Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife and clamorous discord” (how sadly current!); “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’” Habakkuk’s cry and Jesus’ words hardly seem good news to a congregation assembled on an autumn morning to be nurtured by God’s word and to celebrate the sacrament of joy and thanksgiving. Yet hearing God’s word and memorializing Christ’s passion involve a straightforward confrontation with rampant evil and a sobering sense of the demands of discipleship.
The surprising and paradoxical quality of faith runs through the readings. In the face of destruction and suffering, Habakkuk is told that the vision has its time and “presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint,” but that the just person is one who will live because of faith. Faith here is not assenting to a series of doctrines, but hope and steadfast expectation in the face of suffering and delay. The Gospel gathers two of four somewhat unrelated sayings of Jesus (Lk. 17:1-10—on scandal, forgiveness, faith and service), which culminate in the request of the disciples, “Increase our faith.” Instead of granting this, Jesus responds with a riddle: that with faith the size of even a mustard seed (see Mk. 4:31, “the smallest of all the seeds on earth”), a person could command a mulberry (or sycamore) tree to blast off into the sea. Similar sayings appear in Matthew and Mark comparing the power of such faith to the ability to cast mountains into the sea. While the disciples asked for a quantitative increase in faith, Jesus’ example tells them of the quality of faith. Faith is not a collection of good deeds, but a quality of courage and love. The Gospel of Thomas has an interesting variation of this saying: “If two make peace with one another in the same house,” they will perform a similar miracle. In light of the horror and tragic events that have recently affected so many innocent lives, peacemaking seems to be a miracle greater than trees flying into the sea.
The parable of the “unprofitable servant” seems both harsh and unrelated to the context, especially since earlier in Luke (12:35-38), Jesus tells the story of a master who returns to find a faithful servant and seats him at table, while he prepares the servant’s meal. Today’s parable is the reverse. A servant comes in from a long day of manual labor, and the master barks out: “Prepare something for me to eat,” serve it to me and you can have some when I am finished. Worse still is the application to the disciples: “So should it be with you when you have done all that is commanded,” and then count yourselves as unprofitable servants.
The readings today would be ideal to stress the value of faith over works. A person is made just—that is, in right relation to God and neighbor by faith, and by hope in a vision that “presses on to fulfillment and will not disappoint.” Jesus’ harsh parable warns against defining religion in terms of “doing all that is commanded.” People often judge themselves and others at the bar of observing various and manifold rules. Doing all that is commanded can simply result in being unprofitable—that is, not really of any benefit to “the Lord.”
The paradox is that mustard seed “faith” can produce astounding results, while servile effort that does just what is commanded brings little benefit. This faith involves keeping the vision alive. For some this may be hope for a world where justice and peace replace the violence and destruction so recently experienced and paraded constantly before our eyes. For others the vision involves respect for life in all its forms and at all stages, while for still others it is the vision of a renewed church that, like the mustard seed, was planted at the Second Vatican Council. Those who wait in faithful trust and nurture the vision, even without doing all that is commanded, may in the end be like the earlier servant of Luke 12, whom the master feeds and serves. We call this our eucharistic gathering.