THE ZACCHAEUS EXAMPLE: KILL YOUR PRIDE, ACCEPT GOD’S OFFER
The book of Wisdom today seems as if it pointed directly to the story of Zacchaeus in the gospel. Wisdom speaks eloquently of the omnipotence of God. The whole universe is as a grain or a drop of morning dew upon the earth in the sight of God. The writer attributes all things to God whose love makes him always to care for humanity despite its shortcomings. It concludes thus, “Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little, warn them, and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, Lord!” (Wis.12:2). Wisdom places divine mercy and power side by side. God’s love is immense, so also his power to save. He is in absolute control of the universe he has made.
And the popular story of Zacchaeus is presented to us in the gospel of today, the very “senior tax collector” and “wealthy man”. Last Sunday, in the encounter between the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk.18:9-14), we touched on the fact that tax collectors are perceived as sinners. The Pharisee was bold to say that he was not a sinner like the tax collector. So describing Zacchaeus as "a chief tax collector" also implied that he was a chief sinner in the mindset of the Pharisees.
We are not going to answer the questions here one after the other, but they give us a glimpse of the need to open ourselves up to the promptings of God. Salvation has been given to us, yet salvation demands our giving in to God and giving up our old ways of life. In the first place, Zacchaeus challenges us to look at life with positive lens. Scripture says, “he could not see Jesus because of the crowd, for he was too short” (Lk.19:3).
Zacchaeus could have been disgusted with his height. He could have given up from seeing Jesus. He could have been upset that Jesus was part of his problem. Zacchaeus rather recognized that he could use the resources available to him to get to Jesus. Zacchaeus converted the sycamore tree into an opportunity to advance his chances for getting to Jesus. For others, the sycamore was an ordinary tree, but for Zacchaeus, it became the place or point of encounter; a means to have a clear vision of Jesus.
Remarkably, Zacchaeus' point of conversion began the moment he made up his mind to climb the sycamore tree. He might as well have merely followed the crowd. He might also have been intimidated. He might have also been shy because by his social status, climbing the tree would demean him in three ways: 1). It would ridicule his richness. 2). It would single him out because of his notorious profession. 3). It would mock his diminutive stature. These are all the forces that Zacchaeus defied in his quest to see Jesus.
And when Jesus spotted Zachaeus and invited him to come down, Zacchaeus was filled with joy at the encounter. This was the second point of his defiance against the mounting opposition from the people. For, "When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, "he has gone to stay at the house of a sinner" (Lk.19:7-8). But Zacchaeus, a "people-branded sinner" knew that it wasn't about the people as it was about himself. It was about his desire to be saved. He is offered a special opportunity to chose between earthly wealth and eternal life. He is given the grace to be saved despite himself. Here is he standing before the "Way, Truth and Life" (Jn.14:6), who came that "all may be saved and come to the full knowledge of truth" (1Tim.2:4). Is he going to let the crowds dissuade him from his God given chance? No, he takes it. "Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to Jesus, 'Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount" (Lk.19:8-9). This is what I call "spiritual affirmative action"- a firm purpose of amendment. He makes restitution for his sins. He decides to part ways with earthly possession in order to inherit eternal life. And Jesus says to him, "Today, salvation has come to this house" (Lk.19:9). His prayer is automatically answered, it is practical.
Looking at this story, we could generate many "what if questions" beginning from Zacchaeus' attempt to see Jesus till Jesus' offer of salvation to him. What if Zacchaeus hadn’t been short? What if he gave up for fear of the crowd? What if he hadn’t climbed the sycamore tree? What if Jesus hadn't found him out? What if he had merely followed the crowd? What if Zacchaeus didn’t make restitution?
Zacchaeus teaches us several lessons today. First, we have to recognize that the grace of God searches us out. God doesn't give up on us despite our sins. Even though Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree, it was Christ that discovered him, "When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him" (Lk.19:5). Zacchaeus also teaches us to not let the pressures of our environment debar us from seeking salvation. He was diminutive in size. He was mocked by the crowd. He was materially suffocating. Yet, he converts every obstacle on his way to opportunity. He works for his salvation. We need the boldness of Zacchaeus to overcome the pressures of the world. We need the courage of Zacchaeus to invite and receive Jesus in our homes. Jesus is constantly passing our way, but we have to recognize that. Let us use today's opportunity to do away with those distractions that make us not fully repentant, not fully ready to host Jesus. Zacchaeus gives us the key, "Sir, if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times". We just have to part ways with old bad habits. That's repentance. Are you ready to keep your pride aside and make up for the sake of salvation?
ACCOMPLISHMENT VS SUPERIORITY: PAUL'S SAMPLE FOR BELIEVERS
Ordinarily, it would be proper to compare the Pharisee with the tax collector in today's gospel. The manner of their prayers differs completely from each other. I'm not sure if the Pharisee's prayer falls really within the category of thanksgiving because he seems to be thanking not God but himself, and eventually excludes the tax collector from his merited glory. Somehow, I wish to look at the Pharisee side by side Saint Paul who also says a prayer that seems to acknowledge his own achievements in the second reading. What differs between Paul and the Pharisee? Does Paul, like the Pharisee not sing his praises too?
Paul prays this way: "I am already poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance" (2Tim.4:6-8). Then let's see the Pharisee's prayer: "O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity- greedy, dishonest and adulterous- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income" (Lk.18:11-13).
- Saint Paul marshals out his accomplishments while the Pharisee exhibits his superiority. Accomplishment shows something done admirably or creditably. It spells out achievements while superiority displays rank, degree, importance, grade, quality or merit. Saint Paul recognizes his efforts, puts together his report card at the end of his life. On the other hand, the Pharisee submits his weekly superiority journal. He lauds himself for not being like the rest of men. He believes that he deserves praises for being different.
- Paul is grateful to God while the Pharisee is grateful to himself. Paul recognizes that "the Lord, the just judge" is the one to give him the crown of righteousness on the last day. He attributes his success to God. The Pharisee walks in to fulfill his religious duty. Christ put it this way, "The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself". And his prayer is, "God I thank you that I am not...". He avoids attributing his success to God.
- While Paul appreciates the efforts of others, the Pharisee condemns others outright. Paul recognizes that God will award the crown of glory not only to him but also to "all those who have longed for his appearance". He is grateful for God's generosity. The Pharisee excludes others. He condemns everyone else, presents the tax collector as unworthy before God.
- Paul makes God the active subject in his prayer while the Pharisee sees God only as a passive listener. Paul's achievements demonstrate his faith; "I have kept the faith" in God. The Pharisee reels out his achievements before God and walks away. He merely comes to show himself.
- The manner of prayer of Paul shows humility. Even though it pictures Paul's accomplishments, it shows more that his success is because of God's love and mercy. Think about how the Pharisee bumps into God; "I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity". That already smacks of arrogance and pride. He begins with a condemnatory attitude of others, then goes on to do a checklist of his achievements; "I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income". This guy could fit into the picture of modern day politicians, thinking of only what he could accomplish rather than of God's benevolence.
From the foregoing, we continue with the trend of prayer started since past few weeks. Last week's focus was on persistence in prayer. Today, we shift attention to the inner disposition that best attunes us and allows our prayers to be heard by God.
Sirach tells us in the first reading that God is a just God who hears the prayer of the oppressed and the poor. It is not favoritism that attracts God to the weak, but his concern for those in need, his passion for justice. The Psalmist says, "the Lord hears the cry of the poor. He is close to the broken-hearted and those who are crushed in spirit he saves" (Ps.34:17-18).
In the gospel, Christ uses the image of the tax collector to depict how the inner disposition appeals to God in prayer. Ordinarily, the tax collector is known as a major sinner in the Jewish setting. The Pharisees complained of Zacchaeus when Jesus went into his house, "He has gone to stay at a sinner's house" (Lk.19:7-8). And of Matthew, they said to his disciples, "Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?" ((Matt.9:10-11). So, it isn't strange that the Pharisee uses such condemnatory words for the tax collector when he says he isn't a sinner like him. The strange thing rather is the repentant and humble approach of the tax collector. Scripture says, "He stood off at a distance", thus recognizing his unworthiness before God (Adoration). He "would not even raise his eyes to heaven" (Contrition). "He beat his breast and prayed" (Supplication). He says, "O God, be merciful to me a sinner" (Thanksgiving). The tax collector recognizes the profundity of divine mercy and taps into it. Christ said he went home justified unlike the Pharisee who went home guilty for his arrogance and self exaltation.
What attitude do we bring to the church? What approach do we give to others in relation to our spiritual lives? Ironically, spirituality is one of those exercises that cannot be measured concretely. Our relationship with God flows from the heart, more of internal journey. That is why it is difficult to assess anyone's spirituality either by mere observation or even attendance to church. Hence, Pope Francis continues to emphasize on God's mercy. It is by his mercy that we are all saved not by our merits. God's grace is what each person needs even in our struggle with ourselves. It is important to shun every tendency of condemnation for another. Sometimes, we find those who seem to be struggling with challenges as human beings. We find those who struggle with addiction. We find those who slide into human errors. We find those who seem to be morally bankrupt. We find those who seem not even interested in hearing about the Christian way of life, who are adamant in their debased moral life. Do we condemn them?
We need to recognize two things: First, that we are all sinners, who fall short of God's glory (Cf. Rom.3:23). It is not our duty to condemn, we don't need to act like the Pharisee, saying, "I am not like that guy over there". Be aware that we all trip in different ways. We all have different struggles. While we have to keep struggling, making efforts to live good, holy lives, we must recognize that our challenges differ. Second, we need to realize that our prayer will be more helpful for the individual than our condemnatory attitude. Just put out a few words to say, "May God help him/her", if you find someone who is struggling with a challenge or addiction. That's much better than displaying a sense of spiritual superiority.
Let us therefore learn from the Pharisee and tax collector's episode today, and as well from Saint Paul. Having the right inner disposition in prayer is very important. God loves us in our humility. He wants us to recognize his love and mercy. He wants us to come to him the way we are, and let his grace fill us up. God wants us to go home big and justified. We can only be justified in the presence of God if we humble ourselves. Sense of superiority shuts down God's grace, makes him a mere passive listener in prayer. Humility lets God speak. It lets his mercy flow abundantly in us.
May we be glad to go counted as justified before God. Amen.
WE MUST PERSIST IN PRAYER
Last Sunday we reflected on the four letters ACTS, and our attention was on the letter T which stands for Thanksgiving. In today's readings, the emphasis is on the letter S- which stands for Supplication. So what has Moses' raising his hands to do with the victory of Israel over Amalek? Is Moses a magician or sorcerer? The answer is no. The language used in Exodus to describe the action of Moses is concrete and graphic. Put the entire picture in perspective here as Moses said to Joshua, "I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand". That means that the victory was attributed to God's intervention not Moses' powers. This is the same staff with which Moses struck the Red Sea (cf. Ex. 14:21). In the battle against the Amalekites, there is a confluence of physical efforts with spiritual commitment. The Israelites led by Joshua are doing all they can to defeat the Amalekites while Moses sustains them spiritually. As his hands grew tired, Aaron and Hur put a rock for him to sit upon, they supported his arms and made sure he remained firm. Aaron and Joshua represent the community that we belong to. They represent the Christian friendships we share especially when we are overwhelmed. Moses' hands represent gestures of prayer, the invocation of divine might.
The last statement in the parable of today's gospel says, "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Lk.18:8). Faith is an essential element in prayer. We need faith to pray, to believe that God hears us. The Israelites would have lost the battle to Amalek if Moses gave up by the time he grew weary. James says, "Prayer must be made with faith, and no trace of doubt" (Jas.1:6).
The widow of today's gospel explored her faith until she got what she wanted. She bothered the stubborn judge who neither feared God nor man. The widow demonstrated her faith. In using the imagery of the unscrupulous judge, Christ meant to point out that if this judge could respond to the request from the widow because of persistence, God our merciful Father will respond quicker when we ask. But do we have faith enough to ask?
Prayer is the strongest form of communication with God. It is the bedrock of our relationship with God. It is through prayer that we concretely feel God in our lives. If we do not pray, we run dry, we shrink spiritually. Think about your friendship in human parlance. One way to sustain your friendship is through communication. In your communication with your friend, you call each other from time to time, get out together, create memorable moments. You converse and talk, make jokes and share ideas. You communicate with the one you love. Each time communication is neglected, there is strange feeling. The same thing happens in prayer. Just as we feel our friendship in real life, so we should feel our friendship with God. He is our greatest friend. Hence Christ invites us thus, "Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened unto you" (Lk.11:9-10, Matt.7:7). He sets before us in today's gospel the necessity to pray always and never lose heart.
The church teaches that there are different types or expressions of prayer namely:
Meditation or Mental Prayer
Vocal prayer is prayer expressed in spoken words. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "We are body and spirit, and we experience the need to translate our feelings externally. We must pray with our whole being to give all power possible to our supplication" (CCC 2702). Vocal prayer is the prayer most accessible to groups, it could be by way of music, intercession, or spontaneous voicing of our petition to God. Vocal prayer can also be private where the individual talks to God from her heart. Sometimes I speak to God in my room as if he is with me physically.
Meditation is a form of prayer where the mind seeks to understand the will of God. It "engages thought, imagination, emotion and desire" (CCC 2708). In mediation, we lift our minds to the mystery of our salvation. We may be guided by the power of the scriptures, spiritual books, sacred icons such as holy pictures and images of the saints in our meditation.
Contemplative prayer is a form of intense time with God. "Contemplation is a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus" (CCC 2715). According to Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus, "Contemplative prayer is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us". The emphasis in prayer is love- feel God's love, talk to him.
Here in the parish, we've been promoting the practice and importance of prayer. Each of us has to recognize the personal need for prayer, else it won't make much meaning even when we gather to pray as a community. The Total Discipleship has introduced different means of making prayer part of our daily lives in the parish. Now we have the tele-prayer where we can pause from the daily routine of our busy schedule to call in for prayer. That means that even while we work, we can also spare one minute to call the prayer hotline, and put our intention forward through the tele-prayer method.
Also the Family Apostolate takes prayers beyond the church to reach us in our homes. Because God lives with us in our homes, prayers have to be part of us where we live. So when the Family Apostolate embarks on Home Blessings, it is encouraging parishioners, Catholics and believers to recognize that their homes are special dwelling places for God. We have to live out our faith in prayer. Prayer can both be a communal and individual activity.
In communal or group prayer, we gather together just as we are doing at this mass. We also have the Wednesday Holy Hour and First Friday adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. In prayer we bring our petitions to God. We have prayer of intercession, prayer of thanksgiving and prayer of praise.
Individuals pray on their own too. Individuals can pray in the church, in the homes, at work, on the road. Students pray in school. We pray everywhere, and we believe that God hears our prayer.
Therefore, today, we are reminded to take prayers seriously. Let's pray for ourselves, for our families and friends. Let us pray for our country especially in this time of election. Let us pray for the church and those who preach the gospel. Let us pray for those who are suffering. There are indeed many reasons to pray, and I tell you if you don't remember any thing to pray for anytime, you know what, pray for Father Vin, I need all the prayers I can get. Develop your own format of talking to God. Sit or kneel down by your bedside. Sit quietly in your garden. Stay silent in your pool. Place holy pictures in your kitchen, living room. Make out special time at work, take quiet walk. Play scriptural tapes in your car. Call your family together to pray from time to time. Visit the Blessed Sacrament once every week. Just recognize the need to talk to God and to let him be part of your daily life. You cannot have a better friend than Jesus. Be persistent.
LET"S RETURN TO GIVE THANKS
One expression that strongly resonates in the readings of today is, "returning to give thanks". Returning is a way of showing of gratitude. It is used similarly in both the first reading and the gospel. Naaman the Syrian returns with his retinue to give thanks to Elisha for making him clean. Naaman was a leper, a stranger to the God of Israel. He received healing in the name of God. He came back to give thanks. In the gospel, Christ heals ten lepers. He sends them off to the chief priest for ritual cleansing. Along the way, they discover that they are clean. Only one person returns to give thanks to Christ. Scripture says, "And one of them, realizing that he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him" (Lk.17:15). This prompts Jesus to ask, "Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?" (Lk.17:17-18).
An acronym used to describe religious worship is ACTS. ACTS stands for Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving and Supplication. Each of these plays a strong role in our relationship with God. In today's readings, the emphasis is on thanksgiving. The Psalm says, "Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his great love is without end" (Ps.118:1). In Psalm 92 we read, "It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to make music to your name, O Most High, to proclaim your faithful love at day break, and your constancy all through the night" (Ps.92:1-2). Saint Paul challenges us thus, "With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms and hymns and inspired songs to God, and whatever you say or do, let it be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, in thanksgiving to God the Father through him" (Col.3:16-17).
Naaman and the Samaritan present a picture of life of gratitude which we often take for granted. But Christ emphasizes the importance of gratitude by his question, "Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?" (Lk.17:17-18). Gratitude attracts further kindness. We adore and worship God. We acknowledge our sins and ask for forgiveness. We ask for favors from him always. We present him with litany of requests. We are in need of good health, good job, good husband/wife, good children, good education, good friends. We need all the good things in life, and sometimes we have them. But like the nine lepers, we behave as if our achievements are by our own efforts once we get what we want. We walk away.
Returning to God is associated with remembering. Saint Paul stresses that faith has to be lived and spoken with conviction through remembering. He invites us to "remember" that our salvation comes from Christ Jesus who suffered for our sake. We must remember that God is faithful to his promises. Imagine what the other nine lepers thought after having been healed. Did they remember who healed them? Did they think their recovery was possible because of Christ? Otherwise, why did they go off and not come back? Imagine also that those lepers were not healed after calling out to Jesus. Would they have gone away? Of course, not. They would keep pestering on him till they got what they wanted. Either that they forgot what God did for them or they took their healing for granted. They went away not seeing the need to return to Jesus to thank him. The nine ungrateful lepers settled for too little for had they returned, they, like the Samaritan would have also received the great promise of salvation from Jesus, "Stand up and go; your faith has saved you" (Lk.17:19).
As human beings, we are keen in getting to God once we are pressed with any needs. We come to God in need more than in appreciation. We have to learn from Naaman and the Samaritan today. We have to express our thanks to God. We all know the story of David in the scriptures and how he danced before the ark of God. According to scriptures, "When the bearers of the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fat sheep. And David danced whirling round before the Lord with all his might, wearing a linen cloth. Thus with war crimes and blasts on the horn, David and the entire House of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord" (2Sam.6:13-16). And you know that David's dance prompted Michal's ridicule who accused him of lowering himself before the people. David's response to Michal was, "As the Lord lives, who chose me in preference to your father and his whole family to make me leader of Israel, his people, I shall dance before the Lord and lower myself even further than that. In your eyes I may be base, but by the maids you speak of, by them, I shall be held in honor" (2Sam.6:21-23).
In the U.S., for instance, the culture does not so much express the feelings of the people especially in the church. There seems to be greater expression of joy and excitement in the parks, recreational facilities, games/sports, cinema, than in the church. Of course, they are not the same. But we have to be thankful before God, for the bible says, "You will teach me the path of life, fullness of joy in your presence, at your right hand happiness for ever" (Ps.16:11). I wish to give you an idea of how we give thanks in my culture. In every Sunday mass, individuals and families recognize the good things the Lord has done for them. They request masses of thanksgiving. They come during the offertory with gifts. They process from the back of the church through the central isle. The band plays special music for them. They dance to the altar to praise God for whatever favors they received.
We also have special harvest season. The months of October, November and December are special harvest times in Nigeria to celebrate the harvest in churches, a special period to thank God for his gift of fertility and life. There is family harvest, community harvest, parish harvest. At harvest, everyone brings the product of his labor as a recognition of the Source- God. Farmers harvest food stuffs. Traders bring market products. Artists bring special art works. Builders bring building materials. Soccer players bring jerseys and football. Each person, group or family has something to identify with in thanksgiving to God. It is always exciting to see everyone dancing with gifts on their heads and joys on their faces before the Lord. That's why you see me often trying to dance and to express myself in an African way at mass. That is why you see Fr. Godswill sing all the time, "If you're happy and you know, clap your hands". We believe that thanksgiving is expressed through dancing and singing.
How do we show appreciation to God? In the first place, all our life should be a bundle of thanksgiving. Our existence owes itself to God. David wrote in the Psalms, "I thank you for the wonder of my being" (Ps.139:14). Appreciate the air you breathe, the food, water, health, your ability to move and live. Everything belongs to God. Give thanks to God through service to humanity and to the church. Being a volunteer in the church is one way to give thanks to God. Volunteer in any ministry of your choice- lector, altar server, communion minister, usher, sacristan. We also have the Hospitality group, Winter Relief, Ladies of Sodality. Now we have the Family Apostolate, Total Discipleship, etc. Do something for God.
The Eucharist is a special sacrament of thanksgiving. The Greek words, ""eucharistein" and "eulogein" describe the Eucharist as an action of thanksgiving to God. "It recalls... God's works: creation, redemption and sanctification" (CCC 1328). We should therefore be happy and thankful to God each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. Be thankful, do not grumble. Wear smiling faces to Church, not long rumpled faces. I hate to see rumpled faces. Avoid being sad or upset at Mass, else you lose your grace. Say to Jesus today, "Thank You".
"INCREASE OUR FAITH" (Lk.17:5): BETWEEN AN ACTIVE AND AN ACTIVATED FAITH.
In today's readings, we are reminded that faith is not dormant, else it's no faith anymore. So, I don't want to talk about passive faith here because a passive faith is like a security dog that cannot bark. You know what it means that you get a dog to secure you and your house, then it ends up becoming a pet dog. No matter how sweet that pet dog is, it has lost its purpose. The same applies to faith; either it is active or no faith. Christ takes us deeper in today's gospel- faith has not only to be active but also activated. An active faith is good. It is faith enough to take you to heaven. The followers of Christ had active faith in the scriptures- the woman with hemorrhage, the Centurion servant, Timothy, at the time Paul was writing to him in the second reading, etc. Active faith believes enough, faith that acknowledges Jesus. The apostles had active faith. They saw Jesus perform miracles. They saw him raise the dead, heal the sick, cast out demons. They believed in the things he did when they followed him. But they didn't think they would be able to do the things as he did exactly. That's why they beckoned on him to increase their faith. The statement "increase our faith", implied that there was already some faith existing in the disciples. They only needed to grow their faith. They needed to do greater things than they think they were able to do at the time. "Increase our faith" means, "empower us the more". It means, "activate our faith".
In the gospel episode, Jesus responds by letting the disciples know that the problem is not about increasing their faith as much as it is activating their faith. He says, "If you had faith like a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea," and it would obey you". So a little faith can already work so much, only it has to be activated. Jesus goes on to explain to the disciples that those who come into the vineyard cannot just stand around and wait to be crowned with trophy or laurel. He uses the analogy of the man whose servant returns from ploughing or tending sheep to draw home the lesson of faith that has to be activated. Then he concludes, "So should it be with you. "When you have done all you have been commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants, we have done what we are obliged to do" (Lk.17:10). An activated faith transforms us into servants for the kingdom of heaven. It manifests in love, forgiveness, repentance, trust, no matter how tough the circumstance. An activated faith is faith in action. Peter and John's faith was activated when they healed the lame man at the Beautiful Gate. Paul's faith was activated when he went into the Gentile territory. Mary Magdalene's faith was activated when she encountered Jesus, then she went to the tomb.
The prophet Habakkuk takes us back to the question of evil and suffering. There are questions which we cannot answer as human beings, but which continue to play back in our encounters as Christians. Is it that God cannot prevent evil from happening? Habakkuk laments, "How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, "Violence!" But you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife and glamorous discord". These questions are not strange in today's world. To some, they may be personal or particular: things keep getting tough in your life despite your Christian belief. Sickness won't let you be. You achieve poor results despite your hard struggle.You find it difficult to get good job. You experience family crisis. You encounter disappointments from friends and relatives. Your children are troublesome. You suffer hatred and rejection. Such persons cry out like prophet Habakkuk, "How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen". I encountered a woman who lost her son just last week. She asked similar questions which unfortunately I didn't have answers to. I couldn't even imagine how that woman felt, and would be wrong to deny her feelings, simply devastated. "Why me?", was her question. "Why my son?", she beamed at me. "Is God still alive?" "Can't he bring my son back to life?" "Does he still want me to believe he exists?" Such are realities which only the sufferer can interpret in the face of troubles and suffering.
To others, these situations may apply to general circumstances of chaos that pervade today's society. Growing terrorism, incessant bombing of innocent citizens and individuals occur almost regularly nowadays. Abduction of persons take place. Shooting and reckless killing of innocent persons occur sporadically. Different countries of the world face bad leadership and crises. The masses lament like the city of Judah in Habakkuk's time. Amidst prayers and religious options, prophet Habakkuk wondered whether God was still in charge. We can also wonder whether God is still in charge in the face of wickedness of our time. Why destruction and violence? Why disaster and strife if God still listens? Now hear what God told the prophet Habakkuk, "Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. 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" (Hab.2:2-3). But the question is if that's true. How soon is it going to be? How long are we to wait in the midst of evil and suffering?
The answer to the questions above lies in having our faith in God activated. The prophet Habakkuk concludes his rhetoric by saying that the upright person will live through faithfulness. Saint Paul writes from a different background on the need to maintain a strong and firm faith. He reminds Timothy who was a bishop to fan his faith into flame. We need to fan our faith into flame, that is what it means to have an activated faith. Our trials and temptations are not going to be totally eliminated because we are believers in Christ. Of course, Christ didn't have his own eliminated. Our sicknesses, pains, failures, anxieties, disappointments, may not be eliminated. Death will not be eliminated because we are Christians. Only faith that is activated will transform the meaning of the sufferings and pains into glory. Saint Paul encourages us to bear hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God. We need courage and trust to believe that all will be well with God. Although temptations and trials may beset us, an activated faith does not let frustration take the better part of us.
Like the disciples today, we may exclaim to Christ, "Increase our faith". It is an appeal not to increase just the quantity of faith but to increase the quality. It is an appeal to improve our consciousness of God's grace. It is an appeal to make us realize that we have powers, authority, strength that come from God and not from us. We need to recognize that faith has already been imbued in us at baptism, all we need is to fan it into flame. For us to fan our faith into flame, we need to believe absolutely and not just relax. We need constant prayers. We need constant commitment to our relationship with God. We need to work for our faith and not just take it for granted. We need to be up and doing in our Christian demands. We need to be awake. We need to have our faith in God completely activated. That's the best way to express faith in God. God is real. He is still actively involved in creation. He wants faith in us that is alive and activated too. Only such faith can move the mountain of temptations and trials, sickness, pains, disappointments, on our way.
May the Lord increase our faith, activate it in such a way that we may not only follow but also make him known to others both in good times and in bad . Amen.