True faith and faithfulness

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19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: August 8, 2010
Wis 18:6-9; Ps 33:1, 12, 18-22; Heb 11:1-2, 8-19; Luke 12:35-40

A couple weeks ago, I saw, in one of the comic strips in the paper, a scene that we have seen played out many times. In this particular case, it was a group of toys talking to each other while the child, the little girl, who owned them was away. They were having a conversation about her: more precisely, one of the toys was trying to convince the others to launch a revolution against their owner. And after a while, in this conversation, the one who was talking noticed that the other toys had become silent, and wondered why they were no longer responding. And then that toy realized what was going on, and said, “She’s standing right behind me, isn’t she.” And indeed she was.

We’ve seen that same sort of scene play out in many comedy television shows or movies, and it may well be that many here have even experienced it themselves—found that someone has walked into the room behind them and caught them by surprise, saying something they didn’t want that person to hear.

I bring up this picture because I want to suggest this as a picture of faith. Not a perfect picture of faith, but at least one to get us started. For what is it that is going on in these situations? We have a group of people. Something changes. Some of them see something that the others do not. And those who see change their actions. Indeed, the change in their actions becomes evidence to the others of what it is that they see.

This is a good place to start, especially in comparison to some of the other definitions and ideas of faith that we sometimes hear in the culture around us.

  • For how many times do we hear the attitude that faith is a sort of optimism? Simply a belief, upon no basis, that something good will happen in the future?
  • Or how often do we hear the opinion that faith is a sort of wish-fulfillment?—which we might call the Jiminy Cricket idea of faith, as we recall that song that he sang to Pinocchio: “When you wish upon a star / Makes no difference who you are / Anything your heart desires/ Will come to you.” And if we follow through on that idea, then we might, Well, if what your heart desires is not coming to you, you just must not be wishing hard enough. And so, in that idea of faith, you just need to believe harder. Believe harder, harder, harder! Is it happening yet? Indeed, is that what we see in the Scriptures and the lives of the saints? It isn’t.
  • Nor is faith a third idea we could pick out, which we might call the White Queen definition of faith. For this comes in the book Alice Through the Looking Glass, when Alice has just asserted to her, “One can’t believe impossible things.” And the Queen replies, “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” And how many people in our culture think that faith means believing impossible things? Some of them, therefore, rejecting faith; others doing their best to believe things they think are impossible.

None of these are the pictures of faith that we hear in the Scriptures. Instead, one word that we hear in our prayers today and throughout our Scripture readings that captures what is going on in faith is the word “promise.” The Lord has made a promise, and faith is to believe him—to believe that he is one who can carry out his promise, and that he will, no matter what is going on right now.

Now I want to sketch this out as four quick phases of what is going on in faith. And the first thing to note is that faith is actually not the first of those phases; it is the second. The Church has long taught that “faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue that is infused—or poured into us—by him.” [CCC 153] And so it cannot be the first of the phases.

What then is the first phase? The first phase is that God reveals himself. He reveals himself as, among other things, faithful; as one who keeps his word and does not change. Also as one who is all-powerful; who can do all things, and nothing can stop him. In addition to revealing himself, he also reveals his will; what it is that he wants us to do, what it is that he will do. And among the things that he reveals in his will are the promises that he makes to us, of what he will do for us in the future, if we will follow the path that he lays out for us now. He reveals these things through his Word and through his deeds; and all of these are passed down to us through the Sacred Scripture, through the Church’s teaching, and also in the lives of the saints, both those that came before us and those that are living around us right now. [cf. Dei Verbum, 2 & 4]

In response, then, to our Lord’s revelation of himself and his will—especially himself as faithful—comes the second phase, which is our response. And our response is faith—which has been defined for us as “full submission of… intellect and will to God who reveals.” [CCC 154] Faith is an act. Faith, indeed is a free act; not something that is automatic; not something we are forced to do; but something we freely choose to do. We choose to believe in the promise that God gives us, and in himself as promise-maker. [CCC 154-155, 160]

Now, the Catechism makes a distinction here [CCC 150] between this faith in God and a similar faith that we place in other people. Because it recognizes that we are asked for a faith in God that whole and absolute; and it recognizes that to place that kind of faith in another person would be “futile and false.” Why is that? Perhaps they are not trustworthy. But even if they are trustworthy, they are not all-powerful; they might make us a promise and full intend to carry it out, but some outside circumstances come in the way and block them. So we cannot place absolute faith in another person. But we can put absolute faith in God, because he is absolutely trustworthy and nothing can stop him from carrying out his promises.

Now, as we consider more of what this faith is, we notice how it relates to our reason. It is not contrary to reason; it is not contrary to knowledge; but it is different. For, if our knowledge assesses the truth of a statement, weighs it, and simply says, “Yes, it’s true, I know this firmly,” or, “It might be true, I’m not sure yet, I need to know a little more,” or, “No, it’s false”—this is how our knowledge can work. But when it comes to faith, we are not simply assessing the truth of a statement. We are assessing the trustworthiness of God; indeed, we are deciding whether we will trust him or not. This is not contrary to reason. It has nothing to do with believing what is impossible. But nevertheless it goes beyond reason. It engages not only our intellect but also our will, as we must decide, “Am I going to believe in God? Do I find him trustworthy? Do I find him trustworthy enough that I am willing to live in the ways that he is asking?”

Something else about faith that we should notice is that we do, most definitely, want to learn better to know God and what he promises. Surely all of us know friends or family, or others we have heard of, who have done crazy things that they think are on the basis of faith. But it is not something crazy that we are trying to do here. As St. Paul wrote [2 Tim 1:12]: “I know him in whom I have believed and am confident that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me until that day.” And so it is that faith seeks understanding; seeks to understand and know God better; seeks to understand and know, really, the promises that he has made to us and the path that he has laid out for us. Faith seeks to understand.

The first phase is God revealing himself as faithful. The second is our response of complete faith in him. The third is the results in the lives of those who believe. And this is where our second reading is amazing. The second reading is several verses taken from the middle of the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 11. And that entire chapter is worth meditating upon; you might want to do it later on today, after Mass, with your whole family. As you read through this entire hall of the heroes of faith of the Old Testament. We hear today only about Abraham; others in this hall are Abel, Enoch, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses; and eventually the writer simply starts listing them, because the hall is so great and he needs to move on to other things in his letter.

But what is it that we see in their lives? We don’t see that only good things happen to them in their earthly lives. We don’t see that they got everything they wished for. Instead, as we hear in our reading, some of things that were promised to them never happened during their earthly lives. And by the end of the chapter the author is listing off whole lists of terrible things that have happened to these people of faith. We’re a long way from Jiminy Cricket.

But instead, then, what is the third phase, that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews points out to us, that happens in the lives of these heroes of faith? It is that there is enkindled in them, in the way they live, in who they are at every moment, a faithfulness. A faithfulness rather like God’s faithfulness that inspired their faith; and that is now lived out in them.

And so, in our reading today, we hear about Abraham and Sarah’s faithfulness; how they were ready to move away from the home they knew, and to live in the land that was promised to them as strangers, trusting in the promise that God made to them. We hear how they were willing to trust God with relationship to their sexuality and their family; in this case, that they could conceive a son, Isaac, at an old age far beyond the age at which anyone can bear children. We see that they were ready to obey. We see that their faith became a channel through which God could give them blessings. But, most of all, we see wrought in them an authenticity, a love, a truth, and a firmness in how they lived; all the time, no matter where they were, no matter who was watching.

And that is the way in which that scene from the comic strip falls short. Because the group of toys in the circle, if they had been truly faithful, would not have been plotting revolution against their mistress while she was not there; they would have been faithful, as Jesus asks us, all the time, and not only when she walked in, behind the one who was speaking.

And so we come to the fourth phase. What is the fourth phase? When God’s revelation of his faithfulness leads to faith and leads to faithfulness in the one who believes? One result in the future will be the reward that was promised. But there is another result even now. And that is a result in those who are looking in on their lives. The Letter to the Hebrews was written in order to encourage people to live out their faith; and it gave these examples of faithfulness in order to encourage them in their time and us in ours. As we see examples of faith and faithfulness in others, it causes faith and faithfulness to take root in us and to be strengthened in our lives. For we look at them and we see what this wrought in them, and the hard decisions they made contrary to the world around them; and it causes this to take root in us.

We can then turn that around and say: if faith in this way takes root in us and we are challenged to live faithfully in our lives, in every moment; what will be the results in people who look at us? For we know that the people who are closest to us—our co-workers, family, spouses, and, yes, especially children and grandchildren—see all the little choices that we make. They know that those choices may be hard to make; they also know when we choose not to live in accordance with our faith, because it would be too hard. If we live faithfully, they will see our faithfulness, and it will become a blessing to them. If they see that we do not live faithfully, that we live hypocritically, then this will become a sort of curse in them, that undercuts their faith now and in the future.

Thus our faith and faithfulness will bear fruit now in those around us; and it will bear fruit for us in the future. For one day, as Jesus tells us, the master will come; one day we will arrive in that heavenly city; one day the promises made by our faithful God will come true. And one day we can hear from his lips [Matt 25:21]: “Well done, my good and faithful servant… you were faithful in small matters… Come, share in your master’s joy.”

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Published in: on August 8, 2010 at 2:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

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