Living by Faith

This past Sunday’s readings talked about faith – with a surprise ending in the Gospel.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

The selection from the Prophet Habakkuk gives us both the substance of his short book, even a summary of all the Minor Prophets, and also one of the most important phrases in St. Paul: “the righteous shall live by faith” is the theme of his pivotal Letter to the Romans.  But here we get to see that phrase in action.

The Prophets wrote in the time when Israel was being conquered.  Their experience speaks to our time – and every time in which it has seemed that the powers of evil are stronger than the Church.

Habakkuk says, “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.”  (I kind of know how he feels.)

The Lord responds: “Write down the vision . . . .  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.”

This is what Habakkuk means when he says, “The just one shall live by faith.”  We live by realities that do not appear to us.  We believe God is good, and powerful – and the world gives an awful lot of counter evidence.  We believe the heart of Jesus will triumph – but we don’t see it.  Well, we live by faith.  Trust me, he says, it will all come clear in due time.

***

In our reading from Second Timothy, Paul takes us deeper into this life of faith.  “Bear your share of hardship for the sake of the Gospel . . . ,” he says.  The message of faith calls us to a struggle.

But more deeply, it gives us the strength to accomplish that struggle: “. . . with the strength that comes from God.”  It seems like what Jesus asks of us is too much.  But the Gospel is the promise that he will give us the strength to do what we cannot do without him.

“Stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.”  Now, Timothy is a bishop, and this may be referring to ordination.  But Acts also describes “imposition of hands” as part of Baptism (or Confirmation; Acts 19:6).  In any case, we are talking about the strength that comes through the sacraments.  To live by faith is to trust in that strength, though we cannot see it.

“Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me.”  To live by sacramental grace is to trust in the teaching of faith: to live by faith.

***

Now, the first part of our Gospel reading is obvious enough: “Increase our faith.”  “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea.’”  On the one hand, faith is powerful – or rather, we have access to the power of God’s grace by our faith in his promise.  On the other hand, faith itself is an example of the power of grace: it is a gift we beg God to give us.

(“Mulberry tree”?  In Matthew and Mark faith can move mountains.  But it’s also connected to the withering of the fig tree.  The Greek for “mulberry tree,” sukaminos, is a kind of “fig tree,” suke.  It’s also a big tree, like the mustard.)

But the second half of our Gospel is obscure.  Suddenly he’s talking about the servant who serves his master dinner: he should not expect to get invited to sit at the table, but should say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”  What does this have to do with living by faith?

The bigger theme running through these chapters is self-righteousness.  The Pharisees think Jesus should not eat with sinners, but Jesus says God knows their hearts, and that they break the laws: of adultery (by divorce), and of care for the poor (in the parable of Lazarus).  He tells his disciples, too, that though, “Woe to the one through him offenses come” – though sin is bad – yet they should forgive their brother “seven times a day.”

This is the context in which the disciples say, “Increase our faith.”  As in Second Timothy, the call of the Gospel seems too hard.  I would rather trust in my incomplete righteousness than except Jesus’s higher call.

In this context, Jesus says, part of living the life of faith is not commending ourselves: not patting ourselves on the back like the Pharisees, not expecting immediate reward like the servant who wants to sit down at table, but again and again returning to the path of love, which we live only through the continual gift of God’s grace.

Because life by faith is hard.  But the grace is there.

How do you find yourself letting self-righteousness interfere with trusting in God’s grace?

eric.m.johnston

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