1st Reading – Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4a
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.
Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets,
so that one can read it readily.
For 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.
The rash one has no integrity;
but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.
Very little is known about the prophet Habakkuk. Even the meaning of his name is uncertain. From his writings, some have deduced that he was a member, possibly a leader, of the temple choir.
He lived at an important point in history when the Chaldeans, after the victory of Nebuchadnezzar at Carchemis (605 BC), extended their control over vast areas of the Near East and now threatened Judah. These were very difficult times; it looked as though nothing would stand in the Assyrians’ way to conquer the world.
In his short book, Habakkuk poses the problem of evil and how it fits in with divine justice.
Today’s reading consists of two parts: a direct address to God by the prophet, and the prophet’s report of the response he receives from God.
How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen!
The opening words are forceful and disturbing; a lament.
Although these are accusatory questions, it is not uncommon that those in torment should cry out this way. In fact, complaining to God is an expression of profound religious sentiment. It is an acknowledgment of both human limitation and divine power. One would not turn to God if one did not believe God could remedy the situation.
A lament is also an expression of hope. One would not turn to God if one did not trust that God would intervene.
I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene.
Habakkuk is lamenting what appears to be God’s indifference. It seems that God has turned a deaf ear to his anguish. It is not enough that he is engulfed by misfortune; he must also endure God’s impassivity. And so he cries out.
The vigor of Habakkuk’s words probably lies in the fact that he is not just bemoaning the people’s lot; he is actually praying — and prayer should never be contrived; it should come straight from the heart:
“I say to God simply what I want to say to Him, without using sweet words of beautiful phrases, and He always hears and understands me. […] For me, in times of suffering and in times of joy, prayer is an impulse of the heart, a glance up to heaven, an expression of gratitude and love” (Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Autobiographical Writings, 25).
Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery?
The circumstances within which he finds himself are overwhelming — violence, ruin, misery, and destruction. He faces strife and discord. It seems to be more than he can handle, so he cries out: Why? Why do I have to be a witness to all of this, especially since you do not seem to be open to my call for help?
The prophet is not using figurative language to describe his own inner turmoil, he is lamenting the social conditions of his people. The text provides no clues that might reveal the specifics of the situation, but that isn’t the point of his complaint. What he grieves is the absence of God’s tender solicitude for the covenant people in their need.
Then the LORD answered me and said: Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily.
Finally, God does respond, not with an answer but with a vision. Though we are not told the content of the vision, Habakkuk is instructed to write it on tablets so the message conveyed can be announced even before the events described come to pass.
Writing the vision on tablets accomplishes at least three things: 1) it is a means of publicizing the message, 2) it keeps this message before the eyes of those who might need to seek comfort in it before it transpires, and 3) when the contents of the vision do come to pass, the tablets stand as an affidavit, a concrete witness to the reliability of the prophetic word.
For 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.
God makes it clear that when he promises something, it will happen: time may pass, but his word will not pass away unfulfilled.
This fulfillment will take place at the moment determined by God (see Isaiah 55:10-11). Contrary to appearances, God is indeed in charge of the events of life. Habakkuk, and everyone else with him, will have to wait patiently until the appointed time arrives. The delay is a test of people’s faithfulness.
God has acted justly, even though man finds it difficult to see it that way. The chastisement Judah is receiving, and that Habakkuk is witness to, is medicinal; therefore, it is temporary and proportional to Judah’s faults.
The rash man has no integrity; but the just man, because of his faith, shall live.
Two possible contrasting responses to the waiting are given, and here we find what is probably the principal theme of the entire speech.
The one who is rash or puffed up (’uppelâ) does not have an upright soul. In contrast, one who is just (saddîq) lives by faith (ěmûnâ). Faith is a disposition closely associated with the covenant. It means fidelity, trustworthiness, or steadfastness. God has many fair-weather friends: those who are with him as long as everything goes their way. Real faith is proved by steadfast loyalty to God in times of adversity.
God’s response clearly, though indirectly, addresses Habakkuk’s initial accusatory questions. Without telling him why he has had to carry the burden of suffering or how long he will have to wait, God instructs him in the manner of his waiting.
He who trusts in the word of Yahweh may suffer and bemoan his state for a while, but in the end, if he perseveres in his fidelity, he will rejoice in the God of his salvation. The righteous wait in faith.
2nd Reading – 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14
I remind you, to stir into flame
the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice
but rather of power and love and self-control.
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,
nor of me, a prisoner for his sake;
but bear your share of hardship for the gospel
with the strength that comes from God.
Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me,
in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit
that dwells within us.
Having completed our study of 1st Timothy last week, we now start 2nd Timothy.
As you will recall, Timothy is the pastor (bishop) of the church at Ephesus. This second letter was written during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome shortly before his martyrdom in the year 67 AD. This letter is, therefore, his last.
Foreseeing his approaching end, Paul writes to his favorite disciple to give him final instruction and encouragement. He must not be ashamed of the gospel, he tells him, nor of Paul, prisoner of Christ; for the gospel brings salvation, grace, and light, and Paul is proud to be its messenger.
Beloved: I remind you, to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.
Laying on of hands is an ancient practice, a ritual that commissioned individuals for ministry. It expressed solidarity between the one who imposed hands and the recipient; it implied the transmission of a benefit, of the transfer of a quality or function, from one person to another.
The zeal that previously blazed within Timothy seems to have waned, and Paul challenges him to fan it back into flame. He received a particular charism on the occasion of his commission for ministry; this is the “gift of God” he must rekindle.
This serves as a reminder to us that faith is never definitively acquired; it must ceaselessly be reanimated.
“Paul urges Timothy to nurture his spirit with eagerness of mind, rejoicing in his faith, just as he once rejoiced in the newness of his ordination.” [The Ambrosiaster (between 366-384 AD), Commentary on the Second Letter to Timothy]
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.
Timothy was quite a bit less forceful than his colleague Paul. While there is no question about the steadfastness of his faith, it appears that he struggled with a certain degree of cowardice, the kind of terror that grips the timid in the face of extreme difficulty.
Timothy needs the power, love, and self-discipline that will enable him to stand up courageously and witness to his faith.
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake;
Paul is aware of the risk one takes in publicly professing faith in Jesus Christ. There is a stigma attached to such testimony. After all, Jesus was a political threat to Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, and he died the death of a convicted felon. All those who stand with him and proclaim what he preached placed themselves in jeopardy. In fact, Paul himself was in prison for this very reason.
In the face of such possible peril, Paul exhorts Timothy to witness to the Lord without shame, adding that he should not be ashamed of Paul either. Others may hold Paul in contempt, seeing that he is a prisoner of the state. Paul insists that he is really a prisoner of Christ, a distinction of which he boasts and which should make Timothy proud as well.
but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.
Furthermore, just as Paul is, Timothy should be willing to accept and embrace the suffering that will inevitably befall him as a minister of the gospel. He must be ready for misunderstanding, resentment, and hostility. He must face the possibility of imprisonment just as did Jesus, and Paul after him.
Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Having addressed Timothy’s personal conflict, Paul turned to the substance of his preaching. Paul had handed on to Timothy the essence of the gospel; it was now Timothy’s turn to carry it to others.
He was not merely to repeat Paul’s words. They were to be the norm, the standard against which all other teachings would be measured. Just as Paul did in his own ministry, so Timothy would have to refashion for new situations the teaching he received. This ministerial approach is what we refer to today as recontextualization. Then and now it requires that the minister be both faithful to the tradition and creative in articulating it in a new way.
Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.
One main theme of both of Paul’s letters to Timothy is “guard the trust.” Paul is exhorting the bishop of Ephesus to protect the community from false teaching and preserve the gospel message as it is being handed down.
God is able to preserve the entire content of Christian teaching (both written and oral). “What is it ‘that you heard from me’? The faith, the preaching of the gospel. God, who committed this to us, will preserve it unimpaired. I suffer everything, that I may not be despoiled of this treasure. I am not ashamed of these things, so long as the faith is preserved uninjured.” [Saint John Chrysostom (between 393-397 AD), Homilies on the Second Epistle to Timothy 2]
Gospel – Luke 17:5-10
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
The Lord replied,
“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.
“Who among you would say to your servant
who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field,
‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’?
Would he not rather say to him,
‘Prepare something for me to eat.
Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink.
You may eat and drink when I am finished’?
Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?
So should it be with you.
When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, ‘We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.’”
In our readings during these weeks of Ordinary Time, we are accompanying Jesus as he journeys toward Jerusalem and his impending passion.
There are two independent instructions in this week’s gospel: one on the power of prayer, the other on the responsibilities of disciples. They are arranged next to each other and share the explanatory phrase, “The Lord replied.”
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
This request is the apostles’ response to a very difficult teaching that Jesus had given them in the verse immediately preceding this passage. He told them that if their brother “wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him” (Luke 17:4). The apostles must realize that such generous forgiveness seems almost beyond human ability. They realize that if they are to live up to Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness they will need more faith, and so they ask for this gift.
As is so often the case, Jesus’ response to this request will include a shift in perspective.
The Lord replied, “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.
The apostles ask for an increase in faith (quantity) and Jesus speaks about its nature (quality). He uses an image about size to illustrate how very little faith is needed to accomplish extraordinary feats: the mustard seed was considered one of the smallest seeds; the mulberry tree had a very deep and extensive root system, making it very difficult to uproot.
Hence, it is not necessary to procure more faith; rather, one should be concerned to secure even a small amount of genuine faith.
“Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’?
Jesus begins with a question that, at the outset, forces his audience to agree with what is described. It appears that the staff of the household in the story is relatively small, for the servant is expected to perform several tasks: plowing, tending sheep, preparing food, serving at table.
We may think the householder is being unreasonable in his demands. While we may not believe the servant should be invited to sit at table with the householder, we might expect a bit of consideration toward someone who had just completed other strenuous service. However, the story is not about being considerate, but about social convention. Jesus is teaching about the obligations of the one in service.
Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”
Disciples of Jesus should expect a similar lot. They have been called to labor, and when they fulfill their duties faithfully, they have only done what is required of them.
Jesus is not teaching his apostles to have a subservient attitude or to lack self-respect. Rather, he is encouraging them to have an attitude of service rather than an attitude of pride. He is instructing them against any form of self-adulation based on accomplishments.
Jesus’ portrayal of his disciples as unprofitable servants may seem harsh, but it’s important to recall two critical perspectives:
- God did not create us because of a lack or deficiency within himself. We exist simply because he wants to share his life with us. Our existence adds nothing to his unchanging, infinite goodness. In this sense, he does not “profit” from us, the way a typical master would profit from having servants.
- In addition, no amount of service can earn God’s love because God’s love is a freely given gift. We are servants out of love and gratitude, but our service itself doesn’t earn anything. In that sense also, we are “unprofitable servants.”
Rather than trying to earn God’s love, the apostles are learning to serve in love as a response to God’s initiative in their lives. Then instead of being full of pride and self-righteousness, they will be full of love and gratitude. They will be able to say “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do,” and mean it from their hearts.
Taken together, these two teachings from Jesus present alternate sides of a single concept: With faith we can do anything, but we are unprofitable servants and must continue to labor until the end.
Connections and Themes
The readings for both this week and next call us to faith. Today we reflect on the sense of the absence of God as the crucible within which this faith is forged and refined. We also acknowledge that faith is a gift from God, not a personal disposition of soul or a prize we have won. Finally, while faith may come to us from God, it is mediated through the community.
The absence of God. In our struggles to be faithful disciples, we frequently must endure periods of time, some quite short and others unbearably long, when we feel abandoned by God. Such experiences are difficult under any circumstances. When we have been intent on serving God with genuine devotion, such times are particularly trying, for one would expect that God would not withdraw consolations. However, even the righteous sometimes feel abandoned by God. When this happens, the broken heart and the strained spirit cry out to God in complaint: How long? Why?
Times of near despair know no restrictions on age or gender or class. Teenagers often search frantically for meaning and identity; people in midlife crises may desperately question their life choices; the elderly can feel that everything they have held dear is either taken from them or is slipping away. People fall victim to natural disasters wherein they lose everything that gave their lives meaning. Husbands and wives are betrayed by their partners, and their entire lives crumble before their very eyes. Illness strikes indiscriminately, and death’s shadow looms over all. Finally, we have all known the tedium of life. We have all been worn down by it, tempted to give up, too weary to go on. These are all moments when we stand before the doors to faith and to despair, trying to decide through which one we will pass.
The gift of faith. Faith in God is a gift for which we pray. It enables us to accomplish marvelous feats; with it, we can move mountains. As unprofitable servants we do not earn it; we have no right to claim it as our own. If we are honest, we will have to admit that there are many people we know who are more generous than we are, who are more patient and loving, who live lives of greater integrity — yet do now have the faith we do. If we are honest, we have to ask ourselves: Why are we, and not they, so disposed toward God? There is no answer to this question, except to realize that the faith we have is a gift from God. In God’s goodness, these others will be cared for, but we are the ones to whom faith has been given. And therefore we are the ones from whom faithful service will be expected. We will be sent to plow the fields and tend the sheep. We will be called to serve at table.
Faith comes through hearing. The faith that is ours has been mediated to us through the community. We have heard about God and about Jesus from others — from our parents and families, from our teachers and those who preach, from those with whom we work and play. Faith comes from God, but through the mediation of the community. Timothy received faith from his mother and grandmother. It was strengthened in him through the imposition of Paul’s hands and through his preaching of the word of God. Furthermore, what Paul taught had at first been handed down to him from those who preceded him. God grants us the gift of faith, but it comes to us through others. Perhaps those whom we know to be better people than we are have not yet met someone through whom this gift can be mediated. The challenge could be ours.