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Reflections for the XXVII Sunday

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the twenty-seventh Sunday in ordinary time. He explores the various aspects of faith and how it is lived in concrete situations.

Hb 1:2-3; 2:2-4; II Tm 1:6-8, 13-14; Lk 17:5-10

Introduction:  All three readings for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time speak a lot about "Faith” and how it works in our lives. They give us three dimensions of Faith. The theological virtue of Faith enables us to believe something to be true and therefore worthy of trust simply because it has been revealed to us by God. In his instructions to Timothy, Paul, who elsewhere defined Faith as “the assurance of the things hoped for,” shows Faith operating as a believing, trusting, loving relationship with Christ. Finally, Christian Faith is that trusting Faith in God in action, expressed by steadfast loyalty, fidelity and total commitment to Him, resulting in our offering ourselves to Him in those we encounter through our humble, loving service.

Homily starter anecdote: Blondin, the French tightrope walker became world-famous in June of 1859, when he walked on a tightrope stretched over quarter of a mile across the mighty Niagara Falls. He became the first person to accomplish this amazing feat.  He walked across 160 feet above the waterfalls several times, each time with a different daring feat - once in a sack, on stilts, on a bicycle, in the dark, and once even carrying a stove and cooking an omelet! A large crowd gathered, and a buzz of excitement ran along both sides of the riverbank. The crowd “Oooooohed!” and “Aaaaahed!” as Blondin carefully walked across one dangerous step after another -- blindfolded and pushing a wheelbarrow. Upon reaching the other side, the crowd's applause was louder than the roar of the falls! Blondin suddenly stopped and addressed his audience: "Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?” The crowd enthusiastically shouted, "Yes, yes, yes. You are the greatest tightrope walker in the world. You can do anything!" "Okay," said Blondin, "Get in the wheelbarrow. " The Blondin story goes that no one did although all had faith in his ability! Later in August of 1859, his manager, Harry Colcord, showed his faith in Blondin and did ride on Blondin's back across the Falls. (In today’s Gospel, Jesus challenges his disciples to have such a Faith in him so that God can work miracles through them and in their lives. (  

Scripture readings summarized: The first reading defines Faith as trusting in God and faithfully out His Covenant with us. Here, Faith is presented as trust and steadfast expectation in the face of suffering and delay. God assures the prophet that although “the rash one” that is one who does not believe, “has no integrity, “the just one, because of his Faith, will live” because he will lead a righteous life in the midst of encircling evil.  Faith, then, is the foundation of faithfulness; and faithfulness strengthens Faith.  In today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 95), God is characterized as a sturdy rock and a caring shepherd, surely worthy of our trusting Faith. This reminds us of St. Augustine’s advice to “pray as though everything depended on God and work as though everything depended on you.” The second reading explains why Faith gives us a new way of looking at things and a new way of living.  Paul reminds Timothy, and us that Faith is our acceptance of Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises of God.  Paul stresses the need for a living Faith in, and loyalty to, Christ’s teachings, which have been handed down to us by the Church. Hence, Faith is belief in, and acceptance of, revealed truths, based simply on the authority and veracity of God, and Hope is trust in God. Faith not only enables us to be faithful; it also strengthens us to be courageous. Faith grows as we put it to use by obediently rendering humble service to God in others. In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches his Apostles that Faith allows us to share in God’s power, and, hence, even in small quantities, deep Faith enables Him to work miracles in our lives and in the lives of others. It is Faith which makes one just, putting him into right relation with God and neighbor.  In the Bible, Faith means reliance on, or confidence in, God, and Hope is the expectation of a better future.  While the Apostles ask for an increase in the quantity of their Faith, Jesus reminds them, and us, that the quality of their faith is more important.  Using a master-servant parable, Jesus also teaches them, and us,  that, for Faith to be effective, it must be linked with trust, loving obedience and total commitment — an active submission to God and a willingness to do whatever He commands, even in tough times.

First reading: Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4, explained:  Habakkuk was a minor prophet who lived during the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and encouraged his fellow Jews to retain their Faith during this disaster. He interprets Faith as a persistent confidence in God's saving power. The first two chapters of the Book of Habakkuk are in the form of a dialogue between the prophet and God. The prophet repeatedly complains, and the Lord answers each time.  Around 600 BC, God's people had been unfaithful, and, as a deserved punishment for their sins, God permitted a pagan nation, Babylon, to invade Jerusalem. What distressed the prophet was that Judah's punishment came at the hands of brutal pagans who were overly aggressive. It looked as if bad were being punished by worse. To Habakkuk, it seemed that the Lord God was strengthening the arm of injustice in not punishing the excesses of His people’s enemy. He saw this as unworthy of God’s holiness and justice. Hence, the prophet cried out to God, "How long, Lord, am I to cry for help while you will not listen?  I cry out to you, 'Violence!’--Yet you do not save.”   But God told His prophet to trust in Him, to persevere and to be patient, because He was aware of both the goodness of the good people and the evil they fought against.  The reading concludes with the positive answer from God: "The just man, because of Faith, shall live" [Hb 2:4; Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38].  This means that that the righteous, or just, one is steadfast in faithfulness, even in the midst of violence and destruction, and this faithfulness assures life. Faith here is not simply assent to a series of doctrines, but includes trust, with a steadfast expectation of release in the face of suffering and delay.  The just man lives because he keeps his relationship with God.  The word "Faith" (emunah) used here refers to a living Faith, a Faith expressed in actions, a Faith with works (Jas 2:17, 26).  Therefore, it can only be concluded that Faith without works is indeed dead. "Faith is compounded of belief and love as well as of trust and confidence amid trials and tribulations" (The Jerome Biblical Commentary, page 297, # 39, 4b).

Second reading: II Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14 explained: Raymond E. Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, New York: 1997) suggests that 2 Timothy was written not long after Paul’s death as a farewell testament by someone very close to him during his last days. Therefore, these words of encouragement should be understood as part of an eloquent and passionate appeal by the greatest Christian apostle that his work should continue beyond his death through generations of disciples.  Although Timothy had been groomed as Paul's successor in the ministry, he had apparently grown disillusioned at the Christian community's lukewarmness and was somewhat embarrassed by Paul's current status as prisoner. Hence, Paul encouraged Timothy to persevere, stressing the need for a living Faith: "Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the Faith and Love that are in Christ Jesus." The graces of ordination (which Timothy had received), include "power" to master every situation, self-sacrificing "love" expressed in affectionate service to the community, and the "self-control" essential for Christian leadership. The Deposit of Faith entrusted to him had to be handed on to the next generation, with Hope in, and Love for, Jesus Christ. Faith and love cannot be separated, and “Faith, Hope and Charity are the foundation of Christian moral activity.  They are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being" (CCC #1813).  In saying to Timothy, "I am reminding you to fan into flame the gift that God gave you when I laid my hands on you," Paul was asking Timothy and his people to “get up and do something!" Paul urged Timothy and his community to cultivate the willingness to tend and foster the gifts of Faith daily (“stir into a flame the gifts of God”) and to live bravely in the face of difficulty. Paul means both that the Faith proclaimed by the gathered assembly must continue to be spoken in personalized, daily words and works, and  that Jesus who is encountered and celebrated at the weekly liturgy should also be recognized and cared for in the poor, the needy, the hungry, the thirsty,  the naked, the lonely, and the oppressed. In other words, our Christian Faith is our bond with God and our communion with one another in the “fire” of Love, the Holy Spirit. We need to "fan [that small fire] into a flame" and keep it blazing.  That takes grace, vigilance and effort.  If we are really serious about our Faith, we will spend time with God in prayer, in reflection, in Adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and in the prayerful reading of Scripture.  

Gospel exegesis: The context: When Jesus demanded of his disciples that they respond with unconditional and unlimited forgiveness to their repentant offenders (vv 3-4), the disciples asked Jesus for more Faith so that they could meet this demand.  In addition, the Apostles were asking for greater confidence and trust in God, so that they might work the miracles which they had seen Jesus perform, like the withering of a fig-tree by a simple command. Jesus responded by telling them of the power of Faith -- even a very little Faith (vv 5-6).  He used the parables of the mustard seed and the good servant to help them understand the need for strong Faith. Jesus tells us that the way we evaluate whether we are living by Faith is whether we are faithful in “doing all [we] have been commanded to do.

a) The parable of the mustard seed:If you have faith the size of a mustard seed."  Faith is used here in three senses.  1) First, Faith means "trust."   People "have faith in their banks" because their accounts are insured.  Similarly, we must put our trust in the authority of God and in the truth of His doctrines. St. Paul defines Faith as confidence and certainty (Hebrews 11:1).  2) Second, Faith refers to assent to doctrines about God taught by Jesus and the Church (e.g., our belief in the truths listed in the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed).   3) Third, Faith   refers to a “bond” or “relationship,” with God.   Jesus tells us that if we have even a small relationship with our Heavenly Father, we can do anything.  No matter how weak it seems, Faith is an overwhelming power.  Even a little dose of Faith can direct our lives, comfort us when we are discouraged and challenge us when we are complacent. Jesus did not ask the Apostles to move trees or mountains, but rather to forgive their repentant brothers and sisters.  Such a requirement demands Faith, and the Apostles (representing all Church leaders), responded by asking that their faith be increased to meet such a demanding challenge.  Jesus reminds them that it is not the greatness of their Faith, but rather the greatness of God’s power working through them that will move mountains (Mt 17:20; Mk 11:23).  Forgiveness is a gift of God’s grace, activated through Faith.  When a person of Faith is trustingly receptive to God’s power, all things become possible — even moving mountains or forgiving bitter enemies. 

Faith strong enough to plant a tree in the sea:  Planting a tree in the sea using words alone sounds impossible and ridiculous to us.  But, using this cartoon metaphor, Jesus challenges us to attempt the difficult things of life.  The tree Jesus mentions is a variety of large, deeply rooted mulberry tree that grows in the Middle East.  By this strange example, Jesus shows us that we, too, can perform miracles.   We must be ready to attempt things that the worldly, the wise and the sophisticated laugh at. Here are two examples. 1) A middle-aged mother went back to complete her teacher training.  She specialized in helping children with learning difficulties.  In a large school she worked with a class of what others called “the retarded.”  Because she had actually asked for this difficult class, some teachers treated her as though she were insane.   Wasn’t this truly “planting trees in the sea?”   2) A priest in Africa deliberately committed a small crime in order to get himself put in a prison where he could minister to those who needed him most.   He was “planting a tree in the sea!”  He had true Faith!

b) The parable of the Under-Appreciated Servant: This parable teaches that Faith requires action. It also gives us a lesson in theological Humility, reminding us that, as followers of Jesus, we are God’s servants. This becomes evident in the parable about the master who expects his servant to carry out his orders.  When the servant returns from working in the fields, he also has housework to do.  His master does not feel indebted to his servant for his fidelity in doing what is all part of his duty.  In the same manner, the Apostles, and we, are expected to carry out the orders Jesus gives us.  They, and we, are the servants of the Gospel. So, we can never feel that we have worked “enough.” We must regard ourselves as God’s servants, as did Jesus who came “not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). Service to God and neighbor is a voluntary or free act which springs from a generous and merciful heart.  It is a sacred duty which we owe to God.  When we serve the poor, we are simply serving at the Lord’s Table and waiting on Him while He eats and drinks.  As we work for the Lord in Faith, He works in us, transforming us.

 Jesus instructs his disciples to say, “We are unprofitable servants.”  The New English Bible gives the correct translation: "We are servants and deserve no credit." The Greek original suggests simply that these servants should not expect anything further, i.e., that they should not be looking for special attention or approval. We also must realize that our ability to lead a good life, to love other people, and to serve God is not our own doing.  These things come from our relationship with God.  Even when we forgive others, it is by the grace of God through Faith.  He is our Source of power, and without His help we are useless servants.  We acknowledge our bond with God as the source of our virtue.  The stronger our relationship with God, the more will we be empowered to forgive others and do good to them.

Life messages: 1) We need to thank God, giving Him the credit for our well-being.  Following the example of the Apostles, we must pray for greater Faith and trust in God.  Most of us are inclined to forget God’s providence when our earthly affairs are going well.  How often do we thank Him when we enjoy good health, or when our home-life and business are going smoothly?  How many of us thank God for all the gifts we have received?  We often attribute our good health to correct use of food and exercise.  Often, we attribute our success to our hard work and intelligence.  It is only when a storm arises in our life that we think of God.  We pray to Him only when trouble strikes.  In His Infinite Goodness, God often answers such prayers. If, however, we had thought of Him every day and realized His place in our lives, with how much more confidence would we approach Him in our hour of need?  If our own personal lives were stronger in Faith, how much more readily would we accept the adversities and the trials that God sends us?   This is why we must ask God today to “increase our Faith” at all times.

2)  We need to increase our Faith by becoming dutiful servants of God.   A zealous Christian can speak more convincingly to his or her neighbor about the need for God and an upright life through his or her own daily actions than through explaining religious doctrines. A sincere Christian can find many ways to help to make Christ known to his neighbor.  A quiet word, a charitable gesture, an unselfish interest in a neighbor’s troubles can do more good than a series of sermons given by some renowned theologian. There are always people around us who need help. We can help them — God expects it of us. Faith is increased by serving others, not by being served. Faith is increased when we manifest our love towards others, our family, friends and strangers.  When we isolate ourselves from the world, we lose our Faith.

3) We need to grow in Faith by using the means Christ has given us in His Church.  We must cultivate our Faith through prayer, Bible study, and leading a well-disciplined spiritual life. Faith is the gift of God—so we must pray that God will increase our Faith.  Time spent with God in prayer is fundamental to the development of Faith.  We must pray for a Faith that is strong enough to overcome the difficulties and crises we face daily.  In addition, association with people of Faith builds Faith.  Hence, our participation in the Holy Mass ("the mystery of Faith”), and the life of the Church is important.  Because of the Eucharistic Meal on the altar and   the Sacramental graces at our disposal, we find that we are not unprofitable servants, but instruments and agents of Jesus, Who, through the power of Divine Love, helps us to reap a harvest worthy of Him.  Sacred Scriptures inform and correct our Faith.  Without the guidance of the Scriptures, our Faith tends to be weak.    We grow in Faith as we act in Faith.  Every gift of God is strengthened by the exercise of it. Someone has said, “Charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.” (Prepared by Fr. Tony, Chaplain, Little Sisters of the Poor, Mobile, Alabama, U.S.A.)

03 October 2019, 09:30