“It was faith that made Abraham able to become a father…From this one man came as many descendants as there are stars in the sky … Hebrews 11, 1-2, 8-12
“For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be…You must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” Luke 12, 32 - 48
Woven into today’s three readings are the themes of readiness for God and faith hope and trust in God. The first reading from Wisdom recalls how the Hebrews stood in readiness to move, eating their meal of unleavened bread and roast lamb, and waiting in expectation for God to lead them out of slavery. In the gospel reading, we hear Jesus urging his disciples not to let themselves be contaminated by the kind of pretense practiced by the Pharisees, but to be ready and waiting whenever the “master” comes. In the second reading from Hebrews, we hear the story of how the Israelites’ faith, hope and trust in God had their origin in the covenant or agreement that God made with Abraham. By the time we hear the three short parables in the latter part of the gospel reading, we are left with the message that the gifts with which we have been blessed are meant to be used to bring hope, justice and compassion to everyone we encounter in our everyday lives. In that way we will make our contribution to making real in our time and place the kingdom of God.
I would now like to shift the focus of this reflection to the faith and hope which are central to today’s second reading from Hebrews, which opens with this assertion: “Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen” (Hebrews 11, 1). The writer proceeds to identify Abraham as the “father of faith” in what would become the Hebrew nation. Today’s text and parts of the Old Testament describe how a nation and their leaders came to develop great expectations of God because of the faith they grew to have in God. The Israelites, for example, came to expect that God would not only deliver them from Egypt, but would also make the Egyptians pay dearly for their cruelty. Abraham and Sarah expected God to give them a tangible reward for the risk they had taken in venturing into unknown, foreign territory. They lived in expectation of land, flocks, crops and children. But that was not all. We learn today that Abraham lived in expectation of “the city which God has designed and built, the city with permanent foundations” (Hebrews 11, 10). In today’s gospel, too, we hear how servants expect a reckoning with their master on his return. The common factor in all these examples of faith-expectation is that, even though the “believers” do not see what exactly awaits them, they still behave confident that something will come. The writer of Hebrews expresses it like this: “To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11, 1 New American Bible).
In our earlier days, many of us were urged to have what was referred to as “blind faith”. My experience tells me that there is really no such thing as “blind faith”. I suggest that all faith is accompanied by some kind of “seeing”. Whenever we are faced with the unknown, we try to imagine how it will look. Moreover if we fear the unknown, the pictures we paint are fearsome or even catastrophic. That’s what we start believing. We envision in our minds what we can’t physically see and shape things that either terrify us or give us something on which to pin our hopes.
We know from reflection that this is all about what might come to reality in the future. In our better moments, we can admit that we might be deceiving ourselves, but we hold on to what we imagine until the reality which eventuates tells us otherwise. In his extraordinary book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl, psychologist, psychotherapist and survivor of Auschwitcz, describes how our faith envisions things: “When we spoke about attempts to give a man in camp mental courage, we said he had to be shown something to look forward to in the future. He had to be reminded that life still waited for him, that a human being waited for his return. But after liberation?...Woe to him who, when the day of his dreams finally came, found it so different from all he had longed for!”
Of course, faith and hope are closely related, and we all have to learn to hold them both. In the past, I have quoted Vaclav Havel’s understanding of hope, and I think it is worth keeping in mind here:
“Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t. Hope is not a prognostication—it’s an orientation of the spirit. You can’t delegate that to anyone else. Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or the willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely NOT the same as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out. It is hope, above all, that gives us strength to live
and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.”
But as with faith, when we hope for something, we form within our minds a picture of how that something will look. However, it’s not only faith and hope that build on a vision of the unseen. So also do mistrust and lack of faith and hope. The reason why we try to hurry ahead of the stranger we think is following us in the dark is that we envision the worst he might do. Those who are walking away from our churches in the wake of the child abuse scandals imagine a repetition of some kind of abusive behaviour, or a church leadership incapable of adequately addressing the crisis. They see a future that disheartens them. Hope, faith and mistrust are all built on a capacity to imagine or envision.
If it is true that faith and hope are essentially matters of what we imagine that the God we cannot see is up to, it might be worth our effort to try to imagine how this might look from God’s side. Isn’t it true that God has put faith and hope in us human beings? And we can see hope and faith at their very best in our brother Jesus, who came to show us how to be truly human. Jesus must have had to imagine how we, his followers, would respond to the faith and hope he placed in us. He must have done that, too, as he commissioned his very first disciples. He had to wonder just what they and we would get up to. If we dare to let ourselves feel just how uplifting it is to know that we are trusted by God, then we might find ourselves able to trust God in return. One way into doing that might be to list for ourselves those people who are our ancestors in faith and hope, those who have inspired us to live our Christian vocation, those who knew they were trusted by God.