Commentary on Habakuk 1:2-3;2:2-4, 2 Timothy 1:6-8,13-14, Luke 17:5-10
God’s gift is not a spirit of timidity, but the Spirit of power, and love, and self-control (2nd Reading).
SOMETIMES WE MUST HAVE the same feelings as the prophet in today’s First Reading. Why is there so much injustice and tyranny and oppression everywhere? Why so much outrage and violence? “Outrage and violence, this is all I see, all is contention and discord flourishes.” Times have hardly changed since those words were written. On one side we hear politicians talking bullishly about a “New World Order” while on the other our newspapers are filled day in day out with one atrocity after another. The world looks on helplessly as genocide takes place in some part of the world. Thousands die of starvation in parts of Africa amidst political corruption and communal turmoil. Members of the great religions emerge from church, mosque or temple to slaughter all round them, either members of “rival” religions or even members of their own.
One might begin to ask: Where is God in all this? Why does he not protect his children, especially the most defenceless? Often, in these situations, people are reduced to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. We feel there is nothing we can do; the only thing is to get out and go far away. There is an endless wave of millions of refugees seeking sanctuary in a place that promises a modicum of peace and security.
Message of hope
But listen to the prophet again. He has a message of hope in the future, a “vision for its own time...eager for its own fulfilment, it does not deceive.” Then he continues: “If it comes slowly, wait, for come it will, without fail.” But this vision is not for the fainthearted: “See how he flags, he whose soul is not at rights but the upright man will live by his faithfulness.” Whatever the surrounding circumstances, the one who is not in touch with God wilts, while the one who is full of God’s spirit lives. He believes that “come it will, without fail”.
And so, in the Gospel today, the disciples ask Jesus for an increase of faith. This prayer may well reflect the feelings of some communities of early Christians, who saw their future in very dark colours and who wondered whether, as a small minority in a sea of hostility and even persecution, they had any future. And, in the ensuing centuries, many Christians have been overwhelmed with persecution and the obliteration of their Church. It is a feeling that thousands of Christians must have felt in China in the dark days of the 1950s and later during the Cultural Revolution. People outside China wondered whether there was any church left in China at all. How wrong we were! How we misjudged and underestimated the power of Christian faith!
Faith that is trust
The faith that is being asked for is not to have a better knowledge of our catechism. What is being asked for is a much deeper and stronger trust and confidence that our God is near us, even when he seems so far away, that he will take care of his own.
That does not mean, however, that with such a faith Christian life will be free of all hardship and difficulty. Being a Christian, taking the Gospel seriously, is never going to be a tea party. God has promised his loving care but he has never promised a life free of pain, difficulties, suffering, or even sudden and violent death. Let us not forget that “He did not spare his own Son.”
What God does promise is that, with a deep faith and trust in him, we can endure pain and difficulties, that we can accept pain and suffering, if and when it comes, for the sake of making the message of Jesus a reality in our world.
A reliable servant
So Jesus goes on to compare the Christian disciple with a servant of his own time, usually a slave. When the servant comes back from working hard in the fields all day, he is not told: “Oh, come in, you must be tired! Sit down, have your supper, put your feet up and watch TV!” No, he is much likely to be told: “It is about time you got back. I’m hungry. Hurry up and get my supper ready. Then, and only then, can you have some time for yourself.”
Our relationship with God is not about buying and selling, about giving and getting in return; I give God so much and I can expect so much from him in return. No, our relationship with him is one of total and unconditional love and service. The joy and satisfaction is not in what we can do to squeeze favours from God but in what we can give and share of ourselves.
The reason for this, of course, is that no matter what we do we are ever in God’s debt. The very energies with which we serve him are his gift to us. We are “merely servants”. We can never do more than “our duty”. However much we give to God it is a small repayment for all that he has already showered us with.
Love does not keep accounts
In any case, in a true love relationship one does not say, “Well, darling, I have loved you for three hours; now it is your turn to love me back for three hours.” If the loved one gets sick, one does not say, “Well, I’ll stop loving you now because you cannot give me anything. When you get out of hospital and can do things for me then I will begin loving again.”
In a true, loving relationship, whether it be with God or another person, the joy and satisfaction is in unconditional giving and sharing. Of course, in such a relationship, we do not have to worry – our love will be returned, often on a much richer level than what we have offered. But our emphasis is on the unconditional giving, on the happiness of the loved one. “I want to be happy but I won’t be happy till I make you happy too”, as the song said a long time ago.
So perhaps it is time for us to stop thinking of our religion as something which entitles us to get things from God, as if somehow he is indebted to us for our being Christians. It is time to stop our “supermarket” approach where the church is a place where I get the things I need. Then I find myself saying, “I don’t get anything out of going to church, or to Mass...” (Remember the elder son in the story of the Prodigal Son. “I have served you faithfully, I have not done anything to offend you but you never gave me a party or killed the fatted calf...”)
Let us instead listen to the words from the Second Reading of today. “I am reminding you to fan into a flame the gift [Greek, charisma, carisma] that God gave you.” Our life as Christians is not a compliment we make to God but our inadequate response to a precious gift made to us. Why me? A good question.
Strong, not weak
This gift of faith in Christ is “not a spirit of timidity”, a spirit of anxiousness about the future. It is, rather, the “Spirit of power and love and self-control”.
Armed with this Spirit, we are “never to be ashamed of witnessing to the Lord”, even if it means going against the tide of social expectations and we run the risk of losing material and social support and security. And, even if we are not suffering ourselves, we will not hesitate to express our solidarity with those who do so for the sake of the Gospel, even if it will entail personal loss for ourselves. We cannot be ashamed of being linked with fellow-Christians, or indeed any brothers and sisters, who are being intimidated by authorities of any kind for witnessing to love, justice, human rights and authentic freedom.
Today’s readings are highly relevant to our own lives today. On the one hand, we live in a world where thousands suffer appallingly in the struggle for truth, freedom and dignity. What support do we give? On the other hand, we live in a world of ever-increasing material indulgence becoming available to more and more people. The dream of being part of this can close our minds and hearts to the cry of the poor, distressed and marginalised. The affluent society becomes both a trap and an escape.
Many like to blame God for many of the world’s ills but, to be honest, they are practically all of our own making.
“Increase our faith, O Lord,” that we may see. Teach us to use the precious gifts you gave us to serve you by being courageously at the service of all who are in need.