Fifty-fifth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4; 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; Luke 17:5-10
So what are we fighting for? Why are we tending to all these little things? Why are we exercising such patience? For we know there is only so much we can do. We each are only one person, and there’re so many others out there. Why doesn’t God do something Himself? God could blink every problem out of existence just with a blink of His eye. And yet it seems He doesn’t, no matter how much we ask Him to. “How long, O LORD?” the prophet Habbakuk cries in the First Reading. “I cry for help but you do not listen! …Why must I look at misery?” How much easier our faith would be if God would simply impose martial law over His creation. How much easier our religion would be if the Pope imposed martial law over the Church! And yet this burden of freedom persists, this liberty that allows us to squander our own gifts from God while wishing God would something about everyone else who squanders theirs. How do we still not understand, even in our own beginners’ way, the larger forces that are at work here? How do we still not see the greatness of God’s mysterious mercy?
In the First Reading the word of God comes to Habbakuk to console him in the questions that arise from his impatient faith. As he looks out at an Israelite society that seems to have fallen apart in the decades just before the Babylonian exile, the prophet is saddled with wrongs that seem to go unrighted and promises of balance that seem to go unfulfilled. And yet God comes to him and says, “[T]he vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint.” Once again, God counsels patience with, trust in, and obedience to His word. He also reinforces all His earlier promises with yet another promise: “[T]he just one” – that is, the one who tries to conduct himself in accordance with the whole of the Law – “because of his faith, will live.” The way to life, both temporal and eternal, is unambiguous here: trust that God will do what He says He will do, because He always does – even if it takes longer than we want, or doesn’t happen in the way we want. The divine advice of “If it delays, wait for it” is the original “Keep calm and carry on.”
And so we ask of God the same thing that the disciples asked of Jesus in the Gospel reading: “Increase our faith!” It’s hard to tell whether Jesus is being sympathetic or sarcastic in His response (the Lord does have a quite underappreciated sense of humor!), but knowing Him there was probably a little of both. He tells them that if they had “faith the size of a mustard seed” – the smallest of seeds, which gives rise to one of the largest of trees – they could tell trees to replant themselves in the sea and it would happen. But just to make sure that they don’t get the wrong impression, or think that such ability would be a testament to their own greatness, Jesus tells them a parable, that of a servant who attends to his master at the end of the day. No servant reasonably expects his master to allow him to rest and eat before the master himself has done so. And when the servant has waited on the master, “[i]s he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?” In other words, faith isn’t always about acting for ourselves – in fact, it’s rarely about acting for ourselves. Often it’s about waiting on the Lord, and trusting that He will act. “We are unprofitable servants;” the only things we can do are what we should and what we shouldn’t. The first is the better option, but it still simply what is expected.
So where does that leave us? Stuck somewhere in the middle, between action and inaction, between waiting and doing? How does one “pray and work” if we simply feel stuck in neutral? That is the question Saint Paul answers for us in his second letter to Timothy, from which our Second Reading is taken. After all the advice and instruction that he has passed on to his disciple and fellow bishop, what charge does Paul give to Timothy? What is the one thing that people of faith can always do? “I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have.” Take that mustard seed of faith, and cultivate it, nurture it until it becomes a massive plant that gives comfort and protection. Take that talent and treasure that is uniquely yours and make it grow to better serve your Master. Take that abiding sense of trust in God’s word that gives us hope and keeps us calm and share it with others; maybe a similar flame will be stirred up in them. Ours is “a spirit of power and love and self-control,” not because we made it for ourselves but because God gave it to us. Like Timothy, and like Paul, and like Habbakuk, and especially like Jesus Himself, we must bear and endure all things in love “with the strength that comes from God.”
We cannot manage the whole world; that job belongs to Someone Else. But we can manage ourselves. We can manage our response to the world. We can manage our interactions with others. We can be beacons of mercy that facilitate impartial reconciliation to God, not ask God for particular condemnations. We can trust that the same God Who begins all good works in everyone will finish them as well. And we can let the Holy Spirit help us “[g]uard that rich trust.” And maybe if each one of us managed ourselves as best as we can, the world wouldn’t seem such a scary place after all.
Unprofitable servants we may be, but we can still be good and faithful ones. So keep calm, and carry on!