Faith the size of a mustard seed
October 6, 2019
TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Hb 1:2-3; 2:2-4
The just ones, through faith, shall live
Ps 95:1-2, 6-9
Harden not your hearts
2 Tm 1:6-8, 13-14
A spirit not of cowardice
Faith the size of a mustard seed
The prophet Habakkuk makes his appearance in the Sunday liturgy today, and today only. He deserves some attention. What is he about? Why cited only once? Or, for that matter, why at all?
First of all, it is not surprising that he gets so little attention. After all, he is quoted in the New Testament only twice by Paul and once in Hebrews. In Galatians 3:11 and Romans 1:17, Paul refers to Habakkuk 2:4, “the one who is righteous by faith will live.” Both of Paul’s citations make the same point. On the other hand, this point is central to his thinking. In Galatians, he is introducing one of his main insights — justification is by faith, not law. In Romans 1:17, Paul has moved the Habakkuk quote to the beginning of the letter, where it serves to announce the theme of the entire letter.
Paul insists that we are not justified before God on the merits of our own actions, even if that means following the law of Moses faithfully. We are not in the position to put God in debt to us, as it were. Salvation is not earned. Rather, our acceptance by God is a gift of grace. This is a primary teaching of Paul. And he cites Habakkuk 2:4 for scriptural support.
Paul’s interpretation of Scripture follows the rabbinic practice of his time, finding a fuller meaning in the text. However, it is not clear that the prophet had this in mind in the first place. Habakkuk lived in perilous times. The crisis of the Assyrian imperial expansion had done its damage. The northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed; the southern kingdom of Judah had squeaked by, barely surviving, but under the severe constraints of Assyrian control.
But now there were hints that the Assyrian era was beginning to decline, promising for some the possibility of a new age. However, that was not yet entirely certain.
Habakkuk begins his book with a dialogue between the prophet and God, 1:2–2:4. Today’s selection in the first reading uses the beginning and conclusion of this passage. The gist of the exchanges is this: Habakkuk begins with a famous outcry against the violence that the people are experiencing — “How long, O Lord? I cry for help, but you do not listen!”
God’s answer is that he is preparing a solution. The Chaldeans of the Babylonian empire are just starting to build an empire. Their army will take care of the Assyrians. Habakkuk, however, is not comforted by this. After all, the Babylonians are known to be more ruthless than the Assyrians. The prophet vividly elaborates on this theme for a number of verses. He concludes by saying he will stand at attention, waiting for a satisfactory reply (2:1).
God’s final answer in 2:2-4 provides the last part of today’s liturgical selection, as well as Paul’s key quote. The original meaning seems to have been that the proud and violent Babylonian (“the rash one”) will not ultimately prevail. Rather, the faithful and just ones, who keep their trust in God, will survive to the end.
In later years, Jewish tradition interpreted v. 3 (“he will surely come”) to refer to the Messiah. This stands in the background of Paul’s reading. It is also behind the passage in Hebrews 10:37-38. But Paul’s reading is unique, and it will become a central affirmation in Christian theology.
The Gospel reading picks up on the theme of faith. The apostles, hearing that they should forgive unceasingly, ask the Lord to increase their faith. The lesson reflects the social patterns of slavery, especially in the Gentile world of Luke’s readers. The apostles identify with the powerless.
For reflection: Faith is the resource of the powerless, it would seem.
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.