08 July 2012

An amazing lack of faith?

14th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

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We have just heard read one of the most disturbing sentences found in the New Testament. Left unexplained, this sentence could undermine the legitimacy of the Church, cause irreparable harm to the faith of billions, and hand our enemies the spiritual equivalent of nuclear bomb. This astonishing sentence is almost casually presented, composed with a dangerous indifference to how it might damage Christ's credibility among his future followers—those like us—who will read it and be tempted to despair. That we have not succumb to despair, that the faith of billions has not been harmed, that Christ's credibility has not been damaged is a testament to our ancestors in religion, the men and women who wrestled courageously through the centuries with the demons of doubt, worry, and spiritual cowardice. Mark tells us that Jesus goes home, and he is rejected as a prophet by his hometown neighbors. They doubt his power by questioning his credentials, “Isn't this guy just a local boy?” And they were offended. “So,” Mark casually writes, “[Jesus] was not able to perform any mighty deed there. . .” The Son of God, the Messiah, was not able to bring his Father's mighty power, His reconciling mercy to Nazareth! The Christ is rendered powerless to perform might deeds in his own hometown. 

How does Jesus react to this failure? Mark tells us, “He was amazed at their lack of faith.” That's a charitable description of how the hometown folks greeted their native son. Jesus goes to the synagogue and teaches his Father's Word. Those who hear him teach are astonished by the power and authority of his teaching. But rather than open their hearts and minds to the truth of the good news, they allow Jesus' familiarity, the fact that he is homegrown to confuse their judgment. They recognize his power—“What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!”—yet they cannot see the hand of the Father through the fog of their contempt. Instead of obeying—listening to—the Word proclaimed with divine authority, they choose to doubt, “Where did this man get all this? Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and are not his sisters here with us?” And b/c they choose to be offended rather than enlightened, they cannot trust; they cannot receive the gift of God's mercy and so no mighty deeds can be accomplished. The Nazareans in the synagogue are astonished by Jesus' teaching and Jesus is amazed by their lack of faith. Despite all the astonishment and amazement flying around, without faith, mighty deeds cannot be done. 

Does it seem somehow wrong to you to say that Jesus is rendered powerless by those who doubt him? What sort of god can be stripped of his power to perform miracles by a doubting crowd? All this sounds too much like the myths of ancient Greece where the gods were only as powerful as their worshipers' faith. When the followers of Zeus lost their faith, Zeus' power began to fade. If Jesus is truly the Son of the everliving God, then his power comes to him in virtue of who he is not by way of the faithful. What authority do we mere humans have to render him powerless? The answer: none, none whatsoever. Our faith or lack of faith in no way affects God's ability to do what He wills. However, as our loving Father, He wills that we come to Him in love and not by force. He pours out His love, mercy, hope, all that we need to come to Him freely, but we must come freely. He gives us His love. We freely receive His love. And then, His love is a gift. And it is only a gift when we freely receive it. In other words, for mighty deeds to be accomplished in our lives, we must believe in and place our trust in the promises He has made to us as our loving Father. Doubt, fear, worry, any sort of disobedience, tempts us to suspicion and short circuits our faith. How do we cooperate with God's grace while doubting, fearing, worrying about whether or not He loves us and cares for us? 

We don't; we can't. . .cooperate with God's grace, that is, while worrying, etc. If I had to define doubt, fear, and worry, I'd say that these are spiritual anxieties, diseases of the soul bought on by a lack of faith in God, by the absence of the good habit of trusting that God has fulfilled His promises. When we fail to practice a virtue—a good habit—we tend to find ourselves indulging in a vice—a bad habit. What does the vicious habit of failing to trust in God look like? We could point out our sins, our acts of disobedience—the big lie, the small theft, the vicious gossip, the lustful look. We could also point out all the things we have failed to do—a work of mercy, a hurt left unforgiven, a falsehood left unchallenged. We could also point out the absence of blessings in our lives: where are my friends? My family? My loving neighbors? Any one of these or all of them might show us what the vicious habit of unfaithfulness looks like. But these are just symptoms of a more insidious problem, mere indications that something much deeper is profoundly wrong. What lies beneath our sins, our omissions? 

 We are tempted to say, “Well, it's a lack of faith!” OK. But faith itself is a gift, the technical term is “infused virtue.” God infuses in us from the instant of our conception the good habit of trusting in Him. We are gifted with the ability to trust Him even before we are born. So, how do we end up lacking in something that's bonded to our DNA? We don't. We can't. We can no more remove faith from who we are as persons than we can recode our DNA at will to become crawfish or dinosaurs. When Mark notes that Jesus is “amazed at their lack of faith,” he means that Jesus is stunned by their unwillingness to cooperate, to work with the gift of faith that his Father has given to them. Jesus' friends and neighbors have faith as a matter of being human; they are simply unwilling to set aside their pride and work with the seed of trust already planted in their hearts. What lies beneath their stubbornness, urging them toward vicious suspicion, is the Enemy whispering, “You don't need faith; you just need a little sweat and some old-fashioned determination, and you can live your life just as you please. You can have it all on your own. You don't need God. In fact, here's a little secret: you can become a god without God!” That whisper echoes down to us from the Garden and it sounds very much like the hissing of a serpent. 

You can become a god without God. All you need is enough money, enough influence, enough power, enough celebrity, enough freedom from your created nature. . .and voila!. . .you're a god, a being beyond the merely human, beyond the mewling herd. And all this transformation will cost you is your soul and along with you soul goes your personhood, your humanity, and your place in the holy family as an adopted child of God. Why do we sometimes find it so difficult, even repellant, to cooperate with God's gift of faith? Because when we cooperate with His graces, we freely accept that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from Him and we are thus totally and irrevocably dependent on Him. We call that dependence humility—the good habit of knowing that and acting on the truth that we are dust, from our origin to our end, we are dust. BUT! We are dust gifted with the freedom to believe and trust in our Creator. And when we believe and trust in our Creator, mighty deeds are accomplished in His Name and for His greater glory. 

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