It was a desperate father of a seriously ill boy who said to Jesus, 'Lord, I do believe; help thou my unbelief' (Mark 9: 24). At the heart of it, faith is a leap, a leap made out of trust and love, writes Bishop Greg O'Kelly SJ.
The gift of faith can bring a certainty through the peace that through grace will reign in our hearts, but there can be dark and trying moments of a sense of absence as well. This was the experience of Jesus himself, in his Agony in the Garden. Cardinal Newman wrote that doubt is a shadow cast by faith, and Blessed John Paul II urged us frequently to 'put out into the deep' in our journey of discipleship, following Jesus beyond the non-challenging areas of our lives, to places in our hearts where we must rely on Christ’s love alone.
Recall the context of this passage in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem and 'large crowds were travelling with him.' They thought they were going on a crusade, one that would overthrow the Romans with Jesus as the warrior messiah, and they would be leaders of a new empire. Jesus knew that he was travelling towards not a throne of kingly gold, but a dreadful throne of rough wood, the Cross. To bring them to their senses, Jesus speaks a series of hard sayings, especially to the inner circle of his disciples, the future leaders of the community.
He tells them that he must be preferred before all others ('hate your father and mother etc'), that they must renounce all possessions, that salt which has lost its taste must be thrown away, that there is more rejoicing over a repentant sinner than a righteous person, that they cannot serve two masters, God and wealth, that to ignore the poor at one’s gate is to incur condemnation, that they must forgive those who offend against them, not just the conventional number of times, but without limit. No wonder the apostles say in exasperation, 'Lord, increase our faith!'
Jesus then uses the image of one of the largest trees that grew in Palestine being uprooted and replanted by a single word of command. The Semitic culture used confronting language ('hate your father…') and images ('cut off your hand…') when a strong point was to be made. In this case Jesus stresses the power of faith to transform us from timidity into strength.
'Fan into a flame the gift God gave you,' says Paul to Timothy in the Second Reading. We can look at how faith made giants of Francis of Assisi, Mary MacKillop, Francis Xavier, members of our family who have inspired us. We pray with the apostles for the same gift.
The image of God as a master commanding his slave in an apparent unfeeling manner can jar on us. The same Gospel of Luke balances the image elsewhere, having the Master wait on us (12: 37) '…he will have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.' God does that for us every day, expressed in the Bread and Wine of the abiding presence of Jesus.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is using the Master-servant image as a lesson for the apostles. It is directed to them deliberately by Jesus. What does the servant do in the Service of the Master? It will be their duty, like a master’s servant, to plough, care for the sheep, provide nourishment – to sow the seed of God’s word, care for their flock, nourish them at the table of the Eucharist. This is what the apostles will be called to do, a ministry of word and care and spiritual nurture. Following them, all leaders and teacher in the Church are called to do the same.
There is also the message in today’s Gospel that we can make no claims on God, as if we have a contract, as if we are owed anything. God’s actions towards us are freely given through love. As the old translation in the Liturgy says, God sees and loves in us what God saw and loved in Christ. We can never earn God’s love: it is God’s gift in full freedom. Even on the simply human level, respect and trust must be earned, but love is gift. We must in faith trust God’s love for us, the love that has already given us life and grace and purpose in Christ Jesus and the resurrection.
Many things can test our faith – the suffering of the innocent, tragedies, evil unchecked, injustice, a drought that destroys my farm and family. Habakkuk knew that in his time, Jesus in his. 'My God, why have you abandoned me?”' Jesus entered fully into our humanity and knew all those absences with us, but he persevered because darkness cannot destroy the memory and experience of love. As Christ carried the love of the Father within Him, so we also are graced to carry the mystery of Christ within us.
St Paul says we continue on earth now what was lacking in the Passion of Christ. What was that? It is his presence in time after the ascension when he left this earth. We are the Body of Christ through baptism on our earth now. Jesus entered fully into our daily lives. He was immersed in the River Jordan, with all that symbolism of full immersion.
He was plunged fully into the river of our humanity, good and bad, and he knew family life and weddings and funerals and rejection, hope and disappointment, he shared bread and wine, and he endured an innocent death of violence. Christ suffered to identify with our humanity, to point us back to the Father. We are sometimes called to share that vocation.
Christ said, 'why have you abandonned me? Remove this chalice of suffering from me.'
It is very human for us to shrink from pain and endure doubt, as did Jesus. In our pain, however, Jesus remains our rock. In faith we can identify with the Suffering One whom the love of God put amongst us, and who rises in time above and beyond death, in new and fuller life, as we will. In the meantime we pray, 'Lord, increase our faith.'
- +Greg O’Kelly SJ, Bishop of Port Pirie