27th Sunday Ordinary Time 2019

Reflection 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time October 6 20 1 9
• Today’s Gospel reading is one of the most difficult I have ever had to reflect on. It seems to be in two disconnected parts.
• The first part is the Apostles asking Jesus to increase their faith. The second part is Jesus telling them to say they are “worthless slaves”.
• What are we to make of this?
• Let’s start with faith. The apostles’ request to increase their faith comes after the parable we heard last week about Lazarus and the rich man. After Jesus tells this parable he admonishes the Apostles about temptations and then tells them to forgive those who sin against them, even as often as 7 times a day.
• After hearing Jesus tell them all these things, the apostles ask Jesus how to increase their faith.
• It is not altogether clear what the object of their faith is – faith in what? But it most probably has to do with believing in the things Jesus has talked about:
▪ believing that there is an after-life and that the things you do in this life will make a difference in the after-life;
▪ believing that you should resist temptation to do things that are wrong;
▪ believing that forgiveness is better than recrimination.
• Jesus responds to the Apostles’ request with the now well-known comment about how a little faith (the size of a mustard seed) is capable of moving mulberry trees.
• This is an interesting application of faith in landscaping and reminds me of the time I decided to remove the stump of a spruce tree that I had had cut down. Spruces have incredibly deep and strong roots. It took me almost a week, but I persevered and eventually got it out.
• Faith requires you to keep at something even when it starts to seem hopeless, when uncertainty mounts and you wonder where things are going.
• It requires a focus on what you want to accomplish or happen. It can be a little irrational. But in the end, if you keep the faith, things turn out.
• Faith also comes up in the first reading from Habakkuk. It begins with a desperate plea: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?”
• This resonates with our own time. The daily news, particularly on the global front, is discouraging: climate change and forest fires, migrants fleeing conflict and oppression, demonstrations and protests, the rise of dictatorships and the decline of democracy.
• And that’s just the big picture. What about all the difficulties we encounter in our individual lives? These are much more immediate and pressing: figuring out what to do when you lose your job; putting up with a noisy neighbour; juggling too many demands at work; wrestling with illness. The list goes on.
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• Habakkuk was a prophet at the beginning of the Babylonian conquest and captivity of the Israelites. His plea for help is about throwing off the Babylonian oppressors.
• The Lord’s answer is to be patient and wait for “the vision for the appointed time” to materialize. In other words, have faith that God will answer your plea for help.
• Historians say the Israelites had to wait about 70 years for the fall of the Babylonian empire and their return to Israel. It did happen eventually and the faithfulness of the Israelites is what kept their nation together.
• This then might be the connection to Jesus’s comment about slavery in the Gospel. Is it echoing the slavery the Israelites endured at the hands of the Babylonians?
• Or is it simply saying something about the commitment the Apostles must show towards God and to what they “ought to have done”?
• Many, indeed perhaps most, versions of the Bible translate this word as “servant” in the passage we have just heard from Luke. “Servant” has a much softer, more civilized tone to the modern ear.
• A servant is basically an employee, someone hired to do a job and who has a choice about doing it.
• Slavery is something abominable, that we assume has been outlawed the world over.
• The easy way out of this would be to simply read “slave” as “servant”. But our Lectionary uses “slave” and there is little question that Jesus used a word that signified that rather than something else.
• Slavery was common in Jesus’s time. It was a generally accepted part of the world he lived in.
• So instead, some biblical scholars suggest trying to understand what was embedded in the concept in Jesus’s time and also consider how other parts of the New Testament refer to our relationship with God using other ideas, notably “children”, “heirs” and “friends”.
• So, how does “slave” fit with these?
• It doesn’t if you understand slavery as an oppressive relationship of subjugation and exploitation. But this does not necessarily characterize all these relationships in Jesus’s time.
• Think of Joseph in the Old Testament whose brothers sold him into slavery. He was eventually sold to Potiphor, the Egyptian Pharaoh’s captain of the guard and ended up rising to a position of importance in Egypt, in part through service to his master, Potiphor.
• One aspect of slavery is devotion to someone. Doing what they ask without question. Or, to repeat Jesus’s words from the Gospel, doing what was commanded, what ought to be done.
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• And why might you do this? Well, maybe faith has something to do with it. You believe in the God who commands you to be good, to love your neighbour, to forgive those who offend you.
• These things do not depend on some rational calculus. They are simply norms we follow. Just as a slave follows the master’s orders.
• And the notions of our relationship with God in terms of being children, heirs and friends are also not far removed from this unswerving devotion.
• Why are children expected to obey their parents? Why does an heir inherit? What explains friendship?
• These are relationships that just are. Children do not choose their parents. Heirs do nothing to obtain their inheritance. True friendship is unwavering.
• It is difficult to compare these things to slavery, but think of it as a different kind of slavery, one that is about unswerving commitment to God and the Good News, one that is build on unshakable faith.