The gift of faith
(Readings: 2 Kings 5:14-17; Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19)
Introduction to Mass
In today's readings we have examples of people who come to have faith after some sort of meeting or encounter with God: Namaan, the leper in the first reading, who's healed by the prophet Elisha; and the man in the gospel who is healed by Jesus. So to begin Mass we think of the times when our faith and dedication has been lacking, and we ask God to forgive us and to strengthen our faith in him.
Very often in course of his ministry Jesus was anxious to reassure people who felt that their faith is weak or failing. He taught that we don't have to be morally perfect in order to approach God and in fact for Christ an honest acknowledgment of our lack of perfection is always a better starting point in our relationship with God than the smug religiosity of the Pharisees.
We know from our own experience that faith in God isn't something static. It's something that develops over the course of our whole life, it's always changing, always ebbing and flowing. Sometimes we feel our consciousness of God is quite strong, sometimes it's affected by all kinds of doubts and questions, but in spite of that it's something that hopefully, if we persevere as we get older, takes deeper root and grows.
If we think of faith as something that God gives to anyone who is genuinely searching for him, and genuinely open to him, then maybe another way to put it is to say that for most of us, it takes a long time for God to iron out our various flaws and weaknesses and draw us into the circle of his holiness.
The passage from Luke's gospel that we've just listened to suggests, among other things, that the number of people who come to treat God as an important influence in their lives - come to faith in God - is probably quite small. For many people, both in Jesus' time and ours, God is crowded out by other preoccupations, and even Jesus' miraculous healings failed to ignite any spark of faith in the people he cured.
The great majority - nine out of ten - of the men that Jesus cured on this occasion just went on their way, happy to be well again, no doubt, but no more drawn to the source of Jesus' healing power than they were before. Only one of the men showed a bit of gratitude, and not only gratitude, but, more to the point, he was the only one who'd responded with an attitude of faith - faith in the person who had healed him. He praised God at the top of his voice, Luke says, and Jesus says to him, 'your faith has saved you'.
Perhaps there are a few simple lessons we can take from this incident that we might apply to ourselves, now, in our circumstances.
One is that, when it comes to our efforts to pass on our faith to others, to proclaim the gospel in some way, we shouldn't get too discouraged or panicked if the results of our efforts are dismal.
I always see this incident as tying in with Jesus' parable of the sower. In the parable of the sower, only a small number of the seeds actually produced any plants. This was Jesus' way of telling the disciples not to be discouraged by failure. No matter how hardworking they were in their evangelising efforts, they advised them to always expect a low success rate in terms of winning real conversions to the Kingdom.
This incident with the ten lepers backs up or demonstrates the message of the parable. Even with Christ himself, in practice, the rate of positive response was sometimes only one out of ten. We can bear that in mind now, when we think about the difficulties of putting our message across to other people, or even the pressures of keeping up our own faith when the hostility towards Christianity in our modern culture makes it easy to feel marginalised and discouraged.
The second lesson I'd draw from this passage is the picture it gives of Jesus' own attitude to preaching his message. On one level he wasn't offended whether people were grateful to him, or responding with faith in him, or not. He never took it personally if people weren't set on fire with a new passion for God as a result of his words or actions.
Christ wasn't selling anything. He wasn’t on a commission going around proclaiming the dawn of God's Kingdom. If people weren't interested, Jesus didn't pester them, he didn't lose any sleep over it, and he didn't waste time grumbling about their lack of interest or lack of response.
It was only when people did respond favourably, and said they wanted to become his followers, that Christ then spelt out that their relationship with him had to be wholehearted. God had to become the main influence in their lives. Once you've set off on that journey of faith, he said, there should be no looking back.
So, these are the two aspects of the gospel here that we have to balance against each other.
On the one hand, our faith in God takes time to develop and deepen. God is patient when it comes to our weaknesses. He never tries to force himself on anyone who isn't interested in having him in their life, and that's what I see as the meaning of Jesus' acceptance of the fact that only one man out of ten came back to thank him.
But at the same time, if we do want to have God in our lives, we have to recognise what a big transformation it actually involves. Jesus was able to bear the disappointment of people's ingratitude and unbelief calmly because of his own depth of faith. The more we mature in our faith, the more we'll be able to react in the same strong way that he did.