TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN 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; Luke 17:5-10
The first reading is from a mostly obscure prophet named Habakkuk. He is active in the Kingdom of Judah around 600 B.C. The Assyrian Empire, which had ended the Kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C., was in decline. Empire succeeds empire, so a new threat from the East. The Chaldeans were on the rise. Their center was Babylon. Their empire became the Neo-Babylonian Empire — the power that eventually destroyed the Kingdom of Judah in 587 B.C. Habakkuk was seriously worked up about the Chaldean threat to the extent that his complaint to God is embedded in daring language similar to that of the prophet Jeremiah. He cries out, “How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you don’t listen! I cry, ‘Vibes the wickedness of the Chaldeans,’” not unlike Thomas Jefferson’s description in the Declaration of Independence of the wicked deeds of King George III.
Our reading moves on to a second oracle of Habakkuk. In a preliminary note, the prophet says that he will stand on his watchtower, so that he could catch any response that the Lord might deign to grant to him. Seems he finally caught the Lord’s attention. God commands him to write down the vision he is about to receive, “so that it can be clearly read.” If the vision is delayed, Habakkuk must patiently wait for it, but it will surely arrive. Finally God seems to taunt the prophet, perhaps a well-deserved repayment for the insulting way he had spoken to God. “If he flags, (is distracted), his soul is not at right, but the upright man will live by his faithfulness.” This final clause rescued Habakkuk from obscurity, since St. Paul quotes it in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11, as part of his teaching that we are saved by faith.
The Responsorial Psalm, 95, is called, “A Psalm for daily use.” Well-named because it is the Psalm that begins the Church’s official Morning Prayer. The part of the Psalm that drew it into a response to the reading from Habakkuk is this, “Oh, that today you would hear his voice.” With slightly different wording, this is also the People’s Response, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Hardening of the heart is one of the worst attitudes troubling someone’s relationship to God. An explanation is in order of the example of heart-hardening the Psalmist gives. “. . . as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert.” The two place names are synonyms. It is the same place. There the people rebelled against the Lord because of a lack of faith that he would provide water for them. They “tested” the Lord. The two names mean trouble and testing.
After several Sunday second readings from 1Timothy, the liturgy moves on to the Second Letter to Timothy. The timidity of Timothy is on display. “Stir into flame the gift of God that you have received through the laying on of my hands.” He admonishes Timothy to not be a coward but to display power and self-control. Does this agree with words attributed to Jesus, “I came not to be served but to serve . . . ,” or Pope Francis warning cardinals against useless wrangling about who is more important? Timid Timothy is encouraged to not be ashamed of proclaiming the Word, nor to be ashamed of his long connection with Paul, his mentor and teacher. The possibility of shame or embarrassment is based on the situation of Paul. He was in prison. If Timothy’s problem is preparation of homilies, “Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me.” Paul reminds Timothy that the help of the Holy Spirit “that dwells within us” is available.
The gospel reading begins, “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’” Seems like an abrupt beginning, so a look at the context may help us discover what Luke’s catechism teaches at this point. For as literary and religious a genius as Luke is, there has to be some logical connection with the preceding material. Chapter 17 is part of the “Journey to Jerusalem” section of Luke’s gospel. Since the end of the journey leads to the bitter experience of torture and death, Luke places difficult material into this section. A preceding catechesis is concerned with temptations offered to others by a tempter. The penalty: “It would be better if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” It is doubtful that Luke has in mind children. His concern here is the scandal of Christians by Christian leaders. This would lead easily into the apostles’ request of Jesus, “Increase our faith.”
But the immediately preceding catechesis presents a problem more familiar to most people — forgiving those who offend us. “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in the day, but turns to you, and says, ‘I repent,” you must forgive him.” If this must be done because one is a Christian, this would be an appropriate response, “Lord, increase our faith.” Jesus gives a strange example. “If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed,” (a very small seed), “you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ it would obey you.” The catechesis is that faith can accomplish what is humanly impossible. Luke adds a parable. A servant works in the field all day. When he returns to the house in the evening, does his boss say, “Sit down and take your place at table?” No, instead the servant has to first prepare the boss’ meal, then eat after the boss has dined. The servant gets no thanks because he was only doing his job. The meaning is given by Luke, “When you have done all that you have been ordered to do, here is what you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants, doing only what is our duty.’” A depressing theology! Better to turn back to Luke 12:35-37. In that parable the boss returns home late, yet his servants were awake waiting for him. “He will have them sit at the table and serve them.”