“The righteous live by their faith,” the prophet Habakkuk wrote. His words, passed on by the apostle Paul, would blossom centuries later in the soul of Martin Luther and help power the Reformation we will observe this month and throughout next year.
Faith, Luther explained, “is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace.” It’s not a theological head game but a lifestyle courageous enough to border on crazy. It inspired Francis of Assisi to abandon comfortable wealth and wander the countryside preaching to birds. It leads people to serve, tithe, speak truth to power, take less money to do more good, trade in security for solidarity with those in trouble and uproot their lives for the sake of sharing grace bigger than themselves.
This October, our readings from Luke offer striking profiles in faith. A leper healed by Jesus breaks away from the only community he knows to commit an act of grateful disobedience: he turns back from religious duty to say thank you. A widow overpowers a judge with her tenacity that Jesus equates to “faith on earth” and a tax collector’s tragic honesty outshines a Pharisee’s sterling résumé. Zacchaeus responds to a thunderbolt of grace by giving away half his fortune.
Before any of these episodes, however, the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could [do crazy, impossible things].” In Belief (Westminster John Knox, 2010), Justo González astutely questions whether Jesus is talking about size here. Maybe faith is about quality, not quantity. A grain of mustard seed so completely trusts what God intends it to become that it’s willing to give up what it currently is. Living by faith includes willingness to risk dying.
Nature bears witness to this truth. For many of us in the global north, October means the faithful witness of deciduous trees. Summer life gives itself away in a blaze of glory. Leaves die like fireworks, bursting with color.
In Let Your Life Speak (Jossey-Bass, 2000), Parker Palmer asks: “What artist would have ever painted a season of dying with such a vivid palette if nature had not done it first? Does death possess a beauty that we—who fear death, who find it ugly and obscene—cannot see?
“In the autumnal events of my own experience, I am easily fixated on surface appearances—on the decline of meaning, the decay of relationships, the death of a work. And yet if I look more deeply, I may see the myriad possibilities being planted to bear fruit in some season yet to come.”
Trusting in Francis’ words that “it is in dying that we are born to eternal life” takes daring confidence indeed. We don’t go it alone. In Luke’s Gospel, the shadows are lengthening. Jesus is nearing the bare tree. Death looms. Faith smiles because life is drawing closer.