19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ws 18:6-9; He 11:1-2, 8-19; Lk 12:32-48
Our readings this morning seem to cluster around the idea of “faith”. Imagine yourself in a busy Walmart. Suddenly a person comes up to you who’s taking a survey. She asks you to rate your faith on a scale of one to ten. What number would you give her?
Our second reading, from Hebrews, holds up Abraham as a hero of faith. It was his faith in God that enabled him to leave his homeland of Haran when commanded and set out for Palestine. That was a pretty risky move back then because he would have been unprotected by his clan.
Our selection this morning from the 11th chapter of Hebrews leaves out a few verses in the middle, in order not to make an already long reading even longer. One of the Old Testament examples of faith cited in that left-out section is Noah. What an immense amount of faith he had, to build the ark and gather all those animals when it hadn’t even started to rain yet. His neighbors ridiculed him as having lost his mind. On that scale of one to ten, his number would have been a lot higher than mine.
The second reading finishes with the example of Abraham’s faith when he offered up his son, Isaac, on Mt. Moriah. What an extreme act of faith that was! And luckily, God sent his angel to stop him. That whole image of a father stabbing his son on an altar in order to please God seems pretty foreign and revolting to us. But at the time it wasn’t all that uncommon among the surrounding peoples and their foreign gods. We can see it as God putting Abraham to the test to see if anything came between him and God, if he loved Isaac more than him. How many of us could have withstood that test?! Yikes! Abraham’s faith was well beyond a “ten”.
Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher of the mid 1800s, was very impressed and inspired by this obedient act of Abraham when asked to sacrifice his son. He referred to it as Abraham’s “Leap of Faith”. To him it was sort of an icon that he repeatedly went back to meditate on. He realized that in our own lives we are often called on to make “leaps of faith” — things that don’t make complete sense at the time, but only come into focus later. At the time of one’s marriage or solemn profession, we didn’t have full assurance at the time, but we went ahead and made the decision anyway.
Faith can seem like sort of a nebulous concept. What exactly is it? The definition in our second reading isn’t bad. We heard at the beginning, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” A dictionary I consulted offered: “trust; strong belief; unquestioning confidence”. I think it’s a conviction of something we can’t verify with our five senses. If I told you the cathedral in Zagreb has twin spires, you would probably take my word for it even though you have never been there.
So what is the main thing you put your faith in? Hopefully, it is God. In our gospel reading we have a bit of a litmus test. In that passage from Luke we watch our Lord tell his disciples, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be.” What are you preoccupied with most? What takes center stage in your thoughts? Where are your priorities? Where is your heart? Is God number one in your life? Is there anything coming in between you and him? Is he getting shoved aside because of my work or my family? It is our duty to be occupied with these things, but not preoccupied. Everything needs to be kept in proper balance. If our hearts truly rest in God first, he will look after these other things. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Mt 6:33).
Why is it that some people seem to have a much stronger faith than others? That’s a bit of a mystery. It could be that faith is a gift and God gives a bigger dose to some than others. Maybe God, in his foreknowledge, knew that certain people would squander his gift of faith, so he held back so they wouldn’t be so culpable. Everyone is going to be judged by what he did with what he was given. As our gospel reading today concluded:
That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.
It could also be that the lack of faith is the person’s fault – they were negligent in nurturing the faith they were given. Like the parable of the sower, the seed of faith got choked out by brambles and the cares of the world. Only God is in a position to judge this situation; we are not to judge another’s lack of faith, only our own.
Hearing confessions here at the abbey puts one in sort of a privileged position. Most of the people coming to the abbey for confession are pretty serious about their faith – for instance, they’re here on retreat. And of course, just the mere act of wanting to go to confession presupposes an above-average degree of faith. So often I am very much inspired by the faith I encounter in the people who come for the sacrament of reconciliation. I love to ask them how they got to this point, this degree of faith. Have you been like this from childhood? Did you have a religious conversion at some point that changed the course of your life? To hear how God worked in their life in a very personal way can be very moving.
God loves each one of us so much! We will never be able to wrap our minds around how much he loves us and cares for us. And he is so touched by our acts of faith in him. After Abraham had made his leap of faith, God declared to him through an angel:
I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your beloved son, I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants shall take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earths shall find blessing – all this because you obeyed my command (Gn 22:16-18).
And this faith goes in both directions. God has infinite faith in us – from his perspective he can see how much potential we really do have. Sometimes our faith in ourselves is even less than our faith in God. When we’re down in the dumps, it can be very therapeutic to remember how much faith God has in us.
All of us have room for growth in the realm of faith. Perhaps we can make our own the prayer of the man with the demoniac son. In Mark, chapter nine, Jesus came down the mountain after the Transfiguration and encountered a man who had brought his ailing son to be cured. After describing the symptoms, the man concluded:
“But if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” “If you can?” retorted Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who has faith.” At once the father of the boy cried out, “I have faith. Help my lack of faith!”