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Homily notes: 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C, 6 October 2019

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ  |  26 September 2019

LECTIONARY READINGS

First reading: Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4
Psalm: 94(95):1-2, 6-9
Second reading: 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14
Gospel: Luke 17:5-10

Link to readings

The common theme linking the readings for today – at least the First Reading, from Habakkuk 1-2, and the Gospel, Luke 17:5-10 – would seem to be that of faith. That said, it must be admitted that the readings do go in rather different directions.

The prophet Habakkuk lived at a time of considerable turmoil for his people. He saw threats coming from outside – specifically from the rise of the Babylonians, who were in fact to lead Israel into Exile in the early 6th century BCE – and he saw a breakdown of honest administration and social justice within his own society. In a way that is quite daring in theological terms he gives voice to questions as to why God allows this situation to continue.

The text excerpted for the First Reading truncates this expression of complaint and questioning on the part of the prophet and moves almost immediately to the divine response and assurance. This assurance is that the ‘vision’ – divine saving intervention – will most certainly come. What is required, then, of the ‘righteous’ (those faithful to the covenant) is faith: a persevering trust that God will eventually intervene.

The formulation of this in the concluding phrase, ‘the righteous person lives by their faith’ (or ‘faithfulness’) became an absolutely central text for Paul, who appealed to it (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; see also Heb 10:38) as scriptural warrant for the truth that justification (God’s acceptance) is primarily by faith rather than performance of the requirements of the Jewish law.

Trust in God’s faithfulness

Paul’s sense of ‘faith’ here (which I think is echoed in the second part of the Gospel) is not exactly what Habakkuk had in mind. However, both cohere in the sense that faith is fundamentally enduring trust in God’s faithfulness, despite appearances to the contrary. Remote and obscure as the words of Habakkuk may appear at first sight, the prophet’s sense of the way faith must confront the reality of social injustice and what seems to be divine inaction in the face of that injustice, will, if carefully expounded, strike a resonance in the hearts of many committed believers today.

The Gospel falls into two rather different parts. In the first, the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith – seemingly in reaction to the very demanding teaching he has just been giving about forgiveness. His response does not imply that the disciples have no faith. Rather, the little faith they have is enough to work outstanding miracles if only they exploited its possibilities to the full.

As so often is the case in Jesus’ teaching, the imagery is exaggerated: the mustard seed is notoriously small; mulberry trees were not only large, their extensive root system made the difficulty of uprooting them a byword. Likewise, the idea of a tree ‘planted’ in the sea is over the top. Jesus indulges in hyperbole to make his point: to take the risk of faith is to clothe oneself with the power of God. It is people of faith who let God’s power in the world.

The second part of the Gospel comes close, as I mentioned above, to the attitude towards God that Paul saw supported in the text from Habakkuk. We might find offputting not only the image Jesus takes from the practice – widespread at the time – of slavery but also the actual content of what he says. Does God really regard us as ‘worthless slaves’, who deserve no gratitude whatsoever? [We should keep in mind here the rather opposite direction of a very similar image in 12:37, where the master who finds his servants watching when he returns actually does sit them down and waits upon them.]

Fundamental attitude

Once again, Jesus is making a point from an aspect of life familiar to his audience without necessarily approving or disapproving the practice itself. We ought not press all the details of the image but rather pick up the single point it makes concerning the fundamental attitude that disciples of Jesus should adopt in their service of the Lord. We do not serve in the hope of gaining payment or reward coming to us as our due. That would be the kind of ‘works’ mentality that Paul excluded.

Rather, conscious, through faith, of the immense benefits we have received from God’s grace long before any good work or virtuous action on our part, our Christian service must primarily be an expression of faith and be motivated by abiding gratitude for all God has already done for us. The God revealed by Jesus will not deal with us on an ‘employer-employee’ basis, as though we could or needed to earn approval.

The complete picture emerging from these readings, including Paul’s advice to Timothy in the Second (2 Tim 1:6-8, 13-14), is that of a God to whose power, faithfulness and superabundant generosity faith can commit itself absolutely.

 

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