Commentary to the 27th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME–YEAR C
PRAYER: RECOGNIZING GOD IN OUR HISTORY
The Bible never says that Abraham entered a shrine to pray, yet he is considered the father of believersand a model of the man who prays. It is necessary to believe to pray, and to believe one needs to pray. His whole life is marked by prayer; he initiated things only after hearing the Word of the Lord; he took steps after receiving an indication of the way from his God.
A constant dialogue with the Lord marks his story. “The Lord said to Abram: go … then Abram departed”(Gen 12:1,4). “The Word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision ... and Abram said: Lord, what will you give me?” (Gen 15:1,2). “Then the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre and he bowed down to the ground”(Gen 18:1-3). “God put Abraham to the test ... and Abraham answered: Here I am!” (Gen 22:1) This dialogue has fueled the faith of Abraham; it prepared him to accept the will of God. It made ??him believe in his love despite appearances to the contrary.
Many events of our life are enigmatic, incomprehensible, and illogical and seem to give reasons to one who doubts whether God is present in and accompanies our history. In these moments, our faith is put to the hard test, and we would naturally cry out to the Lord and implore: ‘Listen to our voice, understand our lament.’ He always listens to our voice though it is difficult for us to perceive his voice. ‘Make us listen to your voice, O Lord’; it is the invocation that we must address to him: to open our hearts, help us to renounce our longings, securities, and plans and instead make us welcome His. This is the faith that saves.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Make us listen to your voice, O Lord.”
First Reading: Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4
How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look atmisery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord. Then the Lord answered me and said: Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live. —The Word of the Lord.
Habakkuk is a contemporary of Jeremiah. They live in the same social, political, and religious situations. Iniquity reigns in the country. “They commit one crime after another … brother deceives brother … each one is suspicious of his friend; no one speaks the truth … violence upon violence, deceit upon deceit” (Jer 9:2-5). “Small and great alike, all are greedy for gain; prophet and priest, all practice fraud” (Jer 8:10).
The king is stupid, incapable, loves luxury, exploits the workers to construct his palace, does not protect the cause of the poor and the miserable (Jer 22:13-17). All see the injustices, abuses, and deviations—this is scandalous! God lets it go. It seems that he is disinterested in what happens on earth. Why doesn’t he intervene? Why doesn’t he rescue the oppressed?
Attentive, sensible, spiritually mature, Jeremiah and Habakkuk try to understand what is happening, and they are not afraid to open a dispute with God. They ask him the reason for his silence and passivity: “O Lord, you are always right when I complain to you; nevertheless, where is your justice? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do traitors live in peace?” (Jer 12:1).
The people, too, want an explanation, so they turn to Habakkuk and ask him to consult the Lord. Disturbed and confused, in that very same evening, the prophet keeps himself in prayer and addresses to God the questions contained in the first part of today’s reading: “Until when O Lord will you be silent? How long will you tolerate injustice? Why do you simply gaze at destruction, violence, strife, and discord?” (Hab 1:2-3).
The prayer of Habakkuk is stupendous! He dares to tell the Lord that he disagrees with him, that he does not understand his tolerance towards the wicked; he reminds him of his passive attitude and silence; he dares to ask an account of his way of governing the world the events of history.
After having exposed his and the people’s grievances, the prophet keeps silent. It is God’s turn to answer. It is he who is called to justify his work. Habakkuk waits like the sentinels who scrutinize the far horizon to capture even the slightest movement. He waits for a sign that preludes a change (Hab 2:1).
The Lord’s answer is immediate, and it is in the second part of the reading (Hab 2:2-4). God orders Habakkuk: “Write down, write that which I am about to say because I like that it remains documented” (v. 2). Here is the promise: in a short time, nothing will happen; there will be no immediate changes. A time will pass before liberation comes. “Woe to the one who gets discouraged, wary, resigned to injustice and adapts to the behavior of the wicked” (v. 3).
The response is surprising: God does not give any explanation; he only asks for unconditional trust. He understands the grievances of the prophet and the people; he knows that they cannot understand the reasons for his tolerance. Nevertheless, he assures that what is given today for him to see will one day appear clear to all. The wicked—who apparently prospers—in reality, is laying the groundwork of his ruin. Before the just, before one who trusts in the Lord, horizons of life are opened wide instead.
Second Reading: 2 Timothy 1:6-8,13-14
Beloved: I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather ofpower and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel withthe strength that comes from God.
Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit thatdwells within us. —The Word of the Lord.
The second letter to Timothy is directed above all to those who, in the Christian community, perform the ministry of leadership. The passage starts with an invitation to Timothy to “stir into flame the gift of God you received through the laying on of my hands” (v. 6).
The ministry he is called to do—to testify to the truth—calls for strength and courage. Timothy, unfortunately, is timid and reserved, so much so that Paul one day had to recommend to the Corinthians to make him feel at ease (1 Cor 16:10). That is why he reminds him that the Spirit is the source of strength, not of timidity (v. 7-8).
In the second part of the reading (vv. 13-14), the Apostle twice recommends to Timothy – and indirectly to all pastoral workers of the community—to integrally preserve the deposit of faith. At the end of the first century A.D., false teachers, who diffuse erroneous, bizarre, and fantastic doctrines, infiltrated the Christian communities. Adhesion to such incorrect interpretation of the Gospel results in serious deviations theologically and morally. The community leaders must protect the faithful, particularly those exposed and tempted to adhere to this budding heresy.
The recommendation to remain faithful to the principles of faith must not be confused with spiritual immobility. It is not an invitation to change the life of the community. The new interpretation and deepened study of the Bible, the explanations that make the Gospel more understandable to today’s people, are not deviations of faith. The new liturgical forms, the new texts of catechism, are not infidelity to tradition.
A baby has to develop, grow, and become an adult. It would be an act of violence to force him to remain always as he is. So also, the Word of God must grow (Acts 12:24), and the faith must mature. Faithfulness to the Gospel requires a continuous metamorphosis of mind and heart. This desired change, guided by the Spirit, is an expression and sign of life.
Gospel: Luke 17:5-10
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
“Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’?Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’” —The Gospel of the Lord.
The Gospel passage proposed to us is a difficult one. The first part, which speaks of faith (vv. 5-6), and the second, where a baffling parable is given (vv. 7-9), are somewhat enigmatic and raise questions. The concluding verse (v. 10), in which even the most faithful disciples are called ‘useless servants’ is puzzling too.
We start with the marvels that faith, even as small as a grain of mustard, is capable of producing. A request of the disciples introduces the saying of the Lord: “Increase our faith.” Is it possible for faith to grow? Either one believes or does not. Then it could not be a more or less. This would be true if faith is reduced to the consent given to a pack of truth.
In reality, to believe does not pertain only to the mind: it involves a concrete choice, implies a complete and unconditional trust in Christ, and convinced adhesion to his plan of life. Things being so, it is easy to realize that faith can grow or diminish. The journey in following the Master at times is faster, at times less, and at times one gets tired, slows down, and stops.
The experience of an uncertain and wavering faith happens every day: we believe in Jesus, but we do not trust Him completely; we do not dare to carry out certain things, to abandon certain habits, to make certain renunciations. In this case, we have a faith that needs to be strengthened. The request of the apostles reveals the conviction they have come to. They realized that spiritual maturity is not a fruit of their effort and commitment but a gift of God. For this, they asked Jesus to make them more decisive, convinced, and generous in the choice of following him.
From the context, one also intuits the reason for their request. He has proposed the hard way that awaits them: they have to enter through the narrow door (Lk 13:24), be ready to ‘hate’ father and mother (Lk 14:26), renounce all their goods (Lk 14:33) and—as written in the verses immediately preceding our passage—they must be capable of forgiving without limits and conditions (Lk 17:5-6). Facing such demands, it is understandable that they feel they lack strength. The temptation to call into question one’s own choices and to step back is strong. Probably, it also says to them, as many had already done: “This language is hard, who can understand it?” (Jn 6:60). They are afraid that they will not make it. Hence the invocation for help blooms spontaneously in their mouth: increase our faith.
Instead of listening to them, Jesus starts to describe the marvels that faith produces. It employs a paradoxical and bizarre image of our culture. He speaks of a tree—one does not know if it is a mulberry or a sycamore—which could be miraculously uprooted from the earth. Jesus says that faith is capable of also realizing the impossible; you order a tree: “be uprooted and plant yourself in the sea,” and it obeys you. Matthew and Mark do not speak of a tree but of a mountain that could be moved by faith (Mt 17:29; Mk 11:23). This must be a very familiar and proverbial image used by Paul (1 Cor 13:2). However, the message is the same and can be summarized with the words pronounced by Jesus in another context: “Everything is possible for one who believes” (Mk 9:23).
A question spontaneously arises: how come no one has ever done such miracles? Jesus did not do it, not Mary, Abraham, and the great saints. They did not accomplish them—it’s not difficult to understand—because Jesus was speaking in a hyperbolic way. The miracles he said of are the possible changes that could be realized in those who believe. They are the inexplicable transformations, absolutely unforeseen. Still, they can be recognized in our society and the world when we trust the word of the Gospel and put it into practice.
Some examples can shed light on this: in the face of the hatred, resentment and prejudice that characterize relations between peoples, who has not thought it is inevitable? Who has not thought that certain family conflicts are irreconcilable? Who has not been convinced, at least once, that the roots of hostility are so deep that there is no possible solution?
For those who believe, Jesus says, there are no irreparable situations. Those who trust in his word will be witnessing extraordinary and unexpected miracles; they will see the marvelous changes announced by the prophets fulfilled: the desert will bloom (Is 32:15), and the valleys will be transformed into a Garden of Eden (Is 51:3).
This affirmation is followed by a parable (vv. 7-9) that leaves us a bit bitter and disillusioned. It is not easy to understand why Jesus spoke in this manner. It tells of a slave who returns home very tired after a hard day’s work and with a face burned by the sun. The master, instead of complimenting him for the service done and inviting him to sit and eat a piece of bread, demands harshly: “First, serve me, after I am satisfied, you will eat supper.” Since the master represents God and we are the servants, we have something to worry about: will we be really welcomed in this way at the end of our life?
The parable also surprises us because, some Sundays ago, we heard Jesus speak in a very different way: “Blessed are those servants whom the master on his return will find them awake; in truth I tell you, he will put on an apron and have them sit at table and he will wait on them” (Lk 12:37). A moving scenario!
The paradigm used in today’s passage does not correspond to our actual sensibility, which irritates us. We have to place it in the cultural context of the time when a slave was considered the owner's property, and he could not make any claim. Jesus does not discuss this situation but takes it as a fact. One day he will lay out the innovative principles on which the new society will be based.
We have to remember what Jesus reminds the disciples during the last supper: “The kings of the pagan nations rule over them as lords, and the most hardhearted rulers claim the title, ‘Gracious Lord.’ But not so with you: let the greatest among you become as the lowest and the leader as the servant. For who is the greatest, he who sits at table or he who serves? He who is seated isn’t it? Yet I am among you as the one who serves”(Lk 22:24-27).
He does not intend to confront the problem of slavery. He only makes use of an example to transmit his theological message. He wants to correct the misleading way the Pharisees (of that time and today) understand the relationship with God. The spiritual guides of that time preached the religion of merits. They were saying: at the end of life, God will repay based on the performance of each one. Therefore, there is the need to accomplish the maximum possible number of good works: prayers, fasting, alms, religious practices, sacrifices, scrupulous observances of the commandments and precepts. All for having the right to significant compensation!
This way of understanding the rapport with the Lord corresponds perfectly to our logic. We think it is right to imagine such a God. We are not aware that we are reasoning precisely like the Pharisees. Man—dust and ash—can not claim any right before God, from whom he receives all gratuitously. This religion of merits is damaging to whoever practices it. It establishes wrong rapports marked by a subtle egoism among persons and deform the rapport with God. One does not love the person who accomplishes the good with the objective of accumulating merits before God. He still puts himself at the center of his interests, helps the brothers/sisters to better one’s own spiritual life.
Jesus wants the disciple to put aside any type of egoism, including spiritual. Whoever loves unconditionally and gratuitously as the Father in heaven enters the Kingdom of God. The primary trouble provoked by the religion of merits is to reduce God to be like an accountant in charge of maintaining the account books in order and signing the debits and credits of each one accurately. The parable wants to destroy this image of God. We don’t like it; it even irritates us because the idea that we acquire merits before God is too rooted in us in doing good. It is too deep as the root of the sycamore.
The concluding saying—already very hard—is made even more challenging by some inexact translations that speak of ‘useless servants.’ It is better translated: “We are simple servants; we have done nothing more than our duty” (v. 10).
Jesus does not intend to underestimate the good works; he does not look down on a person's work nor assumes an attitude of arrogance towards the one who commits oneself to accomplish what is good. He instead tries to liberate the disciples from a form of dangerous egoism in the pursuit of self-fulfillment for their justification, over preoccupation about one’s health, or in the exhibition of one’s flawless conduct. He likes to purify their hearts of the impulses to imitation and spiritual rivalry.
There is no need to compete to grab the favor and love of God: there is an abundance of his love for all. Jesus wants them to understand that the behavior of the Pharisee who shows his own merits is foolish because all that is good is always a gratuitous gift of God and not a merit of the person. “What do you possess—says Paul—that you have not received? If you have received it, why are you proud of it as if you have not received it?” (1 Cor 4:7).