The Faithful and Unfaithful Disciple, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), August 8, 2004

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Nineteenth Sunday in OT, Year C
August 8, 2004
Wis 18:6-9; Heb 11:1-2, 8-19; Lk 12:32-48

1) Once in St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus asked aloud the harrowing question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8). That question is ever present and ever personal. The Lord says in today’s Gospel that the “Son of Man is coming an an unexpected hour.” When he comes, he will judge us on the basis of our faith “working through love” (Gal 5:6). If the Lord were to come right now, what faith would he find? Would he be able to say to you or to me, “Great is your faith!,” like he said to the Syro-Phoenician woman in the Gospel (Mt 15:28)? Or would he say, “O you of little faith?” (Mt 6:30; 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, 17:20). Would he say about all of us together, “You are the ones who have stood by me faithfully in my trials” (Lk 22:28-29) or, rather, “This is a faithless and perverse generation” (Mt 17:17)? The Son of Man is indeed coming and what he wants to find — what he hopes to find — is FAITH. In today’s Gospel, Jesus describes both the FAITHFUL and the UNFAITHFUL way a person prepares for his coming.

2) Jesus says that the person with faith will be alert for the manifestation of Christ’s presence. He will not be afraid, but trust in the Father’s promise of a kingdom. For that reason, he will be working to build up an “unfailing treasure in heaven” and have his heart always “lifted up to the Lord,” who is his treasure. The lamp of his heart will remain burning in love. He will be “dressed for action,” ready to respond immediately to the Lord whenever he makes his presence felt and knocks on the door of his life. He will guard his heart, lest any intruders break in. He will be always found “at work,” being a trustworthy steward of the Lord’s gifts. This faithful disciple will be acting in the Lord’s supposed absence just as he would if the Lord were present. Jesus promises that all such servants will be “blessed.”

3) The unfaithful servant, on the other hand, will convince himself that the Lord is “delayed in coming” and that he can therefore do whatever he wants in the meantime. He will think he can get away with hurting others, with getting drunk and living for his pleasures alone. He will think he’ll always have time to change his behavior “later,” to tidy things up, to get his act together before he has to render an accounting. Such a steward is, plainly, unfaithful, just as unfaithful as a husband or wife would be if they cheated on a spouse in that spouse’s absence. Eventually that unfaithful servant will be caught off-guard, not because the Master wants to ambush him or catch him “red-handed,” but because the more one gets used to thinking the return won’t occur today, the less ready one will be on that day the master does come.

4) Our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of what is hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.” The faithful person is one who is SURE that the promises made by the Lord will be fulfilled (cf: Lk 1:45). The faithful person is one who is ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED in the reality of a world that extends far beyond the visible, the reality where the Invisible God lives, where heaven is, where grace abides. When confronted with a choice between the tangible, visible, here-and-now material world, and the world of God and trust in his promises, the faithful man or woman always chooses God.

5) The Bible does not often use definitions, as the Letter to the Hebrews does here. It most often describes truths by illustration (like Jesus does by his use of parables). That’s why the Letter to the Hebrews immediately turns to those who show us what true faith is. We see it embodied in Abraham, who has always been called “our father in faith.” Abraham was so sure in the Lord’s promises, so convinced in the reality of who God is and therefore in the content of what God promised him, that, at 75 years old, he packed up his entire livelihood and moved to a far away land that God had vowed to show him eventually. Ten years later, when God promised him a son, even those he was 85 and his wife 91 and they had not been able to conceive a child on their own, he believed again. Thirteen years after that, when it seemed to him that God wanted him to sacrifice that son, Isaac, through whom he was going to become the “father of many nations,” Abraham trusted in God and was prepared to carry out that oblation. These episodes show us what truth faith is. It is a TRUST in God above all other things and, therefore, a trust in WHAT GOD SAYS as a result of a trust in God. To use theological terms, there is first an “act of faith,” by which we trust in a person, and then a belief in some “content” on the basis of the trust in the person who affirms it.

6) We see the same truths about faith illustrated in the life of Mary, our “mother in faith.” She trusted in God even when he told her she would conceive the Son of God in her womb without the help of a man. Because of her trust in God, she trusted in what he said. That is why her cousin, Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, was able to call her blessed, for “believing that what the Lord had promised to her would be fulfilled” (Lk 1:45). She trusted all the way through the Cross, that God the Father knew what he was doing when she witnessed her own Son being mangled and murdered by his creatures. Because of her trust in God, she said, “Amen!,” “Fiat!” to all that God asked of her, even though it might have made little sense to her or anyone else prior to the resurrection. Jesus summarized his praise for her greatest merit — her attentive and obedient faith — by saying, about her and those who imitate her, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Lk 8:21; 11:28). She heard, she believed, and she obeyed with loving trust.

7) As Catholics, the Lord wishes us to follow the example of Abraham and Mary, respectively our “father” and “mother” in the faith. The Lord calls us to trust in Him as they did, and to trust in what he has said to us, because of our trust in God. The “act of faith” for a Catholic is a trust in God the Father, who sent His Son to take on our nature, live and die for us to save us for us sins, who founded a Church on Peter and the Apostles and promised with the Father to send the Holy Spirit to guide that Church “into all truth” (Jn 16:13) and to prevent that Church from ever making a mistake — even ONCE — in something relative to what we need to believe (faith) or do (morals) to please God and enter into the fullness of his life in this world or in the next. That’s quite a sentence! But it’s an important one. We believe in what the Church teaches definitively about faith and morals not because we think a particular pope is smarter or holier than we are, but because we believe and trust in God who founded the Church and still guides her. A Catholic act of faith is one that accepts everything that God teaches us — directly or through the Church he founded — on account of our trust in God. Why do we believe in the reality of Jesus’ body and blood in the Eucharist? Because we trust in Jesus, who said it was his flesh and blood (cf. Jn 6:41-66), who has the “words of eternal life.” We believe in what he said, because we believe in Him. Like Peter, we say, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God (Jn 6:68). Why do we believe in the inspiration of Sacred Scripture? Because we believe in the Church Jesus founded and through which he has worked countless miracles in favor of its divine constitution, which put the books together and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, assures us of their inspiration.

8 ) If Jesus were to come right now, would he find this type of faith in the world, in his Church, in you and in me? He would certainly find it in a great many of his followers, thanks be to God, who trust in God with all their mind, heart, soul and strength and order their lives in accordance with this living faith. These are the people like Abraham and Mary, like so many saints and martyrs and countless people “hidden in God,” who would in small things and large, readily do whatever the Lord asked simply because he asked it, even to the point of monumental inconveniences, suffering or death. These are the people who behave as if the Lord is always present, because the KNOW WITH THE ASSURANCE OF FAITH THAT HE IS, and they are vigilant to recognize his presence in prayer, in the Eucharist, in their families, in their work, in the poor, in the various circumstances of the day.

9) One great litmus test to determine if we have the type of true trust in God that constitutes the Catholic act of faith is to see whether we have true faith in God when the “going gets tough,” when the teaching of the Church conflicts with the popular notions of the world. In these areas made controversial by the modern world, do we trust in God working through the Church he founded to proclaim the truth in every age, or do we trust more in ourselves and in human opinions? Let’s take a few controversial issues and see:

a) Marriage as the indissoluble union of a man and a woman — Do we trust in Jesus enough to have true faith in his words that “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:11)? Do we trust in Jesus enough to recognize that “In the beginning God made them male and female… For this reason a man leaves his mother and father and clings to his wife” (Mt 19:4-5) rather than another person of the same sex? Or do we believe that the God-man could be wrong on the matter of marriage or that we, not God, should determine what marriage is?

b) The inability to ordain women to the priesthood — Do we trust that Jesus knew what he was doing in choosing to ordain only men and that he had a good reason for it, or do we think that he made a mistake? Do we believe that he might not have thought it out well, or have given into peer pressure not to ordain women, or worse, that he really might have shared his comtemporaries’ cultural depreciation of women?

c) In-vitro fertilization, embryonic stem-cell research, cloning and abortion — Do we trust in God’s way of bringing new life into the world — through the loving conjugal act of husband and wife — or do with think that life should be able to be manufactured in a laboratory? Do we believe that a child’s life should be reverenced as the image and likeness of God, or do we believe that the child be able to be destroyed by the choice of a parent in the womb or killed to harvest cells or organs for the benefit of others? Do we believe in God as the Lord of Life or in ourselves?

d) Euthanasia — Do we believe that the only “good death” is death according to God’s plan, or do we believe that we know better than God when a life on this earth should end? Do we believe that “God’s mercy endures forever” or that we are more merciful and should allow “mercy killing?”

e) The salvific competence of the Church — Do we trust that God knew what he was doing in founding the Church as he did on sinful men like Peter and the apostles (and their successors) and telling them “whoever hears you, hears me” (Lk 10:16)? Do we believe that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church to “all truth,” or do we believe that the Church Christ founded can err in something relevant to faith or morals? Do we trust in our own opinions more than we do in the clear doctrinal teaching of the Church?

10) True Catholic faith means trusting in God even when we don’t understand the reasons why the Church he founded might teach what it does. The person modern literature calls a “cafeteria Catholic,” one who picks and chooses which Catholic teachings with which to agree, likely does not have true faith at all. The patron saint of teachers and students, St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), asked in his famous Summa Theologiae whether someone who rejects certain doctrines taught by the Church definitively on faith and morals has Catholic faith in believing the doctrines with which he agrees? St. Thomas responded that the person “doesn’t hold the other articles of faith, about which he does not err, in the same way as one of the faithful does, namely by adhering simply to the Divine Truth [God]; but he holds the things that are of faith by his own will and judgment…. If, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will.…It is clear that such a [person] with regard to one article has no faith in the other articles, but only a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will” (ST II-II,5,3). In other words, if one wants to say that the Church that Jesus founded could be in error in teaching definitively on the immorality of “therapeutic cloning,” on what grounds would one believe that the Church would be right in proclaiming the immorality of torture, or abortion, or even in proclaiming the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity? If he doesn’t think the Church has the authority to teach definitively on the immorality of artificial contraception, for example, on what grounds does he think she can teach about Mary’s Immaculate Conception? It goes without saying that a faithful Catholic may have QUESTIONS about certain teachings, but the questions will be made from the point of view of “faith seeking understanding” (St. Anselm); one still believes, even though one doesn’t understand a particular teaching fully. “1000 QUESTIONS do not constitute a single DOUBT,” Cardinal Newman said in the 19th century. Once someone starts to doubt the truth of a particular teaching of Christ or the Church he founded, and think that Christ or the Church is wrong, that person is making himself the source of truth rather than God.

11) It’s clear in the examples of Abraham and Mary that God never promised that faith in Him would be easy. After all, for us Christians, we are called to believe that someone who looked similar to other Jewish men 2000 years ago was really the eternal son of God, born of a virgin by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, rose from the dead three days after a bloody, public execution and ascended into heaven, from which he continues to say “follow me!” Compared to this, believing what the Church he founded teaches about a particular moral or doctrinal issue is a piece of cake! Our faith IS challenging, because we are called in faith, like Abraham, to leave our own comfortable homeland and be led by God to a place he’ll show us, often being asked to sacrifice what may be dear to us and to believe in promises that exceed our human imagination. But we, like Abraham, do this “desiring a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (second reading). This faith is the only path to the eternal promised land.

12) “When the Lord comes, will he find faith on earth?” The Lord promised that when he comes, if he finds his servants “watchful and ready” he would “have them sit down to eat and … come to serve them.” We have come here today out of faith, with our lamps burning for the Lord’s coming, placing all our treasure in him. The Lord does not let this faith go unrewarded. He comes to us now without delay, “girds himself with an apron” as he did during the Last Supper, and feeds us with the food of everlasting life.