NINETEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – Wis 18: 6-9 Heb 11: 1-2, 8-19 (or 11: 1-2, 8-12) Lk 12: 32-48 (or 12: 35-40)
Integrating Our Faith into Our Lives
Preparedness; Readiness for the Lord’s Coming; Let Go and Let God!; Urgency and Watchfulness; Trust in God.
Imagine that a catastrophe has occurred that is so great that our knowledge of the natural sciences is all completely lost. Physicists have been killed, books destroyed, laboratories sacked. All that is left are fragments, bits and pieces of theories, experimental equipment whose use has been forgotten, half-chapters of books, single pages from articles. Some of the scientific terminology survives, but its meaning is largely lost. Heated debates develop over scientific concepts that are only dimly understood.
That is what has in fact happened – not to science, but to our understanding of the language of religion. People continue to use many of its key expressions, but have – largely, if not entirely – lost their comprehension of many aspects of religion. Charity now typically means patronage of the poor by the well-off. Love means what goes on between movie stars, off and on screen. Service equals unpleasant menial duties or one pays a bill. Redemption is the process by which you get value for your stamps. The supernatural is that which has to do with hobgoblins and spooks. Faith is believing what is not so.
How different the Church’s definitions! The term “faith”, for example, is so important to the Church that there isn’t one definition, but many! The one in today’s letter to the Hebrews, written for Jewish converts to Christianity, is a good one. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen (v. 1). If the object of faith is seen or known by experience, it isn’t faith; but faith is more than mere opinion, because God’s own assurances are behind it. So even when we don’t understand the events of our lives, we have faith that God will fulfil His promises to us.
Faith entails leaving behind all things that are less than God in order to be able to accept the God Who contains all things. Even all science rests on a basis of faith, for it assumes the permanence and uniformity of natural laws – a thing that can’t be demonstrated. So the person of faith goes beyond the humdrum world of the everyday into a new vision and adventure. Faith goes a new outlook, a new set of values, a new world of meaning. It has an excitement analogous to the world of sports, from which the letter to the Hebrews derives so much of its imagery. (Its sports imagery is perhaps one of the reasons why this letter is wrongly attributed to St Paul, who often used such imagery.) Faith is backed by the best evidence in the world – God’s word.
Most of the rest of the reading from the letter to the Hebrews is an illustration of its definition of faith. Faith puts us into the world of such First Testament models as Abraham and his wife Sarah. God promised Abraham that he would father a son through whom his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. Because it was God speaking, the couple believed. But they were in the dark as to how and when God would fulfil His promise.
As time wore on, they thought of several cultural solutions offered to childless couples of their time: adopting the first most trusted slave of the household, for example, or having offspring by Sarah’s maid-servant. But God made it clear that none of these, though acceptable to their culture, was to be their route, and as they waited they relied on their confident assurance concerning what they hoped for. Only when their confident assurance was stretched to the limit – when Sarah was long past the age for childbearing and Abraham as good as dead – did God fulfil His promise of so many years earlier.
Abraham’s faith wasn’t according to the principle of most people, who, cautious and comfort-loving, put safety first; his faith went into the unknown, where it couldn’t see the end of the path. Abraham did everything God wanted of him – and, sure enough, ultimately his wife conceived and his son Isaac was born. Then, when God asked him to leave the comforts of his home-town Ur in the Chaldean mountains for what came to be known as the Promised Land and endure all the problems of a stranger in a strange land, he did it – even though he wasn’t sure where God was leading him. God, to test him even further, some years later asked him to give his young son Isaac as a living sacrifice. Despite his hope that through Isaac he would have descendants, he prepared to do as God asked. It was only at the last moment that God prevented him from going through with his sacrifice.
We, like Abraham, should let go and let God! Some researchers in India wanted to keep a monkey out of the trees and on the ground for various tests they wanted to perform. Knowing that the monkey loved coconuts and peanuts, they hollowed out a coconut, filled it with peanuts, and put it in a place where the monkey would be sure to come upon it. When the monkey did, he put his hand inside and grabbed hold of the peanuts. This kept the monkey out of the trees, but they couldn’t get the monkey to let go of the peanuts so he could get his hand out of the coconut. It took the researchers several hours and many subterfuges to get him to let go. We are often like that! With regard to what holds us back, St John of the cross said that it doesn’t matter if a bird is shackled by a chain or a thread. So long as its movement’s thwarted, the bird isn’t free.
God tests the faith of all. Today’s First Reading is an example from the last book of the First Testament to be written – the Book of Wisdom, written less than a hundred years before Christ. As with the letter to the Hebrews, it was written for people who were tempted to abandon their faith. Its author wrote to the Jews in Alexandria in Egypt that, rather than the skeptical and secular attitudes of the pagans around them with whom they were having frequent contact, the Israelites should be characterized by courage and joy (v. 6).
The Book of Wisdom reminded the Jews of a sign of faith and hope for all time. The “you” of the passage refers to God, to Whom this excerpt is an ancient prayer of thanks for deliverance. The “night” to which the reading refers was the night of the Passover – the night on which the angel of death destroyed the first-born of the Egyptians but passed over the homes of the Hebrews, the night on which those who were prepared were saved.
Today’s Gospel urges a similar attitude for Christians. Its two stories tell us to be ready for the Lord’s coming into our lives. They begin with the servants awaiting their master’s return during a wedding. In our Lord’s time, on the day of the wedding the bridesmaids assembled at the house of the bride. After sunset the bridegroom, accompanied by his male friends went into the bride’s house, where they were greeted by the bride and her bridesmaids, and then both parties returned together in a joyous procession that was illumined by lamps or torches, to the wedding feast in the house of the bridegroom. No one knew the exact time when the bridegroom would arrive. Our Lord then tells us – not without humour – that he will come into our lives like the unexpected arrival of a thief. How would we like him to find us? Certainly at peace with everyone and with ourselves.
Finally comes our Lord’s story of the steward. This man’s first mistake was doing what he liked while his master was away. We make the same mistake all the time. We do it every time we faithlessly divide our lives into compartments, like the sacred and the sacred and the secular. We deceive ourselves if we think that we can give one part of our lives to God and another part to worldly pursuit. The secular penetrates the sacred, and the sacred the secular. The steward’s second mistake was in thinking he had plenty of time to put things right before the master would return. Those who have thought about it even a little realize that life is short and the time is now.
To retain a vibrant faith, Jesus makes three demands of his followers. First, we are to share with the needy (v. 33f.); the only worthwhile treasure is that which awaits us in heaven. Secondly, we are to be vigilant, prepared, and living lives that are integrated by our faith. And thirdly, whatever our task in life, we are to carry it our faithfully and responsibly in a spirit of service.
The faith of Abraham caused him to leave familiar territory and later to consider sacrificing his only son. The faith of Moses and the Israelite caused them to pull up stakes in the middle of the night and leave Egypt. Jesus was the faith – filled person par excellence. To become like all of them, our faith must be renewed and deepened daily. We battle constantly in the face of non-belief and apathy.
At the heart of Christian faith is the notion that God, who called me by name from eternity, made me unique, and loves me with a love that is infinite. But, as we said in the beginning, we aren’t living in an “Age of Faith”. That time did exist in the Western world many hundreds of years ago, when everything was at one with Christian faith- one’s peer group, one’s family, the marketplace, and the world of entertainment. Today, we must be constantly on our guard to preserve our faith and to find the strength and courage to share its light with those who don’t understand it.