“Increase our faith.” What could have prompted the Apostles to ask for an increase of faith? Isn’t being with Jesus enough for them? Isn’t it enough to see all his miracles and hear all his marvelous teachings and parables? This Gospel follows the story of the rich man and Lazarus, which we pondered last Sunday, and an intervening discourse on scandal and forgiveness. This placement may help us understand why the Apostles were having a crisis of faith.
For the Jews, material wealth was a sign of God’s favor. So for the Apostles to hear Jesus tell a parable about a rich man who is condemned while a poor beggar is in the bosom of Abraham must have shaken them to the core. Things only got worse for them when they heard Jesus warn them against the possibility of committing scandal through regular day-to-day actions, and when he challenged them to forgive as often as they were offended. Jesus was making such radical demands! He was turning things upside down! While they believed that he was the Messiah, they were finding what he was saying to be difficult. So they asked for more faith.
Jesus’ response is peculiar. He neither grants their request nor denies it, but instead speaks about how powerful even a very small amount of faith is. The image he uses, that of commanding a near-by tree to be transplanted into the sea, is symbolic. Jesus is not telling us to give orders to trees; he is telling us that faith as small as one mustard seed would give us the ability to do what is far beyond our natural powers. Why is faith so powerful? Because it opens us to the power of God. What is impossible to us is not impossible for God.
Our difficulty is that we tend to look at problems with our natural eyes only, and the solutions often look impossible to us. Part of the increase of faith that we need is to learn to see with eyes of faith. This is what the prophet Habakkuk had to learn. Habakkuk lived at a time when Israel was under the domination of the Babylonians. He had been crying out to the Lord for help, but had received no relief. We can feel his frustration and discouragement as he pours out his sorrowful laments and questions before the Lord: “How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene.” Why, Lord, are you allowing such horrible things to happen to us? Why do you not do something to help us?
Such disturbing questions are part of our struggle in the journey of faith. People with no faith do not expect God to do anything when injustice threatens to crush them. They have no hope, for they think they have no one to turn to. At the other extreme are people with strong faith, who persevere in times of hardship, confident that God is present, working out a marvelous plan of love. Most of us are somewhere in between. We have weak faith, but we want to grow strong. When we see everything going wrong, we cry out like Habakkuk: Why, Lord? How long will you let this go on? In order to persevere in the contradiction, we must keep asking the Lord to increase our faith.
Habakkuk receives an answer from the Lord. Not immediate relief from the problems but a vision of what will come in the future. The Lord tells him to write it down and to wait for it with the certainty of faith. The prophet realizes that his expectations will not be disappointed after all. He simply has to be patient and wait in faith. When God makes a promise, we know it will be fulfilled. The promise itself is sufficient. We must not allow ourselves to be distraught by all that goes wrong; we do not need immediate solutions to every problem. Faith gives us a vision that is secure, no matter how shaky our life in this world may become. “The just one, because of his faith, shall live.”
St. Paul is a just man who lives by faith. He writes from prison to encourage Timothy to do the same. His words to Timothy remind us that we have all received a special “gift of God,” a gift which is more than enough to enable us to remain strong in faith – that is, the Holy Spirit, who is a Spirit “of power and love and self-control.” When we pray to the Lord, “Increase our faith,” we are opening ourselves to be moved more and more by the power of his Spirit. With the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, we can “stir into flame” the gift of faith. We become capable of guarding “this rich trust” and of witnessing to our faith before others.
Is my faith strong enough to believe that nothing is impossible with God? Do I get distraught when things go wrong, or do I find security in my faith? Do I allow the Spirit, who is a Spirit “of power and love and self-control,” into my life?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 15, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.