Proper 22: Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4; Psalm 37.1-9; 2 Timothy 1.1-14; Luke 17.5-10
O God, forasmuch as without you we are not able to please you; mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THE last phase of Jesus’s walk to Jerusalem (Luke 17.1-19.35), before he makes his triumphal entry, begins with an assortment of sayings (Luke 17.1-10). Some have parallels in the other Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 18.6-7, 21-22; Mark 9.42); others, such as the two that make up Sunday’s Gospel reading, cannot be so definitely traced.
The apostles’ request that Jesus increase their faith (Luke 17.5) looks as if it must arise out of a particular situation, or in response to a piece of teaching. It is easy to read it hastily, and conclude that it is a rebuke, of the kind that Jesus utters when the disciples’ prayers fail to deal with the evil force possessing an epileptic boy (Luke 9.41). But when Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed could achieve momentous effects, he is not belittling his followers.
Brendan Byrne takes this to be an encouragement rather than a comment on their lack of faith. Jesus is assuring them that, even with just a little faith, it is possible to be an agent of God’s power in the world (The Hospitality of God, Liturgical Press, 2000). What is required is trust, and willingness to take the risk that God will support those who do as much as they can.
The Second Letter to Timothy develops the discussion of faith more fully. Drawing on Acts 16.1, the writer gives Timothy’s faith a genealogy, going back not only to his mother, but also to his grandmother (2 Timothy 1.5). In doing this, he creates a character unlike the new believers who came to faith through contact with the apostles (for example, the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8.26-40; Cornelius, the centurion of Acts 10; and the jailer in Philippi of Acts 16.16-34).
This is someone who has faith in his bloodstream, and who perhaps has to find a way to unlock the potential of a sincere faith in a way that rediscovers the excitement of its earliest beginnings. The writer uses the word “anazopurein”, the Greek components of which add up to more than the word “rekindle” (2 Timothy 1.6) can convey. He wants Timothy to “bring the fire back to life”, to be confident in exercising the gifts he already has, after receiving the laying-on of hands.
This magnetic image has been captured by the compilers of the Common Worship ordination services. The last questions that bishops, priests, and deacons respond to before the great act of prayer for the Holy Spirit begins, opens in this way: “Will you then, in the strength of your Holy Spirit, continually stir up the gift of God that is in you. . ?”
This is how people grow in grace, make Christ known through their own lives, and proclaim him. It is a challenge not only to the clergy, but to the whole Church.
Alongside the joyful aspects of the life of faith, there are harder elements that require endurance. Being faithful means being able to wait for God to act, because God, in turn, has promised to be faithful (Psalm 37.5, 7, 9, 35, 41). It means being able to be honestly impatient and angry with God when prayers seem to go unanswered (Habbakuk 1.1-4), and yet always in the expectation that God hears (Habbakuk 2.1).
It requires both faith and resilience to receive an answer from God in hope and trust and, at the same time, to know that its working out may be a slow process (Habbakuk 2.2-4).
For Timothy, being a person of acknowledged faith will lead to personal hardship and the loss of status in public (2 Timothy 1.8-12). This is where he will discover that it is just as important to keep the flame of faith alive as to ignite it (2 Timothy 1.13-14).
Jesus’s example of the master who greets the slave wearied by a hard day of agricultural labour with the order to prepare his supper seems less harsh in this light (Luke 17.7-10). The exaggerated terms in which it is told make clear points about faithful service: it depends on all parties involved thoroughly understanding their relationship to one another, and knowing what is expected of them. It also depends on the confidence that a duty set in the framework of a relationship of trust can have value in itself, independent of additional expressions of thanks and congratulation.
That does not abolish the grace of expressing appreciation to people who have done only “what they ought to have done”. On the contrary, it raises the customary, “Don’t mention it” or “It was nothing” above the status of cliché.