Struggling to Grow in Faith
Monday July 28, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Seventeenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading (Exodus 32:15-24, 30-34) Gospel (St. Matthew 13:31-35)
In the Gospel, we are told that Jesus spoke to the crowds only in parables. We know that in another place in Saint Mark’s Gospel we are told that the reason why Jesus spoke in parables was so that the people might hear but not listen and they might see but not understand. It sounds so unfair to us. Why would He want to do such a thing? The fact of the matter is that when we are dealing with faith, it has to run much, much deeper than what might simply be on the surface. So as Our Lord speaks in parables, the people have to struggle a little bit with what it is that He is saying so that they have to go deeper than the surface. Otherwise, one might simply listen to the word that is being spoken, think it sounds quite impressive, and then completely ignore it. But if one has to struggle a little bit to try to understand, when that understanding finally comes, then it is firmly fixed within the mind and rooted deeply into the heart.
All we have to do, for instance, is look at what happened in the first reading. Remember, these are people who have seen these extraordinary things that God has done, not only the ten plagues in Egypt, but they saw the Red Sea opened and they had been fed everyday for quite a while by this point with manna in the desert and water from a rock. They had seen the extraordinary things that God had done. They were brought near to the mountain where it was enveloped with smoke, and they heard God speaking to Moses (they heard a trumpet blast instead of the actual voice of God). They had all of these extraordinary things, and within a month they had made for themselves a golden calf.
A golden calf would have been something that was typical in Egypt, and that is where they had come from. The bull from Egypt, one of their little gods, is the god of the desert, also a god of travel and a god of fertility. Well, here are people who are wandering out in the desert. If you think about what their situation was, it makes sense that they would do such a thing. What does not make sense is how they could do such a thing after what they had already experienced.
The problem – as it is with all of us – is that what they had experienced was so clear that they did not have to struggle to understand it. All they did was complain against God, one thing after the next. Whine and moan and complain, that was their whole way of life. God provided everything they needed, and they whined and moaned and complained again. They did not have faith even though they saw all these extraordinary things. Some of us might like to sit back and say, “But if only God would show me! If He would only make it so clear!” We would not be any different. If He made it very clear, it does not take anything to be able to see what happened. There is nothing that we have to struggle with to be able to get it inside. It is sort of like when someone speaks and, as we say, “it goes in one ear and out the other”. It does not register; it does not hit us very deeply. At the moment, we are in awe, but that quickly goes to the wayside. What remains is what we have to struggle with in order to get it into the heart.
And so we hear the parables of the Lord. We have to struggle with the various things in our lives that we do not understand, the various sufferings and the difficulties. As we struggle sometimes to be able to find God in the midst of those things, when we struggle to be able to say, “I can’t see Him but I believe that He is here. I can’t feel Him but I’m still going to have faith,” that is where we are practicing our faith. That is where the faith is growing. Not so much when there is something extraordinary that we see God doing and we are completely wowed by it, that does not require any faith at all. But it is when things are difficult that faith is required, and it is then that faith grows.
So when we see the example of the people of old, we cannot look at them and say, “What was wrong with those people?” because they are no different than we are. We would have the exact same problem as they did. So God in His mercy allows us to have to struggle a little bit, to question, to wonder. He continues to speak to us in parables, not necessarily just parables of the ear but parables of life. He does not make things so obvious right on the surface for us that we completely see and understand what He is doing and what He wants us to learn because, again, we would not learn anything from it. So He lets us struggle and we need to learn to be grateful for that. The people of the Old Testament, like we, were not grateful for what God had done for them when it was very evident. What we need to do is be grateful for the struggle that we have to endure and recognize that what that does is it deepens, not only faith, but hope and charity as well. It helps us to be able to grow in holiness and to live the very life that God desires for us to live.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.