27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – October 6, 2019
St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9; 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; Luke 17:5-10
October is Respect Life month and it’s a time to remind ourselves that we are called to cherish, defend, and protect those who are most vulnerable, from the beginning of life to its end, and at every point in between. Especially with these issues—abortion, assisted suicide, and everything in between—we have to struggle with the problem of evil and suffering. I can hardly go a week without someone asking me a question along the lines of, “Why would God allow this suffering? Why do bad things happen? Why doesn’t God listen to my prayers?” And yeah, rightly, we are disturbed by violence, malevolence, unmerited suffering. Who here hasn’t complained of the woes of the world, or blamed politicians or progressives or another nations for problems? And we cry out to God for justice, to do something! What is God’s reply? What does God tell us? The answer is in our first reading, and Jesus reaffirms it in our Gospel. The answer is to have faith. But what is “faith”? Because it’s not what we think.
Our first reading is from the marvelous book of the prophet Habakkuk. This is the only time we hear from this book every three years! Habakkuk was a prophet who lived right before the Babylonian exile, during a time of great injustice and idolatry. Many of the other prophets accuse Israel of injustice or call for conversion. But Habakkuk does something a littler different. Habakkuk addresses everything to God. This book tells of his personal struggle and journey. It is a book about him trying to believe that God is good when there is so much evil and tragedy in the world. Habakkuk makes great laments, begging God to do something. Habakkuk complains that the Law/Torah is being neglected, that there is violence and injustice, and that all of it is being tolerated by the corrupt leadership. Habakkuk cries out! “How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene” (Hab 1:2). He just wants God to do something, but nothing seems to change.
But then God responds. And the response is a vision that Habakkuk has about an appointed time in the future, that even though it may seem slow in coming, it will come! And in this vision, God promises to confront evil—definitively. God will defeat evil and bring down the Pharaohs and Babylons of the world; He will bring justice to all people; He will rescue the oppressed and the innocent. And that’s nice. But what about now? What are we supposed to do now? What is God’s reply? What does God tell us?
The answer is faith. Habakkuk says, “The just one, because of his faith, shall live” (Hab 2:4). And let’s be honest: that sounds like a cop-out! How many times have you been suffering, or watching someone suffer, and someone says, “Have faith,” and you just want to punch their lights out? So why does Scripture, why does the Christian Tradition continuously encourage us to “have faith”?
Habakkuk says, “The just one, because of his faith, shall live” (Hab 2:4). The “Just One” or the “Righteous One” (n.b., sedeq in Hebrew) refers to a person who exhibits right standing and, consequently, right behavior within a community. In scripture, the “just or righteous one” is a person who has membership in the Covenant and exhibits right behavior in that covenant. And that behavior is obedience and loyalty. “Faith” refers to what was believed or the act of belief. But more importantly, “faith” is the personal commitment that accompanies any genuine belief, it is loyalty and allegiance and trust. “Faith” is a firmness, steadfastness, and fidelity.
And so, the “just one” who will live because of his “faith” is not just a person who naively believes that everything is going to be OK! Far from it! The “just one” living the life of “faith” is someone who exhibits absolute and uncompromising loyalty to God and God’s covenant, and a firmness and steadfastness in this. The just one refuses to compromise with the unjust world.
Think, for instance, of God telling Saul to put the ban on the Amalekites—that means, to kill every man, woman, child, and animal (1 Samuel 15). Or think of Joshua who comes into the Promise Land and unleashes a horrible attack on the people (Exodus 17). The people are battling the Amalekites and Moses has his arms up praying, and as long as he is praying the Israelites are victorious. And the reading (which we read at mass) ends, “And Joshua mowed down Amalek and all his people with the edge of a sword.” And then we say, “The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.”
How do we understand these passages? Doesn’t this just prove that God is the cause of evil? That God actually calls for violence and evil and suffering? Well, no. As the great Church Father Origen pointed out, these texts are to be interpreted spiritually. These stories are not just history texts, but reveal great spiritual truths. Israel, this people in a covenantal relationship with God—“Israel” stands for all that is in accord with God’s purposes; they are the “just ones” the “righteous one,” the people in right relationship to God. The enemies of Israel, the Amalekites, and any nation that Israel goes to war with, stand for any of the forces that serve to fight against God’s purposes. How should we fight them? We should fight them all the way down. All the way.
Now remember this fun detail. When God tells Saul to put the Ban on the Amalekites, Saul doesn’t. Saul kills most of them, he defeats them, but then keeps a lot of the livestock for himself and he keeps King Agag. Samuel the prophet gets angry with Saul. And then, we hear, Samuel takes his sword and hacks Agag to pieces. Again, why is this in the Bible?
Think about it, though. What do we, as sinners, do with evil? We play around with it, we toy with it, we battle it to some degree—but then we keep a little bit for ourselves. When Jesus says, “If you had faith, if you had this covenantal loyalty and allegiance that was even the size of a mustard seed, you could tell a tree to uproot itself and be planted in the sea! If you had a faith that was so uncompromising and so steadfast, the results would be incredible, as incredible and unbelievable as a tree uprooting itself and planting itself in the sea.” The seemingly impossible is possible with just a little bit of this uncompromising loyalty, of this faith.
This is what Jesus means by that story at the end of our Gospel about the servants. Here are these servants, servants who just do what they’re commanded. And they just do what they’re supposed to do. After plowing in the field and serving at table they conclude, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done only what we were obliged to do” (Luke 17:10). Jesus’ point is not that being faithful is worthless, no. The point is that the faithfulness of the servants is just what we’re supposed to do! Think of this: think of a husband that goes up to his wife and says, “Honey, I love you more than words can describe, I love you with everything I am. That’s why I’m faithful to you about 80% of the time.” This is what Jesus is driving at! This is what Habakkuk is driving at!
“The just one, because of his faith, shall live.” We complain about evil and suffering a lot, but have we been utterly and uncompromisingly faithful to God? Or along the way, have we played around with it, pretended that what we were doing wasn’t really hurting anybody? More often than we realize (just like Saul) our sin is that we don’t take that kind of responsibility with our faith.
When the people of Israel sin and break the covenant and bad things happen, time and time again, what do they point to as the cause? What do the people always eventually blame as the problem? Initially, God, that God doesn’t listen, that God abandoned them. But then, when they look back, they conclude, “We did not listen to God’s word, we were not faithful to the Covenant. THAT is why we are suffering.” It is hard to blame yourself, especially when suffering is so great. It is much easier to blame “God.” But that’s not the answer. The answer is to take personal responsibility and to root out evil in your own life; it is to live a life of uncompromising loyalty to God. This is what Habakkuk, Jesus and St. Paul, and the whole Christian tradition say: root out evil and sin in your own life before you complain about sin and evil and suffering in the world.
One quick illustration, which I think is especially important during this Respect Life Sunday. When I was working at another parish, several of the kids went on the March for Life in Washington D.C. And they were fired up, and came back talking about how wrong abortion is, and how they were going to fight for the right to life for all people. Several months later, I overhear some of these same people talking, and one of them says, “If I got pregnant before I was married, I would just get an abortion.” Do you see my point? It is easy to decry the evil in the world, but to completely forget to root out the same evil in our own life.
God took care of the evil and suffering in the world. That’s what the cross is. Jesus, the Just One, was utterly faithful, was faithful even to the point of death. Even when he was unjustly put to death, he remained faithful. God will put the world right one day! He began this project in Jesus, he will do it! But how? Through human beings, through our cooperation with the Just One. When we get our act together—starting with you—then the Kingdom is able to break in just that much more. This Eucharist is not just a thing we do. It is where we take into our very bodies this act of complete obedience and faithfulness, to heal us, to heal the world.