Sometimes the relationship amongst the lectionary readings are clear, and seem obviously so; sometimes the relationships are not so obvious. The three readings for the Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4, 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14 and Luke 17:5-10 do not seem obviously related in theme or tone. Habakkuk begins as a literal cry for help: “How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen!” The prophet calls out to God to solve the violence and destruction that encompass him. God answers, promising relief, in God’s time: “For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.” God’s time and ways are not our own. The final phrase is compelling,” if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late,” which suggests that however we see God’s activity – “it is delayed!” – it happens at the proper time – “it will not be late!” The final verse of the lectionary reading seems, initially, to be unrelated to this, “The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live,” but upon reflection the rash one might be seen to turn away from God in the midst of “delay” while the one with faith waits on God, knowing “it will not be late.”
How does 2 Timothy fit in this context? The author, presented as Paul, speaks to Timothy of the “gift of God” he has been given. Timothy is exhorted to have a spirit not of cowardice “but rather of power and love and self-control”. The situation in which Timothy and Paul find themselves is one of duress and Paul encourages Timothy to remain faithful: “So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” Along with this encouragement and exhortation, Paul tells Timothy to remain faithful to the tradition which has been given to him.
“Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me,
in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit
that dwells within us.”
It is in the context of this faithfulness that Jesus’ teachings in Luke 17:5-10 make sense. The first two verses, 5-6, seem obviously connected: “Increase our faith.” Jesus challenges his apostles to have faith so that great things, unexpected things, wild things might be done – God’s ways are not our ways, as we saw in Habakkuk, and faith in God’s ways might lead to massive trees being uprooted and planted in the sea.
There is another way, however, in which faith might be made known and that is by doing the tasks assigned to us (17:7-10), as Paul says to Timothy, “Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.” The rich trust for the apostles are the tasks of plowing the field and tending the sheep. In this context, these tasks are those of Church leaders evangelizing and caring for the flock as pastors. No claims are laid on God by fulfilling one’s duties – this is the mundane task of faithful obedience. To call them “useless” or “unworthy” (Greek: achreios) is not to say that those who fulfill their duties are useless people or that their tasks are worthless only that “we have done what we were obliged to do.” God does repay the faithful servant, in his own time and in his own way. We have no claim on God, but to be faithful and to wait, for even if it seems he is delayed, he will not be late.
John W. Martens