ColumnsSunday’s Word

Faith the size of a mustard seed

October 2, 2016


Hb 1:2-3; 2:2-4

The just, through faith, will live

Ps 95:1-2, 6-9

Sing joyfully to the Lord

2 Tm 1:6-8, 13-14

Advice to a church leader

Lk 17:5-10

Faith the size of a mustard seed 100216.cfm

[ms-protect-content id=”1339,323,1059,1325,324,257,322,6459″]

mustardseed-faithThe book of Habakkuk does not often appear among the Sunday readings. In fact, this is the only time it shows up during the three-year cycle. We might be tempted to ignore it and move to the other readings, but that would be a mistake. This passage—specifically, Hab 2:4—is quoted only three times in the New Testament, two of them in Paul’s letters. But those instances are crucial. Both are at key moments of the letters.

In Galatians 3:11, Paul uses Hab 2:4 verse as a biblical support for his teaching on faith. In this letter he is upset with opponents who are demanding his converted Gentiles adhere to the Mosaic law. In the heat of that emotion he forges his notion of faith as pure gift. When he has a chance to elaborate his discovery in a more settled setting, in the letter to the Romans, he selects this verse from Habakkuk as the key quote at the head of the letter (Rom 1:17). This unobtrusive presence of Paul might explain the repeated emphasis on faith that we find in the readings for today.

What about Habakkuk? Why would Paul choose this text for a quote? Habakkuk is notable for raising the difficult question of divine justice in a most uncompromising way, much like the book of Job. These were tumultuous times. The northern kingdom had been conquered and dissolved by Assyria. And now Assyria itself was being overcome by the brash new nation of Babylonian Chaldea. Meanwhile, Judah was showing no sign of learning from the lessons of the times.

The book begins with a dialogue. Concerned with the ongoing injustice in the land, Habakkuk asks God how long he will allow it to prevail.

“How long, O LORD? I cry for help

but you do not listen!”

God answers that he is taking care of matters by sending the Babylonians. For Habakkuk, this is no good, since to his mind the Babylonians are worse than the Assyrians. In answer, God asks the prophet to be patient. For those who trust in God, justice will prevail.

“The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”

In his letters, Paul takes this further, seeing in it a key to the history of the people of God, now at a turning point. The long history of waiting is fulfilled. Paul’s sense of faith shows God initiating the move that reclaimed the human family. Grace is undeserved, though we need to respond to its offer with humility, gratitude and repentance.

This might help us see how the Gospel reading relates. The assumption that one would make one’s servant serve first and eat later tends to grate against our sensibilities. Luke frequently gives evidence that his readers were among the cultivated classes, and he is drawing on their experience to suggest that their relationship to God in a way is similar to that of their servants to them.

The lesson is similar to the faith insight of Paul. We are not in a position to demand of God what we consider proper satisfaction. To do so is to misconstrue the relationship. Our relationship with God is not one of equals. To think so is to miss the point entirely. But at the same time, God loves us unconditionally. These two truths come together in the advice to Habakkuk, to Job, and to Paul. We are not in a position to put God in debt to us, to “earn” a purchase on God’s bounty. But on the other hand, we need not do so, since God has already anticipated our needs.

For reflection: When we say that prayer “works” are we setting the terms?

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.