27TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – OCTOBER 4, 1998 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
The scripture readings today have in common the theme of faith. Both meanings of that word are presented for our reflection. To prepare for the Gospel words about faith the size of a mustard seed, the OT reading from the prophet Habakkuk was chosen because of the last line: “The just man shall live because of his faith.” This, of course, is the statement that in the Epistle to the Romans St. Paul cited as proof of his fundamental doctrine that we are justified, not by our own works, but by faith in the free mercy of God in Jesus Christ. In all of these texts the emphasis falls on the subjective meaning of the word “faith”: the act of believing. “Increase our faith,” the apostles ask the Lord.
It is the objective meaning of faith that is the focus of Paul’s charge to Timothy in the second reading: Here we hear of “testimony to our Lord,” of “the gospel,” of “a model of sound teaching,” of “the rich deposit of faith.” You may be aware that most scholars believe that the epistles to Timothy were not written by Paul himself, but by a disciple of his perhaps a generation later. One has a sense in reading them that the process of tradition is now already underway. The revelation of the gospel is now already something that is complete, a “deposit,” which has been entrusted now to the leaders of the Church to guard, particularly against incipient forms of gnosticism that threaten to vaporize it into the equivalent then of the sort of New Age religion we hear so much of today.
Those two meanings of the word “faith” are necessary for there to be a Church. One of the oldest and most basic definitions of the Church is that it is the “congregatio fidelium,” the assembly of believers. The Church is not a natural or ethnic community which one enters by birth; “Christians are made, not born,” said Tertullian, and people are made Christians by coming to believe. The Church is a community constituted by meaning: by certain interpretations and judgments about God, the world, history, and human beings, interpretations and judgements that express and explicate what God did in Jesus Christ and continues to do in the Holy Spirit and within the Church. To take one of the earliest and most basic of those judgments, one is a member of the Church because one believes that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” To cease to believe that and what flows from that is to cease to be a member of the Church. If in any place there were no longer to be people who believe that, the Church would cease to exist there. The Church is a community of common beliefs.
This explains the long tradition which, as we can see from our second reading, begins already in the NT, of insistence on right doctrine, “sound teaching,” as Paul calls it. This emphasis, which runs counter to a widespread relativism and agnosticism in our culture, is a simple implication of the origins and inner heart of Christianity. Christianity is an historical religion. It does not rest on general principles about human nature or about God, perhaps derived from philosophical speculation or mystical experience. It claims that at a particular moment in time and at a particular place, God intervened in human history in a unique way, in one Jesus of Nazareth, a human being like us, whose words and deeds, life, death and resurrection represent the embodied revelation of who God is and who we are and may become. There is a positive, substantive, objective character to that claim, which stands “out there,” challenging us by its content, requiring of us a response of Yes or No, in just the same way as if we had been walking two thousand years ago along the dusty roads of Palestine and had encountered that same Jesus as he proclaimed the Kingdom of God and called people to repent and believe that Good News. To insist on “sound teaching,” on what was entrusted to us, is to keep alive the possibility of that same encounter today.
But if the Church is constituted, if it retains its historic identity, by guarding that “rich deposit of faith,” it obviously also is constituted by the emergence of real faith from generation to generation across the centuries. St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote that the entire solidity of the Church rests upon the firmness of its subjective faith. The Church, especially the Catholic Church, often appears to be a massively strong institution, buttressed by its complex hierarchy, institutional structures, detailed code of canon law, sacramental system, buildings, etc. But when you think about it for a minute, all these things depend upon whether people continue to believe and by how strongly and deeply they continue to believe. There once was a large, numerous and flourishing Church in northern Africa, but today Christians are a tiny minority in a largely Muslim area, and the Church has practically disappeared from the region that gave the ancient Church a Tertullian, a St. Cyprian, a St. Augustine. And there is no guarantee that something similar could not happen elsewhere, and if it did, if people ceased to be genuine believers, the Church would come to an end there.
Each generation, by its response to the communication of the gospel, determines whether there will continue to be a Church. Which means that, here in our place and now in our time, we determine whether there is a Church, whether what began in Jesus of Nazareth continues to exist, whether what he said and did continues to influence lives, our own individual lives, and the life of humanity in our age, whether the world and its historic course continues to be affected, shaped and directed by who he was and what God was doing in him.
The Renew 2000 program is a response to the call of Pope John Paul II that we not let the year 2000 pass without a spiritual celebration of the event from which our calendar marks its beginning. It should no more pass without appropriate celebration than a great anniversary in a marriage or in the life of a country. Only here what is an appropriate celebration should concentrate on what is central and basic: on the presence of God in Christ which we confess in faith, as St. Paul says today, “with the help of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.” Today’s readings can draw us back to that center: to Jesus as Lord and Christ and to the working now within us by the Spirit of the same reconciliation with God and with one another that was the meaning and substance of what God was accomplishing two thousand years ago in Jesus Christ.
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 7, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
I once read this Gospel for a Mass said for a small group of five or six nuns. When I got to the end, and read about the “unprofitable servants” who had only done their duty, I said: “The Gospel of the Lord,” and none of them said, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” I guess they didn’t like the passage!
The little parable, of course, presumes some social relations that we are not familiar with, as between the master and the servant. The servant does what he is obliged to, a servant’s tasks, whether in the field or in the house. This is the arrangement, voluntary or not, and Christ is not passing judgment on it. The point is, as one scholar puts it, that we are not to think like accountants and total all we have done as if at some point we have a credit-balance before God. That is the kind of account-balancing that is almost guaranteed to bring us to a state of spiritual anxiety. The idea of putting God in our debt is so foreign to the Gospel and to the Gospel’s God, whose initiative toward us is called gracious because it is undeserved on our part and free on God’s part, deriving from a love that always is taking the first step.
Do we not often hear people speak in the way the servant does in this little parable? A policeman or a fireman or an ordinary citizen does something extraordinary to save a person, and they get embarrassed when someone calls them heroes. “I didn’t do anything other people wouldn’t do,” one will say. “I was only doing what we’re all supposed to do,” another will reply. “I was simply doing my duty.”
One of the greatest Catholic theologians of the twentieth century was Yves Congar, a French Dominican priest. In several major works and in countless articles he contributed to the theological revival that made the Second Vatican Council possible. More than that, at the Council, he took an active role, serving on the committees that produced some of the Council’s most important texts. On the last working day of the Council, he was in St. Peter’s as the last documents were being promulgated. On the way out, several bishops congratulated and thanked him. “It’s in good part your work,” they said to him. And this prompted Congar to a reflection in the pages of his Council-diary.
“Looking at things objectively, I did a lot to prepare the Council, to work out and spread ideas that the Council has endorsed. At the Council itself, I did a lot of work…. At the beginning I was too timid. I was coming out of a long period of suspicion and difficulties. Even my spirituality led me in the direction of a certain timidity. In fact, I’ve led my whole life in the line and the spirit of John the Baptist, amicus Sponsi. I’ve always thought that we don’t have to seize anything, but to be content with what we have been given. This is, for everyone, his logike latreia,” his spiritual sacrifice, his way to holiness. So I’ve taken what has been given to me, and I’ve tried to do well what people have asked of me.”
At this point, Fr. Congar reviews the parts of half of the texts the Council produced, including most of its most important ones, on which he had worked. And at the end of his list, he writes, “Servi inutiles sumus.” These are the last lines of the little parable we heard today: “We are unprofitable servants.” Others, of course, will say that he was hardly unprofitable, that the Church has profited greatly from Fr. Congar’s work. But he himself shows the attitude Jesus commends today: Be content with where you are and what you have. Meet the concrete needs that you encounter. Be sure that by using what is given to you and by doing well what is asked of you, you will be bringing God the spiritual sacrifice he most desires from us all. All the rest is in his hands, and we can let it be God who, as we may hope, at the end will say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”