Reflections on the readings for Sunday 6 October 2013
(Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Habakkuk 1:2-3 & 2:2-4; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9; 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; Luke 17:5-10
Jesus is often difficult to understand. His disciples come to him with what sounds like a noble request: “Increase our faith”. And Jesus tells them that if they had even the teeniest bit of faith, they could tell a mulberry tree to plant itself in the sea and it would obey them. I can imagine the disciples’ confusion; I feel it myself. That would be very impressive, granted, but why would anyone want to do that? Maybe this is simply hyperbole – the smallest faith can uproot a tenacious tree and plant it where a tree would never be expected to grow. Or maybe this parable, koan-like, is designed to unsettle the disciples and get them to think in new directions. I doubt that they are looking for power to order trees around. But what are they looking for? Spiritual power? Miracle-working abilities? Strength of conviction that will immunise them against doubt and fear? If their request is prompted by Jesus’ teaching in the verses preceding this reading, then maybe they are asking for maturity and moral fibre to be forgiving people who don’t present stumbling blocks to others. Whatever it is, Jesus’ strange answer doesn’t tell them how to get this mustard-seed faith. We need to look at what Jesus says next for that.
Jesus reminds them of how it is with servants and masters. He is warning them that they have their focus in the wrong place. Servants don’t sit around waiting for their masters to supply their needs. They simply get on with what they are supposed to be doing. Instead of congratulating the disciples for their noble request, Jesus takes the wind out of their sails, and tells them to just do what they are called to do. Of course faith is good and necessary, but when the focus is on faith and not on the master then there has been a subtle but significant shift. They have taken their eyes off the Kingdom and are worrying about increasing their own powers. Jesus brings them (and us) back down to earth to where the seed-sized faith is to be found – in simply doing what we have been called to do.
The other readings share the theme of encouragement to faithful obedience. The prophet Habakkuk finds himself in a time of great crisis where it looks like there is no justice anywhere. He could be describing our world as well as his own. What makes it worse is that God does not seem to be doing anything about it. Habakkuk isn’t worried about increasing his spiritual prowess; his concern is survival. How is he to react? What can he do? The answer is to keep on living faithfully while he waits for what God will do.
Psalm 95 invites us to relate to God as a shepherd who guides us. It warns against the faithless response of God’s people in the desert. There, by following God’s command, they came to a place without water. They grumbled against Moses and accused him of bringing them out of Egypt in order to kill them with thirst. Their shortcoming wasn’t that they lacked the faith to create water for themselves; it was that they were not willing to keep going in obedience, trusting God to provide all they needed to fulfil God’s command.
Paul encourages Timothy to fan into flame the gift of God which is in him, the gift which gives him everything he needs to bear faithful witness and to keep going through hardship. There is the mustard-seed of faith planted inside us – the gift of the Holy Spirit. Do we need more faith? Maybe what we need is more steady obedience, trusting that when God calls, God also provides whatever is needed, whether it is water in the desert, patience to wait, courage to do our duty, or the ability to tell trees to uproot themselves and plant themselves in the sea.