• Hb 1:2-3; 2:2-4
• Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
• 2 Tm 1:6-8, 13-14
• Lk 17:5-10
“Lord, I would seek you, calling upon you—and calling upon you is an act of believing in you.”
These words of St. Augustine, found in the opening sentences of his Confessions, express a simple, profound truth: any and all turning toward God—whether in sorrow, pain, or need—is an act of faith. And faith is always a gift. “My faith, Lord, calls upon you,” Augustine continues, “It is your gift to me. You breathed it into me by the humanity of your Son…”
The apostles, of course, had the gift of faith. They had responded to Jesus’ call to follow him; they had walked away from careers and had placed their trust in a man whose claims about himself and his mission were accompanied by startling actions and miracles. Yet the Gospels only occasionally depict Jesus commending his disciples for their faith. On the contrary, they were often rebuked for a lack of faith. When Jesus calmed the raging storm on the Sea of Galilee, which threatened to capsize the boat they were using to cross the water, he said to them, “Where is your faith?” (Lk. 8:25). And there was his very pointed question: “Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk. 18:8).
Yet Jesus did recognize and commend others for their faith, as when the paralyzed man was lowered down to him through a roof (Lk. 5:20), when the Roman centurion asked for the healing of his servant (Lk. 7:9), and when the woman with a hemorrhage touched his garment in faith (Lk. 8:48).
In fact, it almost seems as if Jesus purposefully avoided praising the faith of the disciples while praising the faith of others in their presence. And today’s Gospel reading suggests this is a fair understanding of the approach taken by Jesus regarding the faith of the apostles. The question, of course, is, “Why?” Shouldn’t a teacher and a master be always encouraging, positive, and upbeat, never negative and critical?
I suppose that if Jesus intended to write a self-help book and go on “Oprah” to talk about “self-actualization,” that might be the case. But Jesus had a particular task and a difficult mission for the apostles, and so he made demands of them that were, well, very demanding! It was clear that as Jesus and the apostles journeyed toward Jerusalem and the Cross, there was still much to be learned and understood. Quite revealingly, the apostles themselves recognized this fact. “Increase our faith,” they said to the Lord, a frank admission to their awareness of a profound lack, a pressing need on their part.
At first glace, it might appear that Jesus’ reply was unduly critical, as if he had suggested they really had almost no faith at all. But there is, I think, a positive element to the Lord’s response that is clear-eyed and, yes, encouraging. He did not say to them, “You must, at this very moment, be giants of faith!” He knew their weakness, but he also knew they did have faith—and he wanted them to understand that even a little faith goes a long way. Faith begets faith. Or, as St. Thomas Aquinas noted, “Faith does not quench desire, but inflames it.” True faith is like a small snowball poised at the top of a long slope, waiting to be pushed so it might then grow as it picks up speed.
But that snowball is always first formed and moved by God. Faith begins to roll, so to speak, when we respond in obedience to God and his gift. It is fundamental, foundational, and formative. “Men and women can accomplish no more important act in their lives than the act of faith,” wrote Pope John Paul II in Fides et ratio, “it is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth and chooses to live in that truth.” (par. 13).
Faith is life, as the prophet Habakkuk learned: “The just one, because of his faith, shall live.”
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the October 3, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)