By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
First Reading: Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4; Response: Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Second Reading: 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; Gospel: Luke 17:5-10
The obscure prophet Habakkuk is active in the Kingdom of Judah between the decline of the Assyrian Empire – in late 7th century B.C. – and the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. In the history of the world, the decline of one empire signals the rise of another. And so it was. The growing power of the Chaldean people of southern Mesopotamia brought an end to Assyrian power and established the Neo-Babylonian Empire centered in Babylon. Habakkuk is alarmed about the Chaldean/Babylonian threat to the Kingdom of Judah. He confronts the Lord God as daringly as Jeremiah, his contemporary (see Jeremiah 20:7-9). Habakkuk wails, “How long, O Lord? I cry for help, but you do not listen! I shout, ‘Violence,’ but you do nothing about it. Why do I have to see ruin and look at misery?” The rest of chapter one denounces the Chaldeans in a tone that can remind Americans of the denunciation of George III by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. But our Lectionary moves us on to Chapter two of Habakkuk.
Before we get to the words of our reading, the prophet dangerously taunts the Lord. He says that he will stand on his watchtower, so that he could catch any response the Lord might deign to grant him. He finally caught the Lord’s attention, who commanded Habakkuk to write down the vision he is about to receive, “so that one can easily read it.” This may be a stab on the penmanship of the prophet. The Lord does not like to be toyed with. Further instructions – if the vision is delayed, he must wait for it. It is definitely on the way. The concluding sentence can be interpreted differently; but in the context of Habakkuk’s impudent prayer, the Lord may be getting in a parting shot at Habakkuk. “The rash one has no integrity, but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.” Whatever the original meaning of the verse, it saves Habakkuk from obscurity because St. Paul quotes it in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11 as part of his teaching that we are saved by faith. This final verse from Habakkuk determined the selection of this reading to correspond to the disciples’ request for faith in today’s gospel.
As a response to Habakkuk’s oracles, Psalm 95 is a good choice – especially in the people’s response taken from the psalm, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” It is an invitation to praise God in song; to adore God who created us, who is our shepherd as we are his flock. Hardening of the heart is an Old Testament metaphor for rebellion against God. The example of hardening of hearts given by the psalmist needs explanation. “Harden not your hearts as in Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert.” The names are synonymous. They are the same place, where the Israelites rebelled against God because of a lack of faith that he would provide water for them. They tested the Lord. The names mean trouble and testing.
In the Second Letter to Timothy, Paul again deals with Timothy’s timidity. He asks his young ward to stir up into flame the embers of the gift he received from Paul’s laying on of hands. It gets rough for the young man. Paul notes that God did not give him a spirit of cowardice, but of power, love and self-control. Timothy must not be ashamed of witnessing to the Lord, nor of Paul, who is in prison for the Lord. He must not be afraid of the hardship that comes with proclamation of the gospel. God will give him strength. Paul recommends himself as a role model in proclaiming the word. “The Holy Spirit who dwells within us” will help.
Luke’s chapter 17 seems to be a collection of topics unrelated to each other. Recall that the gospels are not primarily biographies, but a book of religious instruction that includes whatever the author decided, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was needed for the formation of his audience. Therefore, we must not expect a running narrative as in a biography. Chapter 17 begins with a brief warning against scandal. Scandal, says the Lord, is going to happen; but woe to the one who causes it. Luke next adds a saying from Jesus about fraternal correction Then, the apostles say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” That is the beginning of today’s gospel. In a biography one could ask, Where did that come from? Is there any connection with the immediately preceding warning about scandal? Or is Luke simply moving on to the next topic in his catechism? To the apostles’ demand/request for faith, Jesus gives a strange answer, “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.” Then, Luke abruptly inserts a parable of Jesus about a man who has no empathy for his tired servant.
Let’s try connecting the above-listed topics. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, all the while instructing his disciples. That is the setting in the life of Jesus. Luke’s situation is 50 years later, forming his readers and hearers in Christian life. The saying about scandal, with which the chapter begins, can be related to the saying about forgiveness. Even though Jesus’ saying about the scandalizer seems extreme, Luke adds the necessity of forgiveness: “If he sins against you seven times a day, but turns to you, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Because forgiveness is so difficult, the apostles respond, “Increase our faith.” Jesus answers with an exaggeration, that even a little faith is capable of ordering a tree to uproot itself and plant itself in the sea. Faith is a gift of God. Just a taste of it should be enough to move a human being to forgive even repeated scandals. Then the parable about the servant who has been working in the field all day. When he returns to the house, the employer does not say, “Sit down and I will serve you supper.” Instead he says “Serve my supper, then you can eat.” Luke adds a conclusion, “When you have done all you were commanded to do, say this, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what we were obliged to do.’” Does it all make sense? Yes, if their command was to forgive offenders, which a Christian is obliged/commanded by Jesus to do. To err is human, to forgive divine.