Wednesday, October 6, 2010

10-03-2010: 27th Sunday Ordinary Time (C)

Twenty Seventh Sunday Ordinary Time
Habakkuk 1:2-3;2:2-4 / Psalm 95 / 2 Timothy 1:6-8,13-14 / Luke 17:5-10
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently conducted a survey of some 3,400 Americans asking questions about the Bible and world religions; only half answered the questions correctly. Catholics fared worse than most. Mormons and atheists were the most knowledgeable. Matter of fact the president of American Atheists, Dave Silverman, stated that one comes to atheism as a result of knowledge not from a lack of it. When asked how are atheists made? Mr. Silverman replied, just give them a Bible.

Reading today’s gospel parable from that very same Bible, one tends to see Mr. Silverman’s point. In the parable Jesus tells his disciples that, if they had faith, they could successfully command a tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. Huh?

Is this the purpose of faith? Is it a test of power, equivalent to magic - and just as arbitrary? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to test such power by exercising it over malignant tumors or breaking the cycle of poverty?

Never having seen a mustard seed I’m assuming it must be really, really small. And since I’ve never been successful at transplanting mulberry trees by command alone – I can only conclude that my faith must be infinitesimal, if I indeed have any at all. Yet, since I don’t know anyone else who has succeeded in uprooting trees by verbal command, I might conclude that an awful lot of us are in the same boat.

Scholars tell us that the original parable, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, was altered by Luke – but no one is certain why. Matthew reads: ”If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to the mountain, Move, and it would move.” Maybe Luke felt that moving a mountain was a bit much and so lowered the bar, settling for the tree.

Then again, it is a matter of historical fact beyond dispute, that back in the fourth century the Emperor Constantine – who changed the course of history by favoring rather than persecuting Christianity - decided he wanted to build a basilica over the grave of St. Peter. After Peter was martyred, they buried him on Vatican Hill. The engineers pointed out to the emperor that it would be impossible to build the basilica on a hillside and they suggested he change his plans and build a few hundred yards away on flat terrain. But the emperor insisted that the altar of the basilica should stand exactly over Peter’s gravesite and so Constantine commanded his engineers to simply move the mountain – and they did. It was an extraordinary engineering accomplishment for the fourth century resulting in the basilica being built right where Constantine wanted it. That original basilica was destroyed by fire, but the present-day St. Peter’s Basilica stands in the very same place. The feat was accomplished - the mountain was moved - not by magical incantation but by a lot of hard work, making for the surprising possibility that real faith can be expressed in very tangible ways, measured by results rather than methods.

Approaching a challenge with the attitude that says “it can’t be done” will assure the outcome that it surely won’t be done. Approaching the same challenge with an attitude that says “it must be done” will conjure unexpected resources and abilities – sometimes quite inexplicable – that somehow assure that, indeed, it will be done.

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