2nd October 2016
This is the only time on Sundays that we have a reading from Habakkuk. He was a prophet perhaps around the 7th century BC, when the people were troubled by the surrounding more powerful nations. Of the three chapters in the book, we have a few verses from each of the first two (1:2-3, 2:2-4). At first the prophet expresses the heartfelt cry of the people, “How long, O Lord” is all this going on; a feeling common among most peoples at some time or other throughout all periods of human history, especially where there is an idea of a caring deity of some kind. The phrase is also used often in the psalms. But in the verses from chapter 2 that are added into our reading, we hear that God does have a vision of the future – sometime – and so we must hang on and remain loyal because, as it ends, “the upright man lives by his faith;” and this phrase is taken up in St Paul’s way of thinking and in later Christian teaching, where the word ‘faith’ is not just ‘loyalty’ but trusting in Christ and in Christ’s way of selfless service of others. In 1947 an ancient commentary on this book was found in a cave in the Dead Sea area (see the video), it referred the troubles to the invasion of the Romans into their land,
By the time the Second Letter to Timothy was put together from some of Paul’s words and ideas, the organisation of the early churches was beginning to develop as the apostles were growing old and diminishing in numbers. New leaders of the Christian communities were put in place by the laying on of hands; later these would come to be called overseers (in Greek, episkopoi from which we get the word ‘Episcopal’) or in English much later ‘bishops’. In the case of Timothy, he is reminded that as such a leader he must stir up his enthusiasm and must not be timid, but should live with the power of God’s Spirit and with love and self-control; he should continue the pattern of Paul’s ministry, driven by the love of Christ because the church is alive with God’s Spirit – something of the words of the reading must also apply to us..
The gospel begins with a saying to the apostles about faith, which is followed by a parable, awkwardly expressed. We are familiar with the use of the mustard seed as a reference to very small size, and in Matthew’s gospel the seed is linked to the saying of moving mountains (Mt 17:20) but here it is linked to an unfamiliar image (uprooting a tree); we shouldn’t take it literally but grasp what it means. The parable that follows is not easy to understand, it basically says that we are like servants of God, and as such cannot expect reward for doing our duty. This is a correction of a Pharisaic approach to religion which thought that we can earn favours from God by keeping the rules; this attitude has existed in the church from its beginning despite efforts of reformers (including Luther) to rid the church of it.