by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
“Increase our faith!” At first, the request on the part of the disciples with which this Sunday’s reading from Luke’s Gospel begins seems to come out of nowhere. As for Jesus, whose responses to such requests often take off in a very different direction than his listeners expect, he is true to form. More likely than not, Jesus confused the twelve who were his closest companions by telling them, “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.” Not only does Jesus deflect their request to supersize their faith, but it also seems highly unlikely to me that this group of Galilean fisherfolk, tax collectors, Zealots, and so forth, would have had any interest in the kind of radical arboriculture that Jesus proposes. As for why in the world anyone would want to transplant a mulberry tree into the sea, let’s not even go there!
To make any sense at all of what’s really going on here, we need to take a few steps back to consider the first four verses of chapter seventeen of Luke’s Gospel, the verses that immediately precede those we hear this Sunday. In these verses we find tough talk about sin, beginning with Jesus’ strong and uncompromising words about what ought to befall those who cause others to sin, and then his instruction, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him.” Seven times? What’s so special about seven times, and what happens the eighth time that my brother or sister sins against me? What am I supposed to do then? Matthew’s Gospel complicates the predicament in which the apostles find themselves even more. In Matthew 18:21-22, it is the never-shy Simon Peter who asks Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” and Jesus answers, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” No wonder the apostles asked for a faith upgrade!
If we take another look—a much closer look—at Jesus’ seemingly enigmatic response to the apostles’ request, we learn something vitally important about the meaning of faith. If we imagine that faith is mainly a matter of believing that something is true—for example, believing that there is only one God, believing that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, and so on—yes, that’s part of the picture, but it isn’t the whole picture. I remember a semester when I offered my students extra credit if they could come back the following week and recite the Nicene Creed—the profession of faith that we proclaim at Sunday Mass—by heart. I sweetened the offer by guaranteeing an A in the course to anyone who could recite it in Latin, never thinking that anyone would take me up on that challenge. The following week, many tried, but stumbled somewhere along the way in their recitation. Then one student stood up confidently and made it successfully from “Credo in unum Deum” all the way through to “et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen.” My student’s Latin pronunciation would have made Cicero and Saint Augustine wince, but a promise is a promise, and the student earned an A (truth be told: the student had already aced the course even without this extra credit).
It so happened that this bright student was an atheist, who did not believe even one of the words that had been so expertly memorized. There’s much more to faith — the kind of faith that Jesus is talking about — than reciting a creed or giving intellectual assent to certain truths, no matter how important those truths may be. Jesus insists that faith is about doing, the sort of conviction that is so powerful that it can even transplant trees. In Matthew’s Gospel, moving trees is no big deal, because in Matthew 18:20-21 Jesus tells his disciples solemnly (that’s what accounts for the “Amen” with which he starts), “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
So let’s go back to the beginning of Luke 17, the four verses that we don’t hear in this Sunday’s Gospel reading: we learn that the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith not because they have some mulberry-tree moving to do, and not because they need to relocate a mountain that happens to stand in their way, but because they can’t muster the resolve in themselves to measure up to the standard of mercy to which Jesus is calling them. They simply can’t find it in themselves, as the saying goes, to let go and let God. Moving mulberry trees or mountains sounds easier than moving their own hearts to forgive over and over again.
That’s not really so very different from the prophet Habakkuk’s problem many centuries earlier. In this Sunday’s first reading he calls out, “How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.” The prophet urges God to get involved! While this sounds less polite than “Increase our faith,” the bottom line isn’t much different, and the prophet’s complaint receives an unmistakably clear answer from God: “The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.” This isn’t at all about thinking through a complex matter of doctrine! This verse from Habakkuk, taken up by Saint Paul in Romans 1:17, figured prominently in the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation’s insistence on justification by faith vs. justification by works. That notoriously complex debate was ultimately about whether or not our salvation is something we can earn or merit, a debate that is resolved when we recognize that grace is God’s gift, freely and gratuitously given whether we deserve it or not. What is up to us, though, is to live by faith, and that’s not only a matter of signing on to this or that list of revealed truths. It is a matter of walking the talk, of entering ever more deeply into the substance of what we believe and living our lives according to that truth by the power of God’s grace at work in us.
Readings for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4
2 Timothy 1:6-8,13-14
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.