The Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14
God does not always respond “yes” to our prayers. Sometimes, he has to tell us, “no.” But very often, he tells us, “Wait. Not yet.” So, “Yes, No, or Wait.” A few years ago some atheist came out with a YouTube video that pointed out that, well, there are only these three logical possibilities. If you pray for something, it will happen immediately, or it will happen later, or it won’t happen. He said, if you pray to a milk carton, what you ask for will happen immediately, or happen later, or not happen. So praying to God is no more reliable than praying to a milk carton. And that seemed to sound very convincing, and probably affirmed a whole lot of people who already didn’t believe in praying to God.
But it misses something very important. And that is trust. Faith and trust are parts of a relationship. I don’t trust a milk carton to have my best interest, my salvation, as the underlying reality behind whether or when my prayer is answered. Because it’s just a milk carton. But when I offer my prayer to God, I trust that the answer to my prayer, whether it’s yes, or no, or wait, is determined, not randomly or by coincidence, but by His divine wisdom, and his divine love for me.
In our first reading, the prophet Habakkuk is wrestling with the two biggest obstacles to faith: suffering and unanswered prayer. Habakkuk was writing as the Babylonians were destroying Jerusalem, torching the Temple, and marching the Israelites into exile. Yet Habakkuk, as God’s prophet, is trying to encourage the people to remain faithful (and you think you have a hard job!). So in our reading, he is complaining to God—where are you? How can you let this happen? He says, “I cry for help, but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene.”
And then God responds: “Write down the vision clearly… so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time… and will not disappoint; … 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.” God says, I know about the suffering. But suffering isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Suffering has a purpose, even though it’s painful. I am not only guiding the unfolding of events, but I am with you as you suffer these events. What was the result of the Exile? The Israelites examined themselves, repented of their spiritual and social corruption, and rededicated themselves to their trust in God. Then almost immediately, the king who held them captive was inspired to release the Israelites to return to their land. Huh. Maybe God had it all planned out.
Saint Augustine, in the 5th century, wrote that God sometimes delays answering our prayers because our heart is not yet ready to receive how he intends to super-abundantly answer our prayer. If you’ve really had prayer answered, you know, he’s not going to answer your prayer on the same little scale that you expect. He’s going to blow you away with how it all comes together, nothing like you’d expect. And so he inspires us to remain faithful, while he expands our hearts with longing, until we are truly ready for his gift. God will not settle for giving us less than his best for us. It’s all or nothing. Either we follow his way of preparing us to receive his answer to our prayer, or we impetuously decide that he just doesn’t answer prayers.
Maybe you saw the movie, “Evan Almighty,” where God, played by Morgan Freeman, appears to Evan’s wife and explains to her, “Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them circumstances that will bring them closer to each other?” He opens her eyes to the fact that He has been responding to her prayers all along; that God doesn’t normally perform big flashy miracles. He works quietly in the situations of life, often in ways that could be missed, because he doesn’t overpower the working of nature, he just lovingly nudges it in the right direction.
We need to maintain our faith, our trust, that God is truly who he says that he is, and that he is doing what is best for us. That might mean he doesn’t answer our prayer. If we pray for something that seems good to us, it might be something that in reality is bad for us, and no matter how much we plead, beg, and desire, God will not give us what we want. And as I’ve said before, all Christian prayer ends (either explicitly or implicitly) with Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but thy will be done.” Christian prayer is, at its heart, a matter of relationship, a matter of faith, and trust, that God truly has our back, that he is protecting us and providing for us.
So we have faith as an essential aspect of our relationship with God. Here in our psalm we have a second aspect of faith: of responding in faith to God. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” We need to respond in faith to what God instructs us to do: to give more generously; to stop for someone who needs help; to fight some habit of sin in your life, or begin building a new good habit; in short, to trust that God is guiding you to do what you need to do, and in faith to obey that guidance.
“Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert; Where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works.” Meribah and Massah was a point along the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, when the Israelites had just recently received the beginning of the manna, the miraculous bread from heaven, in response to their complaint of hunger. And now they were quarreling with Moses about being thirsty. And they said, “Is God in our midst or not?” What a bunch of ungrateful jerks! So in this place, God guided Moses to tap the rock with his staff, and water came out to quench the thirst of the Israelites. Moses named the place Meribah and Massah, meaning the place of “tempting” and “testing.” Although God conceded to their whining, he also said that because of their unfaithfulness—their hardness of their hearts—none of them would enter the Promised Land. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”
In the verses immediately before our Gospel reading, Jesus implored his disciples to forgive their repentant offenders. Something we know is often difficult to do. And their response is the beginning of our reading: they asked Jesus for more Faith so that they could meet this demand. In addition, the Apostles were asking for greater confidence and trust, so that they might work the miracles which they had seen Jesus perform. Jesus responds by telling them of the power of faith, even a little faith.
A handful of mustard seeds looks like a handful of ground black pepper. A mustard seed, like faith, is easy to lose if we’re not careful. It not necessarily the smallest of all seeds, but it was an expression for something very, very small. And yet, when planted, it grows into a large strong bush. It doesn’t always look pretty, but it doesn’t take much to make it grow, like a weed. Like faith.
The mulberry tree’s famous feature was its very strong and expansive root system. There were rules in Israelite city planning, so-to-speak, that trees couldn’t be planted within 30 feet of a well, so that the tree roots wouldn’t damage the well. But for mulberry trees, the distance was doubled to 60 feet, because of how notoriously spread out their roots would grow.
And yet, Jesus says, “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.” God needs us to leave the door open for him to work through us and in our lives. If we’re cynical, pessimistic, and unbelieving, about God’s desire to heal us and give us abundant life, we’re tempted to close the door on him… to rashly decide he just doesn’t answer prayers.
So the first two aspects of faith were subjective—aspects of faith within us (our faith in God, and our response of faith). This third aspect is objective: the doctrine of The Faith, what we believe as the Church, and who we believe in as God. It is the content of the Christian Faith, contained in Sacred Tradition, which includes Sacred Scripture. So when we profess the creed, the first two words are subjective: “I believe,” and the rest is objective: the core beliefs of Christianity that I believe.
So also in this objective faith is the moral teaching of the Church that has developed to guide people in living out the faith. Jesus gives us clear moral teaching, built on the law and the prophets of the faith of Israel. And the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, interprets and applies the moral truth to the new situations and controversies as they have occurred, from the first century to the twenty-first century, since Christ. The understanding of faith and morals develops, it grows, in more detail and precision over time, but it doesn’t evolve and deform into something it wasn’t before. The truth is unchanging, but our understanding of it develops.
And finally, at the end of our gospel reading, Jesus gives us a very humbling instruction. He teaches us that if we are doing great works of generosity and kindness, and if we are faithfully living the teaching of the Church, and we’re fighting against sin… we shouldn’t be bragging about our greatness, and expecting a gold star sticker. Living out the truth God gave us is simply the expectation. And our response should be, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”
That can be a bit deflating if we’re feeling high on God’s consolations and blessings. But it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to help us along with what St. Therese called “The Little Way.” To embrace our smallness, and marvel at God’s greatness, and what He can do with us if we offer him our humble mustard-seed, childlike faith. It’s the joy we receive from experiencing the great works being done through us as certainly greater than we could do ourselves, and how wonderful God is to bless us as his instruments of his great works… like commanding a mulberry tree to plant itself in the sea.
If we are obedient to the life of Faith, if we are faithful to the moral and spiritual teaching of the Church, if we learn to trust, even (or especially) when it seems almost impossible, if we allow God to grow our hearts and souls in humility, that we might in acknowledging our littleness, make room in us for his greatness, then we are truly doing what we are obliged to do: to faithfully live the cross and the glory of the Christian life.