Scripture and the Liturgy

Mustard Seed Faith: 27th Sunday in OT

These commentaries are available in print form here. The commentaries for Year A are already available and shipping here.

Our readings this week take up the theme of faith, both Israel’s faith under the old covenant and the faith to which we are called in the new.  Jesus urges us not to despair even if we feel our faith is pitiful.  God can work wonders using small material.

1.  Our First Reading is a famous passage from Habbakuk:  Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4

How long, O LORD? I cry for help
but you do not listen!
I cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not intervene.
Why do you let me see ruin;
why must I look at misery?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and clamorous discord.
Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets,
so that one can read it readily.
For the vision still has its time,
presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
if it delays, wait for it,
it will surely come, it will not be late.
The rash one has no integrity;
but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

Like Jonah, the Book of Habakkuk is an anomaly among the Twelve Minor Prophets.  The other ten relate oracles the various prophets delivered on behalf of the LORD to Israel and/or the nations.  In Jonah and Habakkuk, however, the focus is largely on the spiritual struggle between the prophet and the LORD concerning the wisdom and righteousness of God’s providence over world history.  Both Jonah and Habakkuk struggle with the justice of God’s ways.  The Book of Jonah explores this question largely through narrative, whereas Habakkuk engages it through dialogue between the prophet and the LORD.  Habakkuk resolves doubts about God’s justice by urging God’s people to live by faith in God’s promises, even if contemporary events seem contradictory or inexplicable.  Habakkuk 2:4, which summarizes this message succinctly, is one of the most-quoted verses of the Old Testament in the New (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38-39) and has powerfully influenced Christian piety, prayer, and theology.

As is the case with so many of the Twelve, no biographical information is available for Habakkuk.  The form of his name is unusual and its meaning uncertain. It may be a passive form derived from the Hebrew root h-b-q, “to embrace,” i.e. “one who is embraced.” The date of the book is likewise uncertain.  At least Judah, if not Israel, still seems to be in existence as the prophet writes, so it must be before the exile (>597 BC).  Beyond that, the mention of the “Chaldeans” (=Babylonians) as a rising threat in 1:6 (cf. Isa 39) is the best piece of evidence for dating.  The prophet’s words indicate that people will be surprised to hear that Babylon will be the agent of God’s judgment (1:5-6).  This would certainly not be the case in the early sixth century BC (c. 590s-580s) when Babylon was a dominant and feared world power, so Habakkuk should probably be placed sometime in the late eighth (late 700s) or (more likely) the seventh century (600s) BC,  when Assyria was still dominant in the Levant but Babylon was growing in power (cf. Isa 39).

Habakkuk begins his book by complaining to the LORD: why does God seem to do nothing about the violence and injustice the prophet sees around him (1:2-4)?  God replies that He is preparing the Babylonians to come and destroy the evildoers (1:5-11) and Habakkuk acknowledges this divine judgment (1:12).  However, sending the Babylonians as executors of justice raises another theological problem: how can God judge wicked persons by others who are yet more wicked (1:13)?  The prophet goes on to describe the wickedness of wealthy man who consumes others (1:14-16) and “slays the nations” (1:17), perhaps the King of Assyria or Babylon.

         The LORD’s response to this second, more sharply-focused complaint from Habakkuk is much longer and more detailed (Hab 2:2-20).  First, the LORD counsels the prophet and all the righteous to have patience, even if it seems like the oracles of God are slow in fulfillment (2:2-4).  Secondly, the LORD pronounces five woes (vv. 6-8; 9-11; 12-14; 15-17; 18-20) on the “arrogant man” whose “greed is as wide as Sheol” and “gathers for himself all nations.”  This may be simultaneously (1) a hyperbolic description of any wealthy oppressor, and (2) a specific description of the King of Babylon (or Assyria).  The message of these woes is that the wickedness of the wicked man will come back on his head: those he oppresses will one day suddenly turn on him (2:7) and he will experience the destruction to which he subjugated others (vv. 8, 10, 17). 

         The Book of Habakkuk ends with a psalm composed by the prophet, which appears in its present context to be a response to the woes against the evildoer just pronounced by the LORD (2:6-20).  This psalm, which bears a strong resemblance to Ps. 68 and others, recounts a theophany of the LORD in which he marches north to Israel from the south (the region around Sinai), accompanied by a violent storm and earthquake (1:3-12).  Having arrived, he vindicates his “anointed” (v. 13, probably the Davidic King) by slaying the sea serpent that embodies evil (vv. 13b-15).  This entire poetic composition, colored with mythological imagery, may be a figurative description of the Exodus, the conquest of the land, or one or more other of God’s great saving acts of his people in Israel’s history.  Essentially, it is a mytho-poetic description of God’s power over the forces of evil as the divine warrior, which is manifested in various ways throughout history.

In response to his vision of God manifesting his power and justice, the prophet resolves to “wait quietly” for the day of judgment on those “who invade us” (v. 16) and to rejoice in the LORD even though there is, as yet, no sign of the consolations and blessing that God has promised for his people (vv. 17-19).

The Book of Habakkuk is of perennial theological and spiritual interest because it struggles with the ever-pertinent question of theodicy, the justice of God.  If God is good and all-powerful, why do the wicked seem to prosper?  Of course, many other biblical books, notably Job and the Psalms, also deal with this issue.  The answer offered by the Book of Habakkuk is that God will, in the end, deliver justice to all.  In the meantime, it is necessary for the righteous to exercise trust or faith in the goodness, justice, and promises of God.  This practical advice is summed up well in Hab 2:4b: “The righteous shall live by his faith” (RSV).  The word translated “faith” is ‘emunah, which is more precisely rendered “faithfulness,” “integrity” or “fidelity.”  It derives from the same Hebrew root meaning “true” (‘-m-n) that gives us “Amen,” i.e. “so be it!” or “it is true!”  St. Paul quotes Hab. 2:4 in Rom 1:17, but follows the Septuagint in rendering Heb. ‘emunah as Gk. pistis, “faith.”  Although the Gk. pistis (“faith”) is not the exact equivalent of Heb. ‘emunah (“faithfulness”), it certainly is the case that the Book of Habakkuk, taken as a whole, counsels the follower of the LORD to exercise trust or faith in the present while he awaits the fulfillment of God’s promises in the future. 

P. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9:

R. (8) If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD;
let us acclaim the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us joyfully sing psalms to him.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us bow down in worship;
let us kneel before the LORD who made us.
For he is our God,
and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides.
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
“Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the desert,
Where your fathers tempted me;
they tested me though they had seen my works.”
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

Psalm 95 is a very common responsorial, and also appears frequently in the Divine Office.  The Psalm recalls the trials of faith that Israel underwent in the desert, while wandering forty years under Moses.  Massah (“trial”) and Meribah (“contention”) are names of the location in Exod 17 where the people ran out of water, and lost their faith in God and his prophet Moses.  The grumbled and complained, accusing God of intending evil for them.  We can say that those two events became iconic examples of the loss of faith by God’s people, and they resulted in plagues in both instances.  They become ensconced in Israel’s memory as counter-examples to the faith we should embrace and demonstrate toward God. 

2. Our Second Reading is :2 Tm 1:6-8, 13-14

I remind you, to stir into flame
the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice
but rather of power and love and self-control.
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,
nor of me, a prisoner for his sake;
but bear your share of hardship for the gospel
with the strength that comes from God.

Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me,
in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit
that dwells within us.

Unlike the Israelites in the desert, we have the tremendous “help of the Holy Spirit” in order to maintain the “faith and love” of Christ Jesus in our lives.  Faith is contrary to a “spirit of cowardice,” but leads us to an attitude of “power, love, and self-control.”  This reminds us of St. Josemaria’s teaching that Christians should have a kind of spiritual “superiority complex” when tackling the challenges of this world.  Confidence should characterize the Christian; not self-confidence which the world urges, but what we might call “Christ-confidence” or “Spirit-confidence.”  Knowing that “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me,” we should have this great confidence that God will provide a means for us to overcome the obstacles we face.  No doubt this will mean we must share in the “hardship for the Gospel,” but we can rely on the “strength that comes from God” to persevere through it. 

3.  Our Gospel is Lk 17:5-10:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
The Lord replied,
“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

I think many take this parable wrongly.  Hearing that faith the size of a mustard seed would be sufficient to perform miracles, folks reason like this: “I can’t work miracles; therefore, my faith must not even be the size of a mustard seed!  I must try real hard to muster up some faith the size of a mustard seed, because my faith is microscopic!”

However, I don’t think our Lord was trying to discourage us and tell us that our faith was insignificant.  Rather, the purpose of our Lord’s words are consolation, not rebuke.  The point he is making to the disciples is this: You don’t need much faith to be effective!  Just give me a little bit of faith and I can do great things for you!  Just as I took five loaves and two fish and fed 5,000, I can take a mustard seed of your faith and transplant a tree into the ocean.”

Our Lord’s words are meant to be an encouragement.  You may only have a tiny amount of faith, but go ahead and step out on that faith anyway.  You do not need huge faith already in order to begin serving the Lord.  He will take what you have and do great things with it. 

“Who among you would say to your servant
who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field,
‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’?
Would he not rather say to him,
‘Prepare something for me to eat.
Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’?
Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?
So should it be with you.
When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, ‘We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.’”

It’s not immediately apparent what the connection is between this saying of Jesus and the previous teaching on faith.  Maybe it’s this: sometimes those who do great works of faith think they are doing God a favor.  Jesus says in a different place, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’” (Mt. 7:22)  These are works of faith.  However, to these individuals, Jesus responds, “Depart from me, for I never knew you, you evildoers.”

We don’t do God favors by serving him.  Paul says, “If I have faith to remove mountians”—alluding to a version of our Lord’s teaching in Luke 7—“but have not love, I am nothing.”  Great works of faith do not add to God’s glory.  Nor does our holiness. 

Jesus is reminding us here that we can’t actually put God in our debt, and that even a holy life is only “normal” for God to expect of us.  After all, holiness is normal, it is sin and evil that is abnormal.  Sin may be typical, but it is still abnormal.  Mary was the first normal human being since Adam and Eve fell. 

If we live a saintly life, in a sense it is nothing exceptional.  All we’ve done is to be truly human, to fulfill the destiny for which we were created in the first place. 

It makes me think of an anecdote a friend of mine shared with me this week.  A construction crew was rebuilding a Carthusian monastery and came across the grave of a monk.  Opening the casket, they found him incorrupt.  Wondering what to do, they called the nearest Carthusian monastery, which was in another country.  “What shall we do with the body?” they asked.  “Bury him again”, came the reply.  “But he’s incorrupt!” they protested.  “All Carthusians are supposed to be holy,” came the answer, “this is not exceptional.  Bury him again.”

This Sunday’s Gospel is calling on us not to pat ourselves on the back every time we turn away from temptation or do an act of mercy.  It is only normal.  Holiness should be ordinary.

1 comment

  1. Most people connect this passage with faith corresponding with signs and wonders bc of Matt 17:20 and miracles ot with others where the seed is compared with the Kingdom. But what about the context of previous verses concerning forgiveness and then following with the ‘useless servant’? Could it be that it connected to the mulberry as the tree with the deepest roots and bitter fruit as the result of lack of forgiveness and the desire of the disciples to increase their faith to be able to forgive so the roots of bitterness do not overpower their faith? And the uselessness of servants is all about our own benefit in living thee life of forgiveness to be able to serve Jesus well and without impediments?

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