order to obtain a reward. They are valuable by themselves, and their mere existence is their inner reward: "We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do," is the only remark we may make when we put into practice what we believe. Even if the context is different, we can add a quotation from Matthew 6:33: "Seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides."
The previous lines may sound too demanding and, at the same time, too naïve, given that the confidence we are called upon to put in the Lord sometimes seems to lack the response we would expect from him. The truth is that we often experience the same feelings of disappointment as did the prophet Habakkuk. We wait and wait, and there seems to be no answer from the Lord to our prayers, nor do we see his hand acting in our life. It is then that we discover that we do not even have the tiny trustful faith of a mustard seed. Or, said in a simpler way, we either lack enough patience to keep on waiting, or the firm courage necessary to fight. In that sense, the two first readings could also help us in our Meditatio. To what extent do we believe that the Lord will finally act to defend us in a world of violence and discord? Are we really sure that we know in whom we have put our confidence? (See 2 Timothy 1:12, a verse omitted in today's reading.) How often do we expect some kind of "thanks!" from Jesus just because we have done what we should do?
Pray for those who, just like Habakkuk, see how time passes without receiving the response they expect from God: that they may not lose heart and hope against all hope that the Lord will not let them down but grant them what they really need.
Let us pray for ourselves: that we may overcome the temptation of reducing our faith to a set of dogmas and doctrines, forgetting that we do not believe in statements but in one person, Jesus, the Son of God, and that we may therefore put into practice his commandment of brotherly love.
Today, our Contemplatio could follow a path of reflection. Let us try to analyse what we really understand and experience as "faith." Have we reduced it to a single dimension? I mean, do we think it is just the development of what we call the Apostles' Creed? Or do we think and experience it as an ethical code, a set of moral guidelines and rules? Perhaps the fact of contrasting these two (among other) alternatives could lead us to a purification of what we really understand and live as "our Christian faith."
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón,Roman Catholic priest,Archdiocese of Madrid, Spain