An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 17:5-10, October 6, 2013
IN THE UNITED STATES, the World Trade Center, a 110-floor twin towers in lower Manhattan, New York, was symbolic of America’s economic prosperity, while the Pentagon in Washington stands to remind us of her military might. Twelve years ago, on September 11, 2001 to be exact, no sooner had people warmed their seats than two commercial planes, hijacked by terrorists, brought down the twin towers without warning, and another wrecked havoc on the Pentagon. The damage, in terms of lives, not to mention property and their impact on the American psyche, was so enormous that the death toll was, in the words of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, “more than we can bear.” A political analyst may look at these horrific attacks in terms of imperialism and hegemony, but for a man of religion, they raise questions about God’s power and his government of the world. Why does he permit such acts of senseless terrorism? Why does he let injustice and violence run their course?
The first reading (Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4) raises almost the same questions. At the time of Habakkuk, the Chaldeans have replaced the Assyrians as the masters of the ancient Near East in the early 6th century BC. There was turmoil in both the international scene and in the land Judah which was rife with confusion, disorder, intrigues and idolatry. Seeing the violation of human rights in the anarchic regime, while God seemed to be unmoved by the disorder, the prophet questioned the ways of God, complaining why he, who was supposed to save his people, tolerated the injustices against the innocent: “How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’, but you do not intervene” (Hab 1:2). One is, of course, reminded of the questions of the skeptic on the problem of evil in theodicy: Why does God not prevent evil in the world? Is he not capable of it? If he is and he does not, can he still be a holy and just God? Is he not malevolent? If he is not able to prevent it and will not, is he powerless and resentful? But if he is and he will, why does he let terrorism and injustice have their way?
Though such questions may make sense in philosophical gymnastics, they are foreign to the Scriptures. If anything, it would seem that the problem does not lie with God. On the contrary, it seems to be a question of man’s attitude toward God in the face of the mystery of evil, and its concrete manifestations in history---as in the assault on the American nation. For a man of religion, one’s attitude toward God in the face of negative experiences in the world is one of faith. This is the message of both the 1st Reading and the Gospel, although the meaning of the word is not identical in both instances. In the 1st Reading (Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4), in his response to the questions that the prophet raised, God said that even in the perilous and confusing times, one must trust and hope in him, confident the future belongs to him. And he who is just, because of his faith, shall live (Hab 2:4). Here faith means fidelity and steadfastness. In the Gospel (Luke 17:5-10), the saying about faith is placed in two contexts that have to do with discipleship. On the one hand, there is the larger context which is the journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), which would have been difficult for the disciples to comprehend, for a crucified Messiah would have been opaque to their understanding. Consequently, if in today’s Gospel they asked Jesus to increase their faith (Luke 17:5), it could signify the lack of commitment on their part to follow the Lord in his journey to the cross.
On the other hand, there is the immediate context, namely, scandals and wrongdoings that inevitably arise in the community (Luke 17:1). In Luke’s theology, the community that Jesus intended to establish is one that loves, cares and forgives. Experience shows, however, that in the Church and in our faith communities, there are people who scandalize, are unrepentant and unforgiving. There are some who serve as stumbling blocks to others (Luke 17:1-4). Considering the havoc they create in the community even to the point of engendering factions and divisions, one wonders why God allows such problems and people to be part of his very own community. If Jesus came to defeat the powers of Satan and to establish the reign in the community, why does he not remove those community members who stifle the growth of the Kingdom? Does he not care about what happens to the communities and movements of faith that are, for example, placed in the hands of leaders who set bad examples to others, scandalizing even the most innocent members? Why does he not place millstone around their necks (cf Luke 17:2)?
But it is precisely in the face of such realities within the community that faith is necessary so that Jesus’ followers can grasp the divine wisdom. Faith is the disciples’ response to God’s call to belong to the community of love. In this context, faith means an act of abandonment and trust in God. It means putting everything in the hands of God, knowing that, despite what appears to be human foolishness, the wisdom of God will prevail. If the disciples have this kind of faith—authentic faith—not matter how small, they can certainly achieve great things, and transform the community into one that cares for the spiritual and material needs of its members. It is in this sense that Jesus used the exaggerated image of the power of faith so his teaching can sink well into the mind of his listeners: such faith can uproot the mulberry tree! In other words, many miracles can happen in a community whose members have that kind of trust in what God can accomplish. If human wisdom were left to itself, many people would probably think and suggest that those who are unforgiving, those who are trouble makers and those who are scandal-causing members of the Church should be excommunicated and written off! But human wisdom is folly before God. The wisdom of God dictates that forgiveness, tolerance and sufferings are necessary for the transformation of the community. And to believe in that wisdom obviously requires much faith. Hence the petition of the disciples: “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).
With this in mind, a disciple cannot therefore claim that when, for instance, a tragedy strikes the community, as in the despicable assault of the twin towers in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington, God has abandoned his people or does not care about them. One cannot question the ways of God. What happens to the community may not make sense to human wisdom, and human wisdom may even appear to present better solutions to solve the problems that the community encounters. But as a hearer of the Word, the disciple remains faithful to God and to his Word, even when the Word does appear not to make sense at all. Hence the response to the 1st Reading: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Whatever evil may befall on the community, one’s faith in Jesus assures the disciple that God’s Word will ultimately emerge triumphant, because he knows that God is faithful to those who believe in him, and he cannot be deceived nor can deceive. All that he needs when the going gets tough is to ask the Lord to increase his faith so it could accomplish miracles!