Hb 1:2-3; 2:2-4 • 2 Tm 1:6-8,13-14 • Lk 17:5-10
A person cannot be called faithful until his or her faith is tested and the test is passed. Many of us have had moments of deep despair, moments when our world seems to be coming apart. These moments come from a variety of human experiences: being fired from a job, severe financial crisis, making a humiliating mistake, the abandonment of a close friend, divorce, the knowledge that a loved one — or even ourselves — has a serious illness, or the death of a loved one. These crises and others, all of them painful and potentially life changing, can drive us into the pit of despair, and often we fear we shall never survive the pain.
When Habakkuk wrote, the residents of Jerusalem were in the worst despair possible staring at the city’s downfall and their destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. In the middle of the siege on Jerusalem, the people, in the depths of their despair, began to wonder if God cared for them anymore, and, even if He did care, was He capable of doing anything about their circumstances? Habakkuk sets these very human thoughts in writing, and many of us, in our own frustration and despair, have shared the same central question: How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene.
Many people no longer active in their faith point to moments in their lives in which they felt utterly abandoned themselves. They doubted God’s concern if not His very existence and gave in to despair and subsequent cynicism, leaving the faith. Habakkuk is not as fatalistic. Habakkuk believes and preaches God’s ultimate victory: The just man, because of his faith, shall live. Our continuing challenge is not to give up on God.
For those of us who have suffered these terrible moments, St. Paul stands before us as both patron and example. Paul wrote to Timothy from prison knowing that he, Paul, was to be executed very soon. Paul had been imprisoned once before, house arrest actually, but the first time, believers sought Paul out and never left him alone in his confinement. Paul’s current imprisonment is different however. In July of A.D. 64, during the reign of the emperor Nero, half of Rome was destroyed by fire. Quite possibly Nero had set the fire himself in order to be able to rebuild the city according to his liking. The populace, believing Nero was guilty, was furious and pointing fingers, so Nero first tried to blame the fire on the Jews of Rome. No one believed the Jews would do such a thing, so Nero then blamed the strange and not well understood Christians. Persecution thus began. In this environment Paul was arrested, thrown in a dungeon and chained. Christians, fearing for their lives, abandoned Paul and fled.
Timothy, a young pastor put in place by Paul, is so loved by Paul that he refers to Timothy as his son. The last known letter of Paul’s life, Second Timothy, was written to Timothy not in the despair of one soon to be executed, rather it is a rousing battle cry to keep the faith even when it makes no sense to do so.
Today we are being challenged to stay faithful even when events force us to doubt God, doubt God’s concern, and perhaps even doubt God’s very existence. Our cry could also be like that of the apostles in our Gospel today, “Increase our faith!”
Last week, we heard the story of Lazarus and the rich man and of Jesus’ call to care for the poor. In the four verses preceding our passage today Jesus told his apostles that while the Pharisees held people to a high standard of belief and action, Jesus holds His followers to a higher standard. The apostles despaired of ever being able to be as good as Jesus would have us be. So, “Increase our faith!” they cried. Make it possible for us.
We, too, may find being a Christian impossible at times. Life can be very painful. Sometimes the pain is from the despair of human suffering. Sometimes the despair is from the demands of Jesus to “be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect.”
Habakkuk tells us to believe in the vision of a just God and be patient. God will come. Paul, awaiting execution for living out the commands of Jesus, tells his most loved friend Timothy, “Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.”
Do not give in to despair. We must see ourselves as servants who do their duty, believing in God and keeping to His ways, leaving despair behind.
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.