Sunday Scriptures

Doing Our Part Is the First Step

By Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus tells His Apostles, “you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

When I as a little boy first heard these words of Jesus, I took them at face value and decided to check out the size of my faith. There weren’t any mulberry trees in the neighborhood that I knew of, and even at that early age I was too self-conscious to be seen in public talking to a tree on the way home from church.

So I decided that I would try it out on one of my grandfather’s rosebushes in the backyard. He had planted so many that nobody would notice it missing if my faith experiment worked. I deliberately chose an especially small one that I hoped wouldn’t put up much resistance to my command to uproot and relocate itself to Flushing Bay.

Be Uprooted

I shouted, “be uprooted,” and nothing happened. I thought I had at least a mustard seed’s worth of faith, so I figured the rosebush must have thought that shouting was impolite. So I tried again, this time whispering “please, be uprooted,” a courteous suggestion instead of a stern command. Still nothing. Maybe it was the wrong time of day, or the wrong day of the week?

Not wanting to admit defeat, or fess up to my all-too-obviously insufficient faith, I didn’t breathe a word about my experiment to anyone. Stubbornly though, I gave it a few more tries – all unsuccessful – before concluding that because Jesus was talking about mulberry trees, faith-based transplanting of rosebushes probably wouldn’t ever work.

In retrospect, I’m glad it was Luke’s version of this saying of Jesus that I heard, because in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain. I can’t begin to imagine what I might have done to try that one out!

All these years later, I am no longer tempted to test my faith by telling rosebushes where to go. Yet, I do I find myself resonating deeply with the prophet Habbakuk’s words of complaint that begin this Sunday’s first reading: “How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ But you do not intervene.”

The prophet’s blunt and impatient prayer calls for God to intervene to end the rampant violence and injustice, the strife and discord that were the order of the day in Habakkuk’s turbulent times. What might the prophet say if he were transplanted from the late seventh century BC to our times? If anything, his complaint would be louder and more insistent as he observed the present state of affairs!

This Sunday’s first reading gives us only the first few lines of a complaint that runs to a length of 17 verses, and then skips ahead to the reply for which the prophet hoped. His prayer complete, Habakkuk declares, “I will stand at my guard post, and station myself upon the rampart and keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what answer he will give to my complaint.”

Mustering what patience he can, the prophet returns to his duty, framing his prophetic ministry as a sentinel posted to keep watch on behalf of God’s people.

‘Wait for It’

God does not disappoint Habakkuk, answering him with words of reassurance: “The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.”

Addressing the prophet’s impatient prayer, God tells him, “The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”

Looking behind the translation in the lectionary, the expression that is translated as “the rash one” can also be rendered as “the one whose spirit within is puffed up,” suggesting that it is self-important pride and not impatience that is God’s real concern. Pride and self-importance matter for nothing, while instead the righteous will live because of their faith. Faith, God instructs the prophet, is for the long haul: “the vision still has its time … if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.”

Didn’t Depend on Him

That brings me back to mulberry trees and my grandfather’s rosebushes. My grandfather was a very patient man, a man of few words but of profound and unshakeable faith. He was such a skillful gardener that, given enough time, I’m certain he could have made a broomstick sprout leaves. He knew that, at the end of the day, the aroma of the flowers and the flavor of the tomatoes didn’t ultimately depend on him. To be sure, he had to do his part, getting his hands dirty during long hours of tending to his beloved garden day after day, and often enough reckoning firsthand with the painful fact that with roses come thorns.

Jesus’ words about transplanting trees is only the first part of His answer to the Apostles’ request, “Increase our faith.” He completes His instructions in the second part of this Sunday’s Gospel, instructing them, “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”

The very same God who makes mulberry trees and rosebushes grow is the One who – as Paul tells his disciple Timothy – “did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power and love and self-control.”

Faith, then, is a matter of the everyday – and lifelong – doing what we are called by the Gospel to do, trusting that the God who calls us to serve has both a big-picture purpose and a plan for each of us. This faith teaches that God’s vision for us and for all creation surely will not disappoint!

Readings for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
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

Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.


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