Texts for Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Nov 3, 2019): OT – Habakkuk 1:1–4; 2:1–4; Psalm 119:137–144; NT – 2 Thessalonians 1:1–4, 11–12; Gospel – Luke 19:1–10
All biblical quotations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted
Texts cited: Texts For Preaching: Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C, eds. Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCain, James D. Newsome (Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) – cited as TFP “The Book of Habakkuk: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” Theodore Hiebert in The New Interpreters Bible: Volume VII (Abingdon Press, 1996), pp. 623-655 – cited as TNIB Our lectionary readings for today are the sort that are not easily summarize in a unifying theme.
Our NT text in 2 Thessalonians is concerned with the salvation that is to come in the eschaton – sometimes called, “the Day of Judgment” (cf. v. 10). Our lection (in)conveniently skips over the challenging section about God’s coming judgment and its severity. But this is seriously misleading, as in Greek verses 3-12 actually constitute a single complex sentence. That is, they are a single unit of thought (TFP p. 581). We need, then, to understand the thankfulness and “boasting” (vv. 3-4) over the Thessalonian perseverance and faith, and the prayer that would God would count them worthy (vv. 11-12), always in the light of “the blazing fire” that will reveal “the Lord Jesus” (v. 7), and the judgment that will fall on those who are disobedient to Jesus (vv. 8-9). It is very important to note, however, that the focus of the passage is not on the way Christians are to think about and treat those who are not obedient to Christ, but on their own worthiness (TFP p. 582).
The Gospel today from Luke 19 is the only place in the Gospels that we hear the story of Zacchaeus. Luke is a master story-teller and the details of this episode subtly hint at key themes in Luke’s Gospel, and the story is written so that the characters and the action and dialogue connect to illustrate Luke’s purposes in tell the Good News of Jesus Christ. As my focus will not be on this passage, I will resist drawing these out in detail, but I will make a few observations. First, this story of Zacchaeus is, as almost all commentators note, the obverse of the story of the rich ruler immediately preceding it in chapter 18. There, Jesus’ point seems to be that nothing short of an act of God can enable rich people to enter the kingdom of God. Zacchaeus, then, is the expression of that divine intervention. As TFP summarizes, “Unlike the ruler, Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus enables a distancing of himself from his riches. He gives to poor and promises restitution to any he may have cheated” (p. 583). Second, this story illustrates perfectly Luke’s conception of the effect of believing the Good News. That is to say, it shows us what Jesus’s salvation looks like in the details of our lives. Finally, this story has a wonderful reversal in it that is key to Luke’s Gospel. Initially we see Zacchaeus seeking out Jesus, but by the end of the story we understand that, actually, Zacchaeus is one of “the lost,” and it is Jesus – “the Son of Man” – who is seeking out Zacchaeus to save him (v. 10).
My main focus, though, is on our OT text from Habakkuk. Habakkuk is a prophet in Judah, and is a contemporary of Jeremiah’s. The opening lines of this text could be a response to our contemporary situation. One can imagine a prophet of God saying these exact words as she looks around the world today. Everywhere one looks there is “destruction and violence” (1.3) and justice is very hard to find. Habakkuk is horrified by the social injustices that are the norm in Judah. TNIB notes (p. 631) that Habakkuk is referring to the social disorder rampant in Judean politics and that “the injustice Habakkuk deplores…is best understood as the abuse of power in the administration of Jehoiakim, whose reign in Judah from 609-597 BCE is chronicled in 2 Kgs 23:34-24:37.” We know from Jeremiah (and other sources) that Jehoiakim’s regime was oppressive and rife with exploitation of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful. Habakkuk’s central theological concerns involve the inequities in the judicial system, the economic exploitation of the poor by the wealthy, and the breakdown of social order (TNIB p. 632).
The core of the Book of Habakkuk is comprised of a series of conversations with God, in which, as TFP notes (p. 577), the prophet puts questions to God and God answers them. In our reading, 1.1-4 present Habakkuk’s questioning of God, while in 2.1-4 we have God’s response.
Our reading broaches the question, which we saw also troubled Jeremiah, of “How long” (1.2) God can allow evil and injustice to dominate and prevail. Habakkuk goes on to articulate a version of what often is called in philosophy of religion, “the problem of evil.” Habakkuk finds God’s inaction and apparent indifference to the proliferation of injustice in the land (1.3), which renders God’s law inoperative and ineffectual (1.4), deeply problematic. He cannot understand why God would allow this to go on. While Habakkuk does not develop this as a formal argument and draw out the premises, he seems to be saying that the existence of the kinds and extent of injustice/evil that Habakkuk sees around him is incompatible (or at very least is inconsistent) with the sort of God Israel believes YHWH to be – one who is personal, good, loving, Almighty, Holy, all-knowing, etc. As TNIB (p. 633) puts it, “If God is really God [as Israel believes God to be]—in control of the world—God cannot be good or just and also allow injustice and suffering to exist and endure. If God is really good and just, God cannot be in control of such a corrupt world.” Habakkuk, furthermore, is dumbfounded that God would allow God’s Law to be rendered inoperative. He finds this behaviour by YHWH to be incomprehensible given what he knows (or believes) about YHWH. To put it in terms of the contemporary debate in philosophy of religion, Habakkuk seems to believe firmly that a good God will eliminate evil as far as possible. If that’s the case, it appears – in the face of the amount of evil and its extreme nature – that either God is incapable of stopping evil, or God doesn’t care about it. If it is the former, God is not as mighty as Habakkuk thinks. If it is the latter, God is not good. Either way, YHWH is not who Habakkuk thinks YHWH is.
Note that Habakkuk is focused on systemic evil/injustice – the breakdown of social order – and not personal evil. It is important also, I think, to note that there are at least two assumptions Habakkuk seems to make in order to insist on his dilemma. The first is that if God wishes to eliminate evil, God will act in the same ways that Habakkuk would act to eliminate evil. The second assumption is that if Habakkuk does not perceive that God is acting, then God must not be acting. (And I could also add a third assumption: That Habakkuk knows what “evil” “justice” look like.)
What is particularly interesting, is Habakkuk’s response to this dilemma. First, he speaks to YHWH about it – not to other people. He voices his complaint to God and does not give up relating to God. Second, he positions himself to hear YHWH’s reply – he sets up his watch and stations himself “on the ramparts” (2.1); he seeks out YHWH and looks to see what YHWH will say to him (2.1). He does not abandon belief and hope in God, and he does not wallow in self-pity or despair. And God does, in fact, reply (in 2.2-4). In essence, the reply is something like this: It may seem that God takes a very long time to act and reveal what God’s will is, but God reveals and acts at just the right time. So it will take patience and perseverence to see the truth come out (2.3). And here is the truth: “the proud,” whom we are to associate with the evil/injustice as their perpetrators, are deluded by a false perspective of the world that is illusionary – the NRSV says that “their spirit is not right,” which is a much more accurate translation that the NIV’s “desires are not upright” (2.4). That is, the proud spiritual disposition of the unrighteous do not place them in the right position to see God at work and understand God's purposes in the world. “The righteous,” however, “live by [their] faith” (2.4). Actually, the word for “faith” used here is really “faithfulness.” So God is contrasting the spiritual disposition of the proud with those who live lives of faithfulness to God. The righteous, in steadfastly committing themselves to God and remaining in relationship with God come, slowly and assiduously, to see and understand the world and God and how God works in the world.
This text is saying, in other words, that for the righteous, God is not just a theoretical proposition but a fundamental reality in their lives that informs how they believe about and act in the world. They do not believe in God merely because God is the conclusion of a philosophical debate about the probability of God’s existence or how best to explain evil and suffering and injustice in the world. The righteous believe in God because God is a lived reality in their lives and they cannot understand themselves or their world in any other terms. There is a completely different “spirit” that characterizes (or animates) the lives of the righteous (who believe in God) that is characterized by trust and dependence – an ongoing commitment to living one’s life with God and in relationship with God. In other words, the so-called problem of evil is not merely a logical one, and the answer to it can never be an abstract philosophical argument. It will be a life lived faithfully with God. As TFP summarizes: “[I]nsight into this problem comes to women and men who are confident that God has certain purposes in human life and those purposes are full of love and grace—even if God’s people do not always understand in detail what God is up to” (p. 578).