The Mass readings for this last Sunday, August 7, have as their common theme trust in the Lord. Another word for this trust is faith. For us in the beginning of the twenty-first century, the idea of faith has something of an air of “buying a pig in a poke” to it, or of “believing what you know ain’t so,” as a child reportedly told Mark Twain. The New American Bible translation of Hebrews 11:1 we hear at Mass in the US tells us that faith is “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen,” does not amend matters much. To understand the readings, we must strip away about five hundred years of philosophical missteps to recover what faith meant to Christ and the apostles.
Connecting Faith and Truth
The English word faith translates the Greek pistis, which was also used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew emunah or emet; the verb forms were pisteuein and aman, the latter of which was also the root of amen. Pistis could be translated as “belief”, but it is more properly understood as conviction or moral certainty.
Emunah/emet was also translated into Greek as aletheia, or truth. But, as C. S. Lewis observed, “Where the Satya of the Indian sources emphasizes truth as ‘correspondence’, emeth (connected with a verb that means ‘to be firm’) emphasizes rather the reliability or trustworthiness of truth. Faithfulness and permanence are suggested by Hebraists as alternative renderings. Emeth is that which does not deceive, does not ‘give’, does not change, that which holds water.” (Lewis, The Abolition of Man, chap. 1, fn. 19)
The connection of faith with truth has ramifications, some of which still linger in the language we use in this jaded, sophisticated age. We still speak of monogamy as faithfulness, of being true to our vows. We speak of deposits on purchases and rentals as evidence of good faith, or of credentials as “bona fides” (from the Latin bona fides, “good faith”). We also use “bona-fide” to express the idea that something is genuine, that it is no more and no less than it purports to be — it is “the real deal”. We are “true to our roots”; we “keep the faith” with the friends of our youth (think of the Billy Joel song “Keeping the Faith”). A person who is true and faithful is someone you can count on, someone who will keep his promises, pay his debts, and tell you what you need to know even if it is not necessarily what you want to hear. The US Marine Corps motto, Semper Fidelis (“Always Faithful”), is the summation of the Marines’ code of conduct and concept of honor.
“Objective Certitude Regarding the Truth”
Nowhere in emunah or pistis, in aman or pisteuein, was there implicit any notion of subjectivity, any belief that truth could depend on “a certain point of view” (as Obi-Wan Kenobi would say). A person with pistis was not simply expressing a heartfelt wish or delivering his opinion on the matter; he was asserting that the thing about which he was convinced was objectively true whether he liked it or not. The French philosopher and philologist Claude Tresmontant wrote:
One thing is certain about this matter of truth and our assent to it, and that is that we moderns who speak about “believing” and “faith” are off the mark as far as the original meaning of these concepts is concerned. … For us in the present century, the words “faith” and “belief” have come to be understood within a context established by Luther, Pascal, Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard, and many others who have followed the same path. The result in the present climate is that faith is not considered to be a form of knowledge, nor does belief entail certitude. To believe is neither “to be certain about” nor “to know”. In Hebrew, emunah, translated into Greek by pistis, means objective certitude regarding the truth. In our modern parlance, however, faith is nothing more than a subjective conviction divorced from objective knowledge as well as from certitude about it. (Tresmontant, The Hebrew Christ: Language in the Age of the Gospels, pp. 150-151)
The author of Wisdom, speaking of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, tells us that the deaths of the first-born of Egypt “was known beforehand to our fathers, that, with sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith, they might have courage” (Wisdom 18:6 NAB). Likewise, the author of Hebrews says that Abraham received the power to generate children “even though he was past the normal age — and Sarah herself was sterile — for he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy” (Hebrews 11:11 NAB). They were certain of God’s objective trustworthiness, and were amply rewarded for that certainty.
The author of Hebrew tells us that faith is the hypostasis of that which is hoped for (cf. Hebrews 11:1 Greek). By realization the editors of the New American Bible mean that faith gives reality, or substance, to that which is hoped for; the trust we place in the source of our hope is the foundation of that hope. When we trust a person, we need not check behind them to verify that they have done what they have said they would do; when we have faith in a person, we know they will achieve what they set out to do. So much is true for flawed, failing mortals; how much more is it true of God, who is Truth itself!
The Master Will Return
The readings for Sunday, July 31st were, in a sense, about getting our priorities straight. While there is nothing morally wrong about building a material legacy, the readings from both Ecclesiastes and St. Luke remind us that, when we die, that material legacy does us no particular good. Moreover, the length of our lives is not guaranteed us; this night, your soul may be required of you, as it was of the Rich Fool (cf. Luke 13:20). “Set your minds on things that are above,” says St. Paul, “not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:2-3 RSVCE).
Where last week one’s death is the unknown, this Sunday the unknown is the master’s return — “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night” (Psalm 90:4 RSVCE). Here the wedding feast is chosen because such feasts could last well into the night. A night was four watches long, so Jesus is talking about the master arriving anywhere between 9pm and 3am, when most honest people were in their beds. This was not an unusual occurrence; Jesus chose similes people could relate to.
Saint Peter asks if the simile is meant for everyone or specifically for the apostles. Jesus then sharpens the simile by bringing into it the steward, the master’s chief of staff, and promises that, if things are not in order when the master returns, it will go harder on the steward than on anyone else, precisely because he more than any other servant knows the master’s will: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48 NAB)
Most importantly, though, the servants have every reason to expect the master’s return. He is not going away to war, or to tend a sick relative, or to do anything which would make his return doubtful. What time he will return may be anyone’s guess; that he will return, however, is not a mere hope or a matter of opinion. When he does return, no matter how long it takes, he should find the servants doing their set tasks, and ready to tend to his needs.
The Proof of Things Unseen
Faith, then, is not mere credulity; it is a placing of trust in One who is by His nature trustworthy. If we are “buying a pig in a poke”, we know the pig will be in it, because we know the Person will not offer what He does not have, and that He will not make a promise he cannot or will not fulfill. He has already sent a pledge of His good faith, in the Person of His Son, who by his sacrifice on the Cross puts paid to our moral debts.
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” Our profession of faith is an assertion of objective truths. It remains for us to live as people certain of the truths we profess. We are servants of the Lord. Our Master will return; so let us do all that we have been commanded, that when our Master returns we may not be found derelict in our duty.