Luke 17 5:10, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
We all admire the heroes of faith like St. Francis whose feast we will celebrate on Tuesday. Absolutely nothing stopped him in his pursuit of God’s glory. When, during the Crusades, he was captured by the Saracens, St. Francis challenged the imams to a duel to prove which was the true religion.
“Light a bonfire,” Francis said to the Sultan, “and have your imam enter the fire along with me. Whoever emerges from the flames unhurt, his God is the true God.”
The Sultan thought it was a good idea. His imam did not. But from that moment on, the Sultan gave Francis and his friars safe passage passes to travel anywhere in Muslim territories unhindered so much was he moved by Francis’ faith.
“Lord, increase our faith!”
This cry of the disciples is not strange to us because we too feel at times that our faith is weak and needs to increase.
It reminds me of a often told story about a man who fell off a mountain cliff. Half-way down the cliff he succeeds in grabbing the branch of a tree. There he is, dangling on the branch, unable to pull himself up yet knowing that letting go of the branch he would definitely fall to his death. Suddenly the man gets an idea. He looks up to heaven and shouts, “Is anyone up there?”
A voice comes from heaven, “Yes, I am here. I am the Lord. Do you believe in me?”
The man shouts back, “Yes, Lord, I believe in you. I really believe. Please help me.”
The Lord told him, “All right! If you really believe in me you have nothing to worry about. I will save you. Now let go of the branch.”
The man thinks about it for a moment and then shouts back, “Is anyone else up there?”
Is the man in the story a believer? Of course, he is. He believes that God exists. He believes in the power of prayer. He believes that God is able to help him and save him from his predicament. And, yes, he prays to God.
But if he truly believes in God as he claims he does, why then does he not take God on His word? Why does he not let go of the branch to which he is clinging for life? Is God not able to save him?
Many of us laugh at the story because we can recognize ourselves in this man. We believe in God, but when the going gets rough and things do not work out as we expect we take matters into our own hands or look for help elsewhere. We believe, yes; but we are people of little faith
The apostles too, the gospels tell us, are men of little faith. They believe in Jesus and follow him, but when they see the soldiers approaching in the garden of Gethsemane they abandon Jesus and flee. They are men of little faith.
The big difference between us and the apostles is that whereas we often see ourselves as keeping the faith all right, the apostles see themselves as men of deficient faith. They know their faith lacks something. So in today’s gospel, they come to Jesus and say to him, “Lord, Increase our faith!”
There is famous saying that goes, he who does not know, and does not know that he does not know, is a fool. But he who does not know, and knows that he does not know, is a wise man.
The apostles know that they their faith is not adequate. And they take steps to improve their faith. What steps have we taken in the past one year to develop our faith? How many retreats, seminars or bible study classes have we attended? How many books have we read? These are means through which the Lord increases our faith.
Yes, how about us? We admitted that we can identify with the apostles’ request in our gospel. “Lord, increase our faith!
We might think the good Lord would comfort the disciples when they made this request like saying. “There, there, now. Don’t feel too bad about yourselves. Having faith is hard!”
No, that’s not how he handled it. His answer appears even a bit harsh: “If your faith was even the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree ‘be rooted up and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Throughout the gospels, Jesus sharpest rebukes are in response to lack of faith. And his most repeated command in the Gospels is “do not be afraid” which is better translated “stop fearing!”
Why can Jesus be so emphatic about faith and fear? Is it really our fault if we feel shaky inside before the Goliaths in our lives?
No, feeling shaky is not our fault. Feelings cannot be commanded. But faith is not a feeling. And the fear that Jesus rebukes is not a feeling. From the biblical accounts of the agony in the Garden we know that the Lord trembled with fear and dread at the ordeal that was soon to begin. But notice how he responded. He did not flee over the top of the Mount of Olives and disappear in the wilderness of Judea. He stood his ground as the soldiers approached.
Or think of Peter on the stormy lake. I bet Peter felt a few butterflies in his stomach as he stepped out of the boat to walk on the water. He may have faltered later, but at least, unlike the others, he stepped out of the boat. He refused to be paralyzed by fear.
The Church teaches that faith is one of the theological virtues. And a virtue, says St. Thomas Aquinas, is a habit, a power or capacity that gets stronger when it is exercised and atrophies when it is not. So faith is like a spiritual muscle. We were born with muscles. Some people choose to develop them, and some do not. The way you develop them is to exercise them regularly and to do so against ever increasing resistance. .
In our new birth from above through baptism, we are all given the gift of supernatural faith. Some Christians choose to develop this muscle and some do not. You exercise it by making acts of faith both in prayer and in action. For example:
Before each Mass, you could make an act of faith in the Lord’s true presence in His people, in his ordained minister, in the Word of God, and most especially in the Eucharist.
When faced with trials, you could get a hold of your fear, and make an act of faith in God who has always brought you through troubled waters.
When faced with intimidating problems, you could try to walk forward despite the feeling that we may not do as well as David did facing his Goliath.
The only way faith grows is to be challenged. So it is OK to pray for an increase of faith. But if you ask for faith, know that this means giving the Lord permission – to use an image from the Gym – to put more weight on the bar. When he does, you have got to be willing to take a deep breath and lift. For, as St. Paul says in today’s second reading to Timothy, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and love and self-control.”
God’s unconditional love for us demands only one proper response from us, our unconditional love and service of God. So many of us Christians today believe that true and mature faith consists in our ability to obtain miracles from God. The truth that today’s gospel shows us is that mature faith consists not in how much God attends to our immediate needs but in how willing we are to serve God unconditionally, without counting the cost. And so let us join the apostles in asking the Lord to increase our faith.