One of the perks of wearing the roman collar in public is that I get to have the most interesting conversations in the oddest of places, even in the cereal aisle of a supermarket. I was looking at cereals the other day, and from the corner of my eye I saw someone pass by, and then come back. He asked, “Are you a priest?” I chuckled and said, “Well, I try to be.” He responded, “I used to be Catholic”—you know it’s going to be good when the conversation starts off like that!— “But the Catholic Church doesn’t live the Sabbath, so I stopped being Catholic,” he said, “What do you mean? We have Sunday, that’s our Sabbath.” “But it’s not Saturday,” he told me. “Well indeed it’s not Saturday,” I said, “Christ resurrected on a Sunday, therefore establishing for us, Christians, the Sabbath on Sunday.”
In response he demanded, “Where does it say in the Bible that I have to go to Mass every Sunday?” At this point, you can imagine, people were starting to walk back slowly through the cereal aisle to listen in. “Well,” I told him, “Sunday Mass is the place where we hear the word of God, and reflect on it. Sunday Mass is the place where we ‘do this in memory of [him]’ (Lk 22:19); Sunday Mass is the ‘place’ where we eat his Body and drink his Blood; Sunday Mass is the ‘place’ where, as the Community of God’s children, we adore God for being God.” He looked at me suspiciously and said, “Well I’m still church-shopping around, and I don’t believe in the Catholic Church anymore.”
I decided to challenge him on this: “Is it that you do not believe in the Catholic Church, or that you don’t understand some of her teachings?” He looked at me with surprise, “Well… both.” “Because there are many teachings I don’t understand myself,” I said, “But I believe in the Catholic Church. I believe in Christ, her founder. I don’t understand many of her teachings; that’s why we call them mysteries. The mysteries of our faith, the mystery of the incarnation, the mystery of the sacrament of the Church, and so many others.”
Then I challenged him further, I told him: “It sounds to me like you haven’t lost your faith like you said, but rather that you’re losing your willingness to believe. It sounds like you are guiding yourself and your quest by the statement, “Until I understand, I will not believe.” Which is goes against the very foundations of the nature of faith.” He just smiled at me asked, “So, what cereal are you getting?”
In today’s Gospel, we hear about this willingness to believe from the Apostles, who ask of Jesus: “Lord, increase our faith” (Lk 17:5). Only someone who sees God in Jesus Christ can could ask him this. However, quite frequently in the Gospels, Jesus does not answer direct questions or petitions. Whenever he is challenged, or put on the spot by a direct question, he somehow answers differently than expected. Throughout the Gospels we see how this practice can get on the Apostle’s nerves. There’s even one instance where they say, “Thank you, now you speak to us clearly and without parables and signs” (Jn 16:29). In today’s reading, the Apostles cry, “Lord, increase our faith!” And what does Jesus do? He doesn’t say, “OK, this is what you have to do.” Instead he responds as he often does, with two parables: the mustard seed, and the servant, to illustrate two aspects of the gift of Faith. The divine, and the human.
Jesus tells the Apostles, “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” (Lk 17:6). Like most parables, it has a ‘gist’ to it, how can a tree plant itself on water? If anything, it would sink, or float, or just drift around, but it wouldn’t be planted on water. Hearing this parable we might think to ourselves, That’s unreasonable and illogical! But this parable is based on the understanding that faith is a gift from God—that is why the Apostles ask for it; faith is freely given, as St Paul attests in the Second Reading, “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:7). It is a precious treasure given to us by the Holy Spirit. What Christ illustrates in this parable is that the faith we have been given, even if small, can accomplish things that go beyond our rational understanding, and can accomplish things we never thought possible.
I remember I was taking a class at Notre Dame, we were studying St Augustine, looking at some of his theological insights, and a brilliant student in his mid forties, raised his hand and said, “I have a question: Why doesn’t God give me faith?” Everybody looked at the teacher, wondering how he would respond. The student continued, “I’ve been asking for faith since I was seven years old: Lord give me faith! Lord increase my faith! I can’t help myself from rationally challenging every single act, every single thought, and every single idea that I encounter. Why can I not have faith?” At this my teacher simply raised up his hands and said, “Faith itself is a mystery.”
The second parable is the attitude of the servant. Christ concludes the parable by saying: “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do’” (Lk 17:10). This is a more practical and action oriented guidance for us as the Lord’s servants. We are doing what we must do is the attitude that a good servant must have. The Second Reading says, “Do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord” (2 Tim 1:8). This is also deeply practical advice to aid us on our journey, and we hear this same challenge in the psalm that we sang today, “If today you hear the voice of the Lord, harden not your hearts” (Ps. 95).
This phrase comes to my mind again, “Until I understand I will not believe.” Or, said differently, “Until I understand I will not live my faith.” Perhaps you remember that some time ago I started off my homily by asking: “How do you know that your Mom is your Mom? How do you know that the food you just ate, or are about to eat, is not poisoned? I asked these questions to prove that some mysteries are only understood when we live them, and when we act them out in our lives. In this spirit, rather than the statement, “Until I understand I will not believe,” we can instead say, “Until I believe I cannot understand.” This opens us up to the realization that faith and life encompass both understanding and mystery.
How can we live our faith in our lives? Faith is a gift from God, yet at the same time it is also a choice we must make. I believe that obedience has a lot to do with this response. When I say ‘obedience’ I am referring to obedience to the Word of God speaking to us. Obedience to human beings can be enslaving, and we have been witness to the atrocities of human slavery in our history, but obedience to God and to his Holy Word is always liberating. A modern theologian, says, “Only those who believe can obey… And only those who obey can believe” (Bonhoeffer). Obedience and faith are inextricably entwined.
Where God speaks to us, and where the Word challenges us, be it in our everyday life, or even in the middle of the supermarket, is where we must put faith and obedience into practice. Faith is increased when we live it. “Faith is increased when we share it” (RM, 2). Faith is increased when we do “what we are obliged to do.” Faith is increased when we pray. When we chose to pray, despite all the rationalizations we can give for not doing it, “I don’t know how to pray,” or “I don’t have time,” the act of prayer is in itself an act of faith. Faith is increased through encountering our Lord Jesus Christ in his Sacraments, and in his Holy Word, where he compels us, pushes us, and encourages us to live it out with more conviction. Faith is increased when we “run the risk” of sharing it with others, like our co-workers and peers, when we “run the risk” of being rejected. The heart can only speak of what it knows, and if the heart knows Jesus Christ then it will share it. We will only stand in awe to see every aspect of our life transformed, even those in which we couldn’t see the tree of faith “taking root on water.”
Let us ask Mary to intercede for us, to give us courage and decisiveness in living our faith, as small as it may be, knowing that if we live our faith, “greater things we shall see” (Jn 1:50).
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