Opening reflection (taken from Magnificat magazine, www.magnificat.com): Pope Benedict XVI told us that “faith is a liberation of my I from its preoccupation with self … a breaking out of the isolation that is the malady of my I.” In order to comply with the apostles' request, “Increase our faith,” the Lord begins by correcting their conception of it. Faith increases in those who are truly humble – who acknowledge that, before the Lord, they ever remain “unprofitable servants.” Faith increases when we are willing to bear our “share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.” An increase of faith is given to those resolute with the conviction that the vision of faith “presses on to fulfillment and will not disappoint.” Faith of this intensity, even if only as small as a mustard seed, makes miracles happen.
(This weekend's Scripture readings are available in the New American Bible translation at the Vatican’s English website at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM.)
First Reading: Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4 (Revised Standard Version)
A reading from the book of the prophet Habakkuk.
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and thou wilt not hear?
Or cry to thee "Violence!"
and thou wilt not save?
Why dost thou make me see wrongs
and look upon trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
And the LORD answered me:
"Write the vision;
make it plain upon tablets,
so he may run who reads it.
For still the vision awaits its time;
it hastens to the end – it will not lie.
If it seem slow, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.”
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: Habakkuk seems truly a “minor prophet” in that we know little about him beyond the very short book that bears his name. But he generally is believed, based on the book's content, to have been connected to the first Temple in the last years before King Nebuchadnezzar's first entry into Jerusalem (597 B.C.) and the subsequent first exile of leading Judeans to Babylon.
This initial wave of captives included the young King Jehoiachin of Judah (replaced by Nebuchadnezzar with Judah's last king, Zedekiah), the prophet Ezekiel and especially Daniel and his three friends (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego of fiery-furnace fame). Habakkuk also appears in the deuterocanonical story of Bel and the Dragon (found in Catholic Bibles in Daniel 15), when an angel takes him from Judah to Babylon to feed Daniel while the latter was being held captive in a lions' den (apparently on an earlier occasion than the better-known lions'-den story). After this was done, the angel returned Habakkuk to Judah.
All of this is important to establish what created the troubling times in which Habakkuk lived and served his God. The violence and wrongs he was witnessing, however, were being inflicted not by Babylon but among his own people – given the injustices Judah's leaders were inflicting at that time upon Habakkuk's prophetic peer Jeremiah for his warnings against their unfaithfulness to God. This explains, in a passage not included in this weekend's first reading, why God answers Habakkuk's opening plea in 1:5-6: “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For lo, I am rousing the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize habitations not their own.”
More than a century earlier, God had responded to the unfaithfulness and personal injustices rampant in divided Israel by permitting Assyria to conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel and nearly wipe out the Southern Kingdom of Judah as well. Only the holiness and penance of Judah's King Hezekiah saved Jerusalem then; God delivered His people by permitting a devastating plague to sweep through the besieging Assyrian army. But renewed idolatry followed, which King Josiah – Jehoiachin's grandfather and Hezekiah's great-grandson – was unable to reverse despite his own devout attempts to rededicate his people to the Mosaic Law.
So God now would use the “Chaldeans” – the Babylonians – to discipline Judah and Jerusalem by sending their leaders into exile as well. Habakkuk declares God's purpose for the Babylonians in 1:12b: “We shall not die. O LORD, thou hast ordained them as a judgment; and thou, O Rock, hast established them for chastisement.” By leaving Judah's leaders “in their hardness of heart to follow their own designs,” the Chosen People would learn how totally dependent they were on God.
The vision, as Habakkuk relates, indeed would take some time to play out; the final destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple would take place 11 years after the initial exile of Jehoiachin, Ezekiel and Daniel. But it would come. When it happened, who among the Jewish people would endure? Those who remained faithful to God even during and after the disaster. Fidelity to our Lord is always the answer. May we never forget Habakkuk's advice: “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Second Reading: 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14
A reading from the second letter of St. Paul to Timothy.
Beloved: I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control. Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel in the power of God, Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: Christians following the three-year Scripture cycle spent recent weeks pondering Paul's first letter of instructions to his protege Timothy. The younger man had been sent to Ephesus at that time as Paul's apostolic delegate. Several years now have passed. The first great Roman persecution (under Emperor Nero) has begun; Paul has been arrested and imprisoned for the last time. And Timothy now is bishop of Ephesus, having been consecrated sometime earlier by Paul's “laying on of my hands” to the fullness of what we now know as the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
The instructions in this reading make perfect sense as the charge given to a new bishop – including Paul's admonition that Timothy hold fast to “the sound words which you heard from me.” Though the New Testament (including this letter) was gradually coming into being, the gospel still was largely being communicated by word of mouth from Christ's divinely appointed teachers and the first of their successors. Paul's words stand as a testimony against the Protestant notion of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) even as they remind all Christians of the lesson Habakkuk taught in the previous reading: Be faithful to God, and all will be well with you.
Gospel: Luke 17:5-10
A reading from the holy gospel according to Luke. Glory to You, O Lord.
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" And the Lord said, "If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine (mulberry) tree, `Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.
"Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, `Come at once and sit down at table'? Will he not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink'? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, `We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'"
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.
Meditation: Two thoughts emerge from this Gospel reading in light of the two readings that precede it. The mustard-seed metaphor of course speaks to the degree of faith that God's people need to see blessings and miracles take place in their life. Have there ever been incidents of the result of such faith such as those Jesus described? One needs to remember that our Lord made use of hyperbole more than once to make a point. And yet, if we have striven always to live by faith and look at our lives with the eyes of faith, can we not recall incidents that seemed just as unlikely that preserved our households, brought us new relationships or renewed and enhanced old ones? Add those to the documented examples of miracles by or through the saints, and perhaps we can see that Jesus isn't exaggerating so much after all.
But if God chooses to work physical or interpersonal miracles through us, may we never assume that we had anything to do with it or that we deserve any special praise. Next weekend's first reading, in which Naaman is cured of leprosy through the prophet Elisha, illustrates the attitude Jesus urges upon us through His final parable. We receive the saving faith as a free and undeserved gift from God; our response must be to live as Christ commands us to live (though we cannot do that without the same undeserved gift of faith). So when we share our faith or God blesses others through our living the faith, we should whisper the last words of this weekend's Gospel to ourselves: “We are unprofitable servants; we have only done what was our duty.” And then let us praise our God that all of it is so!
Close with individual prayer, followed by Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be