Commentary on the Readings
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 6, 2019 – Year C
Prayer: Recognizing God in our history
The Bible never says that Abraham entered into a shrine to pray, and yet he is considered not only as the father of believers but also as a model of the man who prays. If it is necessary to believe in order to pray and to believe one needs to pray. His whole life is marked by prayer. He initiated things only after he heard the word of the Lord; he took steps after having received from his God an indication of the way.
His story is marked by a constant dialogue with the Lord. “The Lord said to Abram: go…then Abram departed” (Gen 12:1,4). “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision … and Abram said: Lord, what will you give me?” (Gen 15:1-2) “Then the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre and he bowed down to the ground” (Gen 18:1-3). “God put Abraham to the test … and Abraham answered: Here I am!” (Gen 22:1) This dialogue has fueled the faith of Abraham; it prepared him to accept the will of God. It made him believe in his love despite appearances to the contrary.
Many events of our life are enigmatic, incomprehensible and illogical and seem to give reasons to one who doubts whether God is present in and accompanies our history. In these moments our faith is put to a hard test and we would naturally cry out to the Lord and implore: “Listen to our voice, understand our lament.” He always listens to our voice though it is difficult for us to perceive his voice. “Make us listen to your voice, O Lord”; it is the invocation that we must address to him: to open our hearts, help us to renounce our longings, securities and plans and instead make us welcome Yours. This is the faith that saves.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Make us listen to your voice, O Lord.”
Habakkuk is a contemporary of Jeremiah. They live in the same social, political and religious situation. Iniquity reigns in the country. “They commit one crime after another…brother deceives brother…. each one is suspicious of his friend; no one speaks the truth… violence upon violence, deceit upon deceit” (Jer 9:2-5). “Small and great alike, all are greedy for gain; prophet and priest, all practice fraud” (Jer 8:10).
The king is stupid, incapable, loves luxury, exploits the workers to construct his palace, does not protect the cause of the poor and the miserable (Jer 22:13-17). All see the injustices, abuses and deviations and this is scandalous! God lets it go. It seems that he is disinterested in what happens on earth. Why doesn’t he intervene? Why doesn’t he rescue the oppressed?
Attentive, sensible, spiritually mature, Jeremiah and Habakkuk try to understand what is happening and they are not afraid to open a dispute with God.
They ask him the reason for his silence and of being passive: “O Lord, you are always right when I complain to you; nevertheless, where is your justice? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do traitors live in peace?” (Jer 12:1).
The people, too, want an explanation, so they turn to Habakkuk and ask him to consult the Lord. Disturbed and confused, in that very same evening the prophet keeps himself in prayer and addresses to God the questions contained in the first part of today’s reading: “Until when O Lord will you be silent? How long will you tolerate injustice? Why do you simply gaze at destruction, violence, strife and discord?” (Hb 1: 2-3)
The prayer of Habakkuk is stupendous! He has the courage to tell the Lord that he disagrees with him, that he does not understand his tolerance towards the wicked. He reminds him of his passive attitude and his silence; he dares to ask account of his way of governing the world and the events of history.
After having exposed his and the people’s grievances, the prophet remains silent. It is God’s turn to answer. It is he who is called to justify his work. Habakkuk waits like the sentinels who scrutinize the far horizon to capture even the smallest movement. He waits for a sign that preludes a change (Hb 2:1).
The Lord’s answer is immediate and it is in the second part of the reading (Hb 2:2-4).
God orders Habakkuk: “Write down, write that which I am about to say because I like that it remains documented” (v. 2). Here is the promise: in a short time nothing will happen; there will be no immediate changes. A time will pass before liberation comes. “Woe to the one who gets discouraged, wary, resigned to injustice and adapts to the behavior of the wicked” (v. 3).
A surprising response: God does not give any explanation; he only asks for unconditional trust. He understands the grievances of the prophet and of the people; he knows that they cannot understand the reasons of his tolerance. Nevertheless he assures that what is given today for him to see will one day appear clear to all. The wicked—who apparently prospers—in reality is laying the groundwork of his ruin. Before the just, before one who trusts in the Lord, horizons of life are opened wide instead.
The second letter to Timothy is directed above all to those who, in the Christian community, perform the ministry of leadership. The passage starts with an invitation to Timothy to “stir into flame the gift of God you received through the laying on of my hands” (v. 6).
The ministry he is called to do—to testify to the truth—calls for strength and courage. Timothy, unfortunately, is timid and reserved, so much so that Paul one day had to recommend to the Corinthians to make him feel at ease (1 Cor 16:10). That is why he reminds him that the Spirit is the source of strength, not of timidity (vv. 7-8).
In the second part of the reading (vv. 13-14), the Apostle twice recommends to Timothy—and indirectly to all pastoral workers of the community—to integrally preserve the deposit of faith.
At the end of the first century A.D. false teachers, who diffuse erroneous, bizarre and fantastic doctrines, start to infiltrate the Christian communities. Adhesion to such false interpretation of the Gospel brings to serious theological and moral deviations. The leaders of the community’s life have to be vigilant to protect the faithful particularly those exposed and tempted to adhere to this budding heresy.
The recommendation to remain faithful to the principles of faith must not be confused with spiritual immobility. It is not an invitation not to change anything in the life of the community. The new interpretation and deepened study of the Bible, the explanations that make the Gospel more understandable to today’s people, are not deviations of faith. The new liturgical forms, the new texts of catechism, are not infidelity to tradition.
The baby has to develop, grow and become an adult. It would be an act of violence to force him to remain always as he is. So also the word of God must grow (Acts 12:24) and faith must mature. Faithfulness to the Gospel requires a continuous metamorphosis of mind and heart.
This desired change, guided by the Spirit is an expression and sign of life.
The Gospel passage proposed to us is a difficult one. The first part where it speaks of faith (vv. 5-6) and the second, where a baffling parable is given (vv. 7-9) are rather enigmatic and raise questions. The same discourse is valid for the concluding verse (v. 10) in which even the most faithful disciples are called “useless servants.”
We start with the marvels that faith, even as small as a grain of mustard, is capable of producing. The saying of the Lord is introduced by a request of the disciples: “Increase our faith.”
Is it possible for faith to grow? It’s either one believes or does not. Then it could not be a more or less. This would be true if faith is reduced to the assent given to a pack of truth.
In reality, to believe does not pertain only to the mind. It involves a concrete choice, implies a full and unconditional trust in Christ and convinced adhesion to his plan of life. Things being so, it is easy to realize that faith can grow or diminish. The journey in following the Master at times is faster, at times less and at times one gets tired, slows down and stops.
The experience of an uncertain and vacillating faith happens everyday. We believe in Jesus, but we do not trust him totally. We don’t have the courage to accomplish certain passes, to untie ourselves from certain habits, to make certain renouncements. Here we have a faith that needs to strengthen itself.
The request of the apostles reveals the conviction they have come to. They realized that spiritual maturity is not a fruit of their effort and of their commitment, but a gift of God. For this, they asked Jesus to make them more decisive, convinced, generous in the choice of following him.
From the context one also intuits the reason for which they address this request to him.
He has proposed the difficult way that awaits them: they have to enter through the narrow door (Lk 13:24), be ready to “hate” father and mother (Lk 14:26), renounce all their goods (Lk 14:33) and—as written in the verses immediately preceding our passage—they must be capable of forgiving without limits and without conditions (Lk 17:5-6). Before such demands, it is understandable that they feel the lack of strength.
The temptation to call into question one’s own choices and to step back is great. Probably, it also says to them as many had already done: “This language is hard, who can understand it?” (Jn 6:60) They are afraid not to make it. Hence the invocation for help blooms spontaneously in their mouth: increase our faith.
Instead of listening to them, Jesus starts to describe the marvels that faith produces.
He employs a paradoxical and very strange image for our culture. He speaks of a tree—one doesn’t know well if it is a mulberry or a sycamore—which could be miraculously uprooted from the earth.
If Jesus refers to the sycamore, then the image alludes to the very strong and profound roots of this plant. The roots withstand for six hundred years and it is very difficult to uproot from the ground.
Jesus says: Faith is capable of realizing the impossible: to uproot a sycamore or to make a mulberry grow in the sea.
Matthew and Mark do not speak of a tree, but of a mountain that could be moved with faith (Mt 17:29; Mk 11:23). This must be a very familiar and proverbial image used by Paul (1 Cor 13:2). The message is, however, the same and can be summarized with the words pronounced by Jesus in another context: “Everything is possible for one who believes” (Mk 9:23).
A question spontaneously comes: how come no one has ever done such miracles? Jesus did not do it, not Mary, Abraham and the great saints. They didn’t accomplish them. It’s not difficult to understand because Jesus was speaking in a hyperbolic way.
The miracles he spoke of are the possible changes that could be realized in those who believe. They are the inexplicable transformations, absolutely unforeseen, but can be realized in our society and in the world when we really trust the word of the Gospel and put it into practice.
Some examples can give light to us. Whoever has not thought that hatred, grudges, prejudices that permeate the relationship between peoples, are unavoidable realities? Who has not thought that certain familial conflicts are irreconcilable? Who, at least once, has not retained that the roots of enmity are so deep and could not be pulled off?
For one who believes—Jesus says—no irremediable situations exist. Those who trust in his word will be witnessing extraordinary and unexpected miracles; they will see fulfilled the marvelous changes announced by the prophets: the desert will bloom (Is 32:15) and the valleys will be transformed into a Garden of Eden (Is 51:3).
This affirmation is followed by a parable (vv. 7-9) that leaves us a bit bitter and disillusioned. It is not easy to understand why Jesus spoke in this manner.
It tells of a slave who, after a hard day’s work, returns home very tired and with a face burned by the sun. The master, instead of complimenting him for the service done and inviting him to sit and eat a piece of bread, demands harshly: “First, serve me, after I am satisfied, you will eat supper.”
Since the master represents God and we are the servants, we have something to worry about: at the end of our life will we be really welcomed in this way?
The parable surprises also because, some Sundays ago, we heard Jesus spoke in a very different way: “Blessed are those servants whom the master on his return will find them awake; in truth I tell you, he will put on an apron and have them sit at table and he will wait on them” (Lk 12:37). A moving scenario!
The paradigm used in today’s passage does not correspond to our actual sensibility; nay it irritates us. We have to place it in the cultural context of the time when a slave was considered as property of the owner and he could not make any claim. Jesus does not discuss this situation but takes it as a fact. One day he will set out the innovative principles on which the new society proposed by him will be based.
We have to remember Jesus’ reminder to the disciples during the last supper: “The kings of the pagan nations rule over them as lords, and the most hardhearted rulers claim the title, ‘Gracious Lord’. But not so with you: let the greatest among you become as the lowest and the leader as the servant. For who is the greatest, he who sits at table or he who serves? He who is seated isn’t it? Yet I am among you as the one who serves’ (Lk 22:24-27).
He does not intend to confront the problem of slavery. He only makes use of an example to transmit his theological message. He wants to correct the misleading way the Pharisees (of that time and of today) understand the relationship with God.
The spiritual guides of that time preached the religion of merits. They were saying: at the end of life, God will remunerate based on the performance of each one. From here there is the need to accomplish the maximum possible number of good works: prayers, fasting, alms, religious practices, sacrifices, scrupulous observances of the commandments and precepts. All for having a right to a major recompense!
This way of understanding the rapport with the Lord corresponds perfectly to our logic.
We think it right to imagine such a God. We are not aware that we are reasoning exactly like the Pharisees. Man—who is dust and ash—cannot claim any right before God, from whom he receives all gratuitously.
This religion of merits is damaging to whoever practices it. It establishes wrong rapports marked by a subtle egoism among persons and deforms the rapport with God. One does not really love the person who accomplishes the good with an objective of accumulating merits before God. He still puts himself at the center of his own interests, helps the brothers/sisters to better one’s own spiritual life.
Jesus wants the disciple to put aside any type of egoism, including spiritual. Whoever loves in an unconditional and gratuitous way as the Father in heaven enters the Kingdom of God.
The major trouble provoked by the religion of merits is to reduce God to an accountant in charge of maintaining the account books in order and signing accurately the debits and credits of each one. The parable wants to destroy this image of God.
We don’t like it; it even irritates us, because of the idea that in doing good we acquire merits before God is too rooted in us. It is too deep as the root of the sycamore.
The concluding saying—already very hard—is made even tougher by some inexact translations that speak of “useless servants.” It’s better translated: “We are simple servants; we have not done nothing more than our duty” (v. 10).
Jesus does not intend to underestimate the good works; he does not look down on the work of a person nor assumes an attitude of arrogance towards one who commits oneself to accomplish what is good. He rather tries to liberate the disciples from a form of egoism dangerous for them and for others: the pursuit of self-fulfillment for their own justification, over preoccupation about one’s health, or in the exhibition of one’s own flawless conduct. He likes to purify their hearts of the impulses to emulation and spiritual rivalry.
There is no need to compete in order to grab the favor and love of God: there is an abundance of his love for all.
Jesus wants them to understand that the behavior of the Pharisee who shows his own merits is foolish because all that is good is always a gratuitous gift of God and not a merit of the person. “What do you possess—says Paul—that you have not received? If you have received it, why are you proud of it as if you have not received it?” (1 Cor 4:7).
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.