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16th Sunday after Trinity

26 September 2019

Proper 22: Habakkuk 1.1-4; 2.1-4; Psalm 37.1-9; 2 Timothy 1.1-14; Luke 17.5-10


THIS Sunday’s readings present us with three challenging situations, each of which casts light on the nature of faith. As Carol Dempsey writes, the book of Habakkuk is “a glorious portrait” of the prophet’s faith, which “dares to question and challenge God’s actions and motives” and yet is ultimately “brave enough to let go to God in trust” (New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Amos, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk).

Habakkuk cannot understand why the Lord seems so slow to intervene in a world of “violence”, “wrongdoing”, and “trouble”. The Lord responds with the assurance that “there is still a vision for the appointed time.” While the “proud” mistake God’s patience with his children for indifference to sin, the “righteous” wait in faith and hope.

In the verses immediately preceding our Gospel, Jesus presents the disciples with a different challenge: the seemingly unfulfillable command to forgive their neighbour’s sin “seven times a day”. It is this that leads them to cry “Increase our faith.” Jesus responds by promising that even the smallest amount of faith (“like a mustard-seed”) will enable them to do things that seem impossible.

As Justo González explains, while the mustard-seed is tiny, like all seeds it contains within itself its ultimate goal: “It ‘knows’ it is to become a mustard plant.” In a similar way, “the faith that is required of the disciples is one that makes them trust in the final outcome of their discipleship and in the coming of the kingdom, and to trust in such a way that they will be able to forgive those who do not agree with them or who offend them” (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Luke).

The faith that the disciples are crying out for is a divine gift. This accounts for Jesus’s second — harsher-sounding — piece of teaching. Our faithfulness is not something that we can present to God as a work of which we are the primary author. It is the fruit of his Spirit working in us.

The challenges facing Paul and Timothy are both the physical threat of persecution and the consequent spiritual temptation to feel ashamed and discouraged. In its poverty and fragility, the persecuted Church must have seemed like a mustard-seed in the face of an empire more akin to a deeply-rooted mulberry tree.

As Jouette Bassler explains, this contrast would have been exacerbated by the honour culture of the day: “Shame was a powerful force in the first-century Mediterranean world, one with which Christianity, with its low status and crucified redeemer figure, had always to contend. Here, as in Romans 1.16, shame is initially, at least, linked to the message of the gospel, but it is also and especially linked to the low status of the herald of that gospel” (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus).

For this reason, Paul repeatedly exhorts Timothy not to be “ashamed” of the gospel. He must not view things from a worldly perspective that values status and visible success. In place of a “spirit of cowardice”, God bestows a spirit of “love, power, and self-discipline”, enabling Timothy to be faithful in the face of the pagan world’s violence and ridicule.

St Thomas Aquinas writes that the “spirit of cowardice” is “the spirit of the world”, which makes us “love the good things of the world and fear temporal evils”. In contrast, the “spirit of the Lord” gives us “courage against the adversities of this world”, and directs all our desires towards God, in whom alone all other goods find their rightful place.

Paul’s advice to Timothy has immediate relevance to our context. We, too, are called to hold firm to that which is of lasting value, in a culture that often values the transient and trivial. The Apostle’s words speak to us across the centuries: “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the Holy Spirit living in you.”

We do not bear witness in our own power, but by the grace and power of God — poured out on us in the lives of those who have nurtured us, and in the sacramental life of the Church, both of which have their ultimate source in Christ’s paschal triumph. With the grace that flows from Calvary, we, too, are called to persevere in faith and hope.

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