Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4; 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; Luke 17:5-10
People sometimes speak as though there are saints and then there is everybody else. I know; I’ve done it. Somebody says, “You know, you’re a good person,” and I reply, “Well, thanks, but I’m no saint.” We might begin to think that saints are people of superhuman faith who go around rebuilding the Church, baptizing thousands, levitating, going into ecstasy, healing the sick, and finally converting thousands through their own martyrdom.
And although many people have done exactly those things, the readings today remind us that saints are ordinary people who know what it means to have their faith tested; to get frustrated, to need encouragement, and even to ask God for an increase in faith. We just heard the prophet Habakkuk cry out to God, clearly frustrated and bewildered because God had not put an end to the violence and misery all around. We should be able to sympathize with him; we pray week after week, year after year for an end to violence in the world, yet it continues. Why doesn’t God stop it? Next, the Apostle Paul tells Timothy to stir into flame the grace of his ordination, for he’s going to face his share of hardship. Don’t we too know how it feels to face hardship yet still be asked to keep on giving? Then in the gospel the apostles ask our Lord to increase their faith and little wonder, for Jesus had just told them that if your 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). I don’t know about you but on a bad day forgiving the same offense even twice can be a struggle; seven times is going to take some real moral fiber.
But the readings don’t stop there; they also show God’s responses. Habakkuk is told that fulfillment will come and it won’t disappoint; have faith and wait. In other words, be patient and don’t lose hope. As hardship looms, Paul says to Timothy: Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 1:13). That is, hold on to what you’ve been taught; Christ gave us the plan and he is our strength. Finally, Jesus talks about strength in two ways. First, he speaks of faith as powerful enough to uproot a mulberry tree. As the Apostles knew, that’s a lot of power. Mulberry trees are hard to pull; their roots are thick, wide and dense. Second, he talks about a servant who labors outside all day but still must serve when he comes inside. He’s talking about the power of fidelity to our call. Jesus reminds us that servants don’t stop being servants depending on where they are or what time it is. When I was ordained, Christ didn’t tell me that I’m a servant only when I’m wearing my vestments; I am called to serve God’s people, period. Similarly for you; all of us who are baptized in Christ receive a new garment; we put on Christ and we can’t just take him off. We are servants of God and each other; our attitudes and our behavior are to reflect that every hour of the day, every day of the week.
This story of the servant is only found in the gospel of Luke and I think there is a good reason for that. Luke sees Jesus as that servant. Consider: The servant worked in the field, plowing or tending sheep. Jesus did both; he spent his entire ministry planting the seed of the gospel until the harvest was abundant (Luke 10:2) and called himself the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). Then when Jesus “went in” for dinner for the last time with his disciples, he remained a servant, washing the apostles’ feet (John 13:5). As the servant provided the dinner for his master, so at the Last Supper Jesus instituted the Eucharist, feeding his apostles the bread of life (Luke 22:19). Finally, as the servant said that he had done what he was obliged to do, so the Good Thief looked at the dying Jesus and said, this man has done nothing wrong (Luke 23:41, RSV). Then after his resurrection he walked with two disciples, opening the Scriptures until they felt their hearts burn within them. Finally, the flame of the Spirit was poured upon the apostles (Acts 2:3), strengthening them to proclaim the gospel in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
This is the strength that has inspired the saints throughout the centuries. Every saint knows what it means to wonder as Habakkuk wondered how and when God will fulfill his promises, but they also know what it means to offer themselves as the instruments through which that promise is fulfilled. Every saint knows what it means to face hardship or to be with others as they face them, but like Timothy and Paul they also know what it means to possess the grace to endure and to support others who need to endure. Finally, every saint knows what it means to feel as if their own faith is inadequate to uproot their mulberry tree full of weaknesses. But they also know what it means to surrender themselves totally to the power of the One who nailed those weaknesses to his own tree and cast them once and for all into the ocean of his infinite mercy.
This is the consolation that speaks in the silence of God’s replies to every prayer. What makes a saint is not that they understand the mind or the providence of God but that they never allow their incomprehension, frustration, or anger overwhelm the great promise of the cross; that faith overcomes and will always triumph over fear. Thus could Augustine rightly say that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.