09 August 2014

Exercise faith, don't measure it. . .

18th Week OT (S)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

How embarrassing for the disciples! Imagine their chagrin. Despite their time with Jesus and their love for him, they can't manage a simple exorcism. While they blush and shuffle their feet, our Lord, sounding disappointed and out-of-sorts, rails at them, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?” Faithless and perverse?! Well, that's hardly pastoral. Not very shepherd-like, is it? And then we have that sarcastic rhetorical question: how long will he endure us? Seriously, who's “enduring” whom here? We're trying to learn, so we ask, “Why couldn't we exorcise this guy?” After yelling at us for the ineffectiveness of our “little faith,” he tells us that all it takes to move mountains is to “have faith the size of a mustard seed.” Those things are tiny! Again, seriously, who's enduring whom? Cryptic parables, weird prophecies, inconsistent proverbs, novel prayers. And he expects us to get all this – snap! – like that. Tell us, Lord, what's the difference btw “having little faith” and “having faith the size of a mustard seed”? The problem isn't the size of our faith. The problem is that we don't know what faith is. 

Consider the mustard seed. About 2mm in diameter. Barely larger than a single grain of sand. Less than half of cup of these seeds contains 25g of protein. That's more protein than we find in a 3oz steak. That same half cup contains almost 20g of monounsaturated fat – the good fat that reduces bad cholesterol and increases good cholesterol. Rich in B vitamins and trace metals like iron, calcium, and zinc, that half cup provides nearly 15g of dietary fiber. The mustard seed is a powerhouse of excellent nutrition! So, what do these fascinating nutritional facts have to do with our faith? The size of our faith – big, small, long, or short – has nothing to do with the power of our faith, the ability of our faith to accomplish great things. Faith is not measurable in ounces, feet, pounds, or grams. “More faith” does not mean “better faith.” When Jesus tells us that “faith the size of a mustard seed” can move mountains, he's not measuring the diameter of faith and telling us to collect more seeds. A gallon jug of mustard seeds sitting idly in a pantry can do nothing for high cholesterol, or protein deficiency, or constipation. For those seeds to unleash their full nutritional potential, they must be consumed and allowed to do their natural best. And so it is with faith. 

The supernatural gift of trusting in God is not a thing to be possessed. Like a watch or a pair of shoes. Faith* is a disposition, a temperament; it's a good habit, an instilled inclination to turn ourselves toward God and rely on His love for us to do the work He's given us to do. Our tendency to think of faith in terms of measurable amounts is understandable. We say things like “my faith isn't strong enough,” or “I need a larger faith.” But this way of speaking about faith pushes us into the same problem the disciples encounter this morning. If we rely on the size or weight of our faith to accomplish great things, then we will end in failure every time. If, however, we rely solely on the love of the Father to provide and care for us; if we surrender entirely to His will; if we receive the gift of trusting in Him and exercise this gift like a triathlete at an Olympic gym, mountains will be the smallest things we can move. We can be moved from our fallen human nature, from our inclinations towards disobedience and death and onto our graced end – eternal life. Exercise faith like a vital muscle. Tend it like a prize-winning orchid. And refuse to measure it by the ounces and inches of this world. 

* For those with a more analytical mind, here's a definition of faith from the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909. "The foregoing analyses will enable us to define an act of Divine supernatural faith as "the act of the intellect assenting to a Divine truth owing to the movement of the will, which is itself moved by the grace of God" (St. Thomas, II-II, Q. iv, a. 2). And just as the light of faith is a gift supernaturally bestowed upon the understanding, so also this Divine grace moving the will is, as its name implies, an equally supernatural and an absolutely gratuitous gift. Neither gift is due to previous study neither of them can be acquired by human efforts, but "Ask and ye shall receive."

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  1. I figured it out, so it is probably just me: After I have prayed (briefly) with the readings each morning, I want to find someone with whom to discuss the reading, ask questions, think about answers, express thoughts, study, etc... So, I look toward the homily to satisfy some of that desire, and when a homily, like this one, doesn't get right down to business, it annoys me. I really liked it beginning at "Tell us, Lord...." and would have been happy if you had left out everything previous to that sentence. Because the rest of the homily was quite excellent, especially for a daily-Mass homily, and (for me at least) put a different and needed spin on "faith", reminding me to move away from thoughts of measuring or possessing and toward exercising ... or allowing, the faith I have been gifted to grow in trust of God and His love.

    I was home when I heard it this morning, so you got a hearty "AMEN!" from me when you concluded. Thank you! It was much appreciated.

    1. It's good that you were annoyed. So were the disciples. So was I. Jesus tells us that we have a "little faith" and then tells us that our faith can be "as small as a mustard seed"! What???

      Thanks for the response.