The lament of the prophet Habakkuk, as he decries the violence, strife and clamorous discord in his day, seems to have a timelessness to it. During the hot summer, several U.S. cities saw a spike in gun violence and senseless deaths. Public discourse has grown more rancorous as marchers promote competing visions for what would make for a peaceable world.
Habakkuk wants God to intervene and put an end to the distress of his time. God’s answer to Habakkuk is an order to write down the vision clearly upon tablets so that everyone can read it readily. The prophet is reminded that although it seems long in coming, the vision of God’s peaceable reign will surely be fulfilled. He must be patient and stay faithful.
The divine directive to Habakkuk is an excellent reminder to us that no transformative change ever comes without groundedness in the vision of God’s peaceable reign. It is not enough, however, to wait patiently and persistently keep the vision alive in one’s own mind and heart. God directs the prophet to write down the vision, not only to keep it before his own eyes as a way to bolster his own flagging hope, but also to publicize it so that it boosts communal faith and committed action.
It is precisely when things seem at their worst that the prophet is called to articulate the vision. In the struggle for civil rights in the United States, it was when the backlash against Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for an end to racism was most intense that he publicly proclaimed his dream for equality and freedom for all. Likewise, it is from prison, where Paul is suffering great hardship, that he writes the vision for Timothy, reminding him that God has given him the power of love, self-control and strength. By stirring this gift into flame, he can overcome any fear or cowardice in giving testimony to the Gospel.
Not unlike Habakkuk, the disciples in today’s Gospel want Jesus to fix things by giving them more faith. Jesus reassures them that they already have faith enough to transform what seems utterly immovable. A mulberry tree has a deep and extensive root system and is extremely difficult to uproot and replant. It is an apt image for deep-rooted systems of injustice and violence. A mustard seed, by contrast, is tiny, but the plant spreads like wildfire and is also nearly impossible to eradicate. Disciples who feel puny in the face of massive systems of injustice have all they need to do the transformative work toward fulfillment of Jesus’ vision of the reign of God. Jesus encourages them by saying not only that they have all the faith they need, but that it is by their persistent, day-in, day-out service that the transformation of seemingly intractable systems comes about. Moreover, just as fieldwork and table service were simply what was required of a slave in Jesus’ time, so faithful service on behalf of the Gospel is what is expected of disciples. One way in which the analogy limps, however, is that discipleship is a freely chosen service, not an imposed servility embedded in an unjust system.
The final verse of today’s Gospel asserts not that faithful servants are “unprofitable” (NAB), “worthless” (NRSV) or “useless” (NJB), as some translations render the Greek achreioi. Rather, the word means literally that they are “without need.” Proclaiming the empowering vision of God’s reign and rendering faithful service to bring it about satisfies every want and need of disciples.