TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Habi:2f,2:2-4 2Timl:6-8,13f. Lk17:5-10 – Stir into Flame Faith and Faithfulness
An Animating, Vigorous, and Courageous Faith; Faith and Courage; Genuineness of Faith; Hang in There!
We have come to think that modern technology has vastly changed our world. At the same time there is an old adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Take insulation as one example. Long before human beings ever thought of such a thing as controlling temperatures by special types of insulating materials, the praying mantis was surrounding its eggs with a frothy mass of bubbles to protect them from the weather.
The bubbles work on the same principle as our thermos bottles. No matter how cold or how warm the air gets, the tender eggs within are protected. Or take air conditioning as another example. Honey bees maintain a constant temperature and a speciﬁc condition of airﬂow in order that their larvae may be properly reared and honey successfully cured. Muscular exertion of certain bees produces heat from their bodies, and then other bees — the farmers — anchor themselves to the floor of the hive and vibrate their wings to create and maintain the exact amount of air circulation needed.
All three readings of today’s liturgy support the old adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same. From at least 600 RC, about when the prophecy of Habakkuk was written, through 100 A.D., roughly when the second letter to Timothy was written, right up to the present, there have been problems with faith and faithfulness.
Habakkuk’s times were as internally wicked and internationally threatening as any before or since. It looked as though nothing would stand in the Assyrians’ way to conquer more of the world, including the Jews’ southern kingdom of Judah, where Habakkuk lived. Meanwhile, Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian armies became the new mighty world power to contend with, Unfortunately, Jehoiakim, the King of Judah, had backed the Assyrians, the losing side.
Habakkuk was a deep thinker and, according to the picturesque phrase of St Jerome, a “wrestler with God”. A faithful man, Habakkuk is all the more real to us because he knew what it is to experience temptations to faithlessness. Daring but respectfully in today’s dialogue with God, he wanted to know some of the same things we would like to know.
Why, for example, is God so silent while the faithless conquer and the wicked devour the good? Why doesn’t God intervene in the world — especially when suffering and evil seem to be triumphing? Why does God tolerate the wicked? The J udeans had sinned, to be sure, but why should God choose to punish them by means of monstrous people who were more wicked than themselves?
God gave many interesting answers. He said that ﬁnal justice will surely come (2:3) — in God’s own good time. Meanwhile, in ways we don’t understand, God is preparing the ﬁnal victory of justice. Bringing the message down to individuals, God said that the evildoers shall pass away, but good people shall live, because of their faithfulness (2:4).
Faithfulness in general is an unswerving adherence to someone or something by way of a union such as marriage, friendship, honour, oath, or promise. It goes hand in hand with faith.
Faithfulness in the face of negative situations doesn’t demand that we see these as being “the will of God” and remain passively accepting. In the face of outrage and violence, God afﬁrms agonized search and active questioning like Habakkuk’s. That search and questioning don’t necessarily lessen faith or loyalty. Also basic is the truth that God has many fair-weather friends — those who are with Him as long as every—’ thing goes their way. Real faith is proved by steadfast loyalty to God in times of adversity. Today’s Responsorial Psalm urges us not to harden our hearts to God, in bad times as well as good, “the human heart takes the shape of what it loves” ( Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2404 ).
In today’s Gospel we see the Apostles asking the Lord to increase their faith (v. 5). They had guessed correctly that theological faith is a gift. No one buys it, earns it, conquers it, or wins it. It comes from God, and one can only do what the Apostles in fact did. Pray for it and for its increase when it is weak, especially when assailed by indifference or doubt.
Jesus used the picture of a tiny seed to move a mighty sycamore tree as a metaphor for faith being the greatest force in the world. Even on a purely natural plane, things that look impossible become possible when approached with faith. Examples abound — the invention of the simple electric light bulb, the airplane, space travel, medical marvels, television, and computers are but a few.
In the supernatural order, faith is the only power that can save the world, a seemingly impossible task. The rest of the Gospel passage (vv. 7-10) teaches the disciples the necessity of being humble in the service of God. In words that don’t apply to other areas like labour management relations, Jesus says that we can never have any claim on God. Our greatest response to the Giver of divine faith is works of service.
But faith is never deﬁnitively acquired; it must ceaselessly be reanimated. That is part of the message of today’s excerpt from the second letter to Timothy. It’s the beginning of a series from this letter for the next few Sundays. In about 100 AD, its author made this letter out to be St Paul’s pastoral directions to a young, timid, sickly bishop. By attributing authorship to Paul, the author brings forward the authority of Paul, needed to guide the Church in a transitional age. That reminds us of the humorous story of an updated piece of advice to a new pastor. On his very ﬁrst day in ofﬁce, this new pastor got a call from his predecessor, He congratulated him on his new charge and told him that in the centre drawer of the desk in the ofﬁce he had left three envelopes, all numbered, which he was to open in order when he got into trouble.
After a short-lived honeymoon with the congregation, the heat began to rise and the pastor decided to open the ﬁrst envelope. The note inside read, “If it will help, blame me for the problem. After all, I am gone and have new problems of my own.”
That Worked for a while, but then things went bad again. The pastor opened the second envelope, which read, “Blame the congregation. They have a lot of other interests. They can take it.”
That too worked well for a while, but then the storm clouds gathered again, and in desperation the pastor went to the drawer and opened the third envelope. The message read, “Prepare three envelopes!”
Today’s advice to Timothy begins by reminding him — and us — to stir into ﬂame the gifts God has given (v. 6). Because Timothy is young and heresies and other dangers great, he must keep his courage high (v. 7). He is given a version of the message of Habakkuk. Bear hardships for the sake of the Good News, relying on the power of God. In your efforts, be strong, in order to have the power to cope; be loving, especially for the sake of those with whom you will deal; and be wise — with saintliness keeping control in the face of temptations to panic.
Anyone loyal and faithful to Paul toward the end of Paul’s life would automatically be tempted to lose faith. For one thing, loyalty to Paul meant loyalty to one considered a criminal (v. 8). The aged Paul was in a Roman . jail. For another thing, there was the hardship which the Gospel entails – difﬁcult in the face of the world’s self-indulgence. In the long term, however, we have to remind ourselves that faithfulness to the Gospel is rewarding. The biblical notion of faith, of course, means a commitment of the entire person to Jesus. This means action as well as intellectual assent. It is steadfast loyalty to God no matter what comes.
So Timothy must keep the sound teachings of the faith inviolate. The model is, at bottom, the teachings of Jesus himself. Though Jesus’ doctrines can grow and develop, they remain fundamentally the same through all ages and fads. We adhere in faith, and with a loyalty ever true, and a hope that never loses conﬁdence in Gods And we must cooperate with the help of the Holy Spirit that is within us (v. 14) to guard the rich deposit of faith.
In ancient times, before banks as we know them, one of the places where people often deposited their valuables was the Temple. The deposit’s safekeeping was considered a sacred mist. Faith, the greatest force in the world, is the richest deposit possible, and the most sacred of trusts. Paul had entrusted his work and his life to God. While a criminal in a Roman jail, treated at best indifferently by his barbarous keepers, he didn’t change his faith, or his loyalty and steadfastness to God’s plans for him. Why? Because it was inconceivable to him that God,
Whom he had come to know intimately, would let him down. God’s message to Habakkuk and Paul and Timothy and the Apostles is just as important to us now as ever in history.