The Gift of Faith

The readings for Sunday, October 2, Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4; 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; and Luke 17:5-10.

On this Sunday both Luke and the liturgy give us a break from the theme of Christians and wealth. This part of Luke’s Gospel is still under the framework of the “Journey to Jerusalem.” He writes on two levels: Jesus instructing his immediate disciples as they were on the road to Jerusalem, and secondly Luke is instructing his Christian Community.  Before this Sunday’s Gospel comes a note about fraternal correction and forgiveness. No matter how often a sinner repents, even “seven times in the day,” Christians must forgive those who offend them.

The insistence on forgiveness may serve as an introduction to this Sunday’s gospel reading. Luke writes, “The apostles said to Jesus, ‘Increase our faith.’” Why does the author insert this brief instruction on faith after insistence on forgiveness? Possibly because it is so difficult to forgive those who offend us. In other words, it takes faith, faith in the One who continually forgives us and demands that we forgive even repeat offenders. Luke next adds a saying of Jesus, a saying that seems contrary to reality. “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.’” Really? Perhaps this means: It is as naturally impossible to perform this “trick” as it is naturally impossible to keep on forgiving someone who offends us “seven times a day.” It takes faith.

But does mustard seed have faith? No, but the small mustard seed sprouts and the plant grows invasively. Therefore a person who has even a tiny grain of faith is on the way to an invasion of faith. Moving a mulberry tree into the sea should not be understood literally but as hyperbole, an exaggeration. Exaggeration is a great tool to make a point of the power of faith. The Lucan Jesus is using the literary tool of exaggeration. Faith becomes so invasive that forgiving one who keeps offending us becomes easy.

Next Luke throws in a parable of Jesus. A servant (or slave) works all day plowing or tending the sheep of his boss or master. If he comes into the house in the evening, does the boss say, “Sit down at the table?” No way! Instead the boss will say, “Clean up. Cook my supper. Serve me. Afterwards you too can eat.” Luke draws a principle, an instruction from this little parable. “So you also, when you have done all that you have been commanded, say to yourselves, ‘We are unworthy servants. We have only done what was our duty.’” That’s severe and seems cruel. One way to phrase this teaching: Salvation is always a free gift of God.

There are other scriptural references reinforcing Luke’s teaching in the application of Jesus’ parable. Ephesians 2:8, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God, not because of (your) works, so that no one can boast.” It is true that Paul wrote in Philippians 2:12-13,”…work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” This seems contrary to Luke’s teaching of the worthlessness of the servant who so faithfully did his work and received no gratitude. But Paul added the following,”… for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his own chosen purpose.” Further meditation on this point: Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:16, “Even if I preach the Gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting, for that is my duty. A curse on me if I do not preach the gospel.” At the end of Paul’s long discussion of why his own people did not en masse accept Jesus as Messiah, he asks, “Who has first given to him (God) that recompense should be made? For from him and through him and unto him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

Now the “rest of the story”: Earlier in his Gospel Luke has a somewhat different emphasis. In 12:37 we read, “Blessed are those servants whom the Master finds awake when he returns. Amen, I say to you. He will put on his apron and have them sit and table and be present to serve them.” But what about Job 22:3, “Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous, or is it gain to him if you make your way blameless?” Should we answer, “NO and YES?” First the answer is No, but if God freely obligated himself to owe us, as he did, for example in the pact or treaty he made with Abraham in Genesis 15:1-20, then the answer is Yes. The same affirmative answer is Luke 12:37 quoted above. The Master by his own free choice decides to reward his faithful servants who have kept watching. God has adopted us into the divine family and by his own initiative obligated himself to reward his faithful daughters and sons. An illustration: Jesus was not obligated to wash his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, but he freely chose to do so.