Somebody won the $400 million dollar Powerball jackpot last week. If it wasn’t you, don’t despair; there’s still time to spend your hard-earned money on a 1 in 175,000,000 chance of winning the next game. I am reminded of what they say in the military services about wishing: wish in one hand, and spit in the other, and watch to see which one fills up first.
Our second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, says “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1) Because of the way we are conditioned to think in the western world, we tend to interpret these words to mean something that would have been completely foreign to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews; we tend to think of faith as something like gambling on the lottery.
I can’t overemphasize the degree to which culture affects the thought process. To many in this country, spending two dollars (or two hundred), on Powerball tickets looks like a smart investment, given the possibility of winning millions. The multi-billion dollar gambling industry in this country depends solely on our willingness to take exorbitant risk for the remote possibility of serendipitous reward. If, on the other hand, we lived in the favelas (slums), visited by Pope Francis when he was in Brazil recently, we would never think of spending even a dollar on a lottery; a dollar might make the difference between our family eating tonight or going to bed hungry.
The place, and time, at which we live has a great deal to do with the way in which we think. Today, when we read the words “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1), we tend necessarily to interpret this in a future-oriented way. That is, we understand these words as saying something like, ‘Faith makes us believe in the possibility of good things that we hope will happen for us’ (like winning the Lottery). Our thought process is deeply influenced by our culture, a culture that both gambles on the future (think of the Wall Street derivatives traders whose “irrational exuberance” precipitated the mortgage and banking crisis), and has a Pollyanna-like naive optimism (for example, about gambling).
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews would never have had this thought. The Letter to Hebrews is a very practical, common-sense, homily about baptism and the life that one must lead in order to be faithful to the Baptismal Covenant. The Letter to the Hebrews says the same kinds of things about Baptism that the first reading says about the Covenant with Moses. Commenting on the faith of the Israelites while they waited for God to deliver them from bondage in Egypt, the book of Wisdom says they had “sure knowledge of the oaths in which they put their faith.” (Wis 18:6) That is to say, the Israelites had remained faithful to God, and were certain that God would be faithful to them. They weren’t wishing for something in the future; rather, they had certainty and security based on their own fidelity to God’s will.
The line from Hebrews says, literally, “Faith is the reality of those things for which we hope; it is the proof of deeds not seen.” If we were to put the Letter’s words into Standard English we might say, “Having faith means that we lead lives founded on the forgiveness that comes from God; it (faith), is our public witness that we trust in the promised effects of God’s saving deeds.”
This isn’t about wishing for something, or desiring some particular outcome from God. This passage of Scripture is saying that faith is our public statement that we trust in the salvation and forgiveness that comes only from God; it is testimony to our trust in the efficacy of God’s actions. Rather than a future oriented definition of how to get things we wish we had, this is a working definition based on the real-life experience of being faithful to the Baptismal Covenant with God.
These are two distinct, and unrelated, versions of what it means to be in relationship with God. The first (faith as wishing for a particular outcome), portrays God as being something like the Lottery or Powerball games. In this definition of faith we go to the altar of worship, do our obeisance, and hope for the fulfillment of our wishes. If our number doesn’t come up, we go back the next time, and try again.
While there are many who view God in this fashion, this isn’t God, at least, not the God who reveals himself in the Scriptures. Faith isn’t the same as gambling. The insecurity that so many people feel about their faith is the direct result of the fact that their faith is more like a bet than a commitment. Many people are willing to wager a few Communions and Commandments in order to get what they want; fewer are willing to commit to Holy Communion and the Commandments as a public testimony about how to live.
The second view of God, the one that the author of Hebrews describes based on his personal experience, is a God who has already acted on humanity’s behalf. There isn’t more to be gotten from God than what God has already offered, namely, God’s Son. In this definition of faith, we bring to the Altar our daily experience of having been faithful to the Lord’s teachings; we give thanks, and we know (through faith), that God’s offer of salvation has changed the course of our lives and human history. Real, biblical faith provides the security and serenity that derives from knowing God, knowing God’s will and knowing that one has been faithful to God’s will.
Faith is living a particular type of life, a life that gives evidence of an on-going relationship with the God who is revealed in the Scriptures. The Baptismal homily in the Letter to the Hebrews cited the example of Abraham and Sarah, who trusted in God’s promise that they would have a child in their old age. The Letter said that, because of their faith, “God is not ashamed to be called their God.” (Heb 11:16)
What better compliment could be paid to anyone, than to say “God is not ashamed to be called their God”? That blessed and privileged state can be ours when our lives proclaim publicly that we are not ashamed to call God our God. This is what the Letter to the Hebrews defines as faith, namely, a life that is clear testimony to God’s saving deeds.