Accomplished through Faith
Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Joseph Campbell was an American writer and a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work covers many aspects of the human experience. Campbell's best-known work is his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (1949), in which he discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero shared by world mythologies, termed the monomyth. His study of the hero in literature is very much in line with Jungian psychology which divides all of the human family into seven archetypes: the father (Authority figure), the mother (Nurture and Comfort), the child (innocence), the wisdom figure (guidance and knowledge, the maiden (desire and purity), the trickster (deceiver, liar and trouble-maker), and finally the hero (champion).
Heroes have emerged in every age and in every culture. They begin as people who are comfortable, living in perfect domesticity. Something happens to or within the hero that pushes him (or her) out of the comfortable and into the unknown, sometimes referred to as the “terra incognita.” Through the efforts of the hero, this unknown land is opened so that others may also dwell in it.
Today we read from the Letter to the Hebrews, specifically the first verses from chapter eleven, which draws upon the first nine chapters of Genesis, the time known as the period of the patriarchs. We hear today of the first of the patriarchs; namely, Abraham. His story is followed by the stories of many others from Hebrew Scripture who have become heroes in the minds of the Jewish people, people like Moses, the judges, the prophets, and the Maccabean martyrs.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews identifies the predominant characteristic of these people as faith. The entire chapter draws upon the people and events of the Old Testament to paint an inspiring portrait of religious faith, firm and unyielding in the face of any obstacles that confront it. These pages rank among the most eloquent and lofty to be found in the Bible. It all begins with Abraham who is called out of his comfortable home in Ur of the Chaldees into an unknown land which God has promised to him and his progeny.
We are told that all that Abraham accomplished, indeed all that the heroes of the Old Testament accomplished, was done by faith. This faith is not so much belief in as it is confidence in God. Abraham believed that he could trust God to fulfill the promises which bound them together in a covenantal relationship. Those promises included God’s assurance that Abraham would become the father of many nations despite his advanced age and the sterility of his wife Sarah. By placing his trust in God, Abraham opened up the unknown land which they called the promised land. All those who followed after Abraham enjoyed the fulfillment of that promise.
If we look at all of the heroic characters from the Hebrew Scriptures, we can find that they do fit into the archetypal hero model first offered by Joseph Campbell and by Carl Jung. This particular chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews is forty verses long and speaks of many of them in something of a review of what we have come to know as salvation history. (I would like to suggest that when you return to your homes today, you open your Bibles to chapter eleven and read for yourself of this history.)
One of the statements that the author makes, however, really struck me forcefully. “All these (namely, all the people of the Old Testament) died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth, for those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland.”
In speaking of the people of the Old Testament in this fashion, the author is challenging us because we have received what God had promised. In the person of Jesus, all of God’s promises were fulfilled. Through our baptism into Christ Jesus, we have realized that God has forgiven our sins and promised us a new homeland – heaven itself. The challenge, therefore, is for all of us to accomplish even greater works through faith. If our ancestors accomplished so much through their faith, never realizing the fulfillment of God’s promises, how much more might we who have been saved accomplish!
This is further explained in the Gospel parable that we hear today. St. Luke writes, “Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.” A little later we read, “Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so.” Indeed, how blessed will we be if Jesus finds us ready and full of faith when he calls us home or when he comes again.