The righteous ones who wait for God’s justice will be justified by their faith.
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
The prophetic reading is from Habakkuk, the only time in the three-year cycle of the Lectionary that this prophet will be heard from. Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah and the dialogue between him and the Lord in 1:2-2:5 took place in the same period (609 to 598 BCE) when Jeremiah was trying to convince King Jehoiakim that God was bringing the Chaldeans (Babylonians) against Judah as the punishment for sin (Jeremiah 36).
Habakkuk complains to God about violence, wrongdoing, and perversion of the law that is going on in his society (1:2-4). God’s answer—not included in our reading—is to announce the coming of the terrible and overwhelming Chaldeans to punish the wrongdoers (1:5-11). The injustice and social chaos Habakkuk complains of is the consequence of an overwhelming judgment that sweeps all away—raw power that is beyond morality or justice (see 1:5-11). Subsequently, after the Chaldeans have come and swallowed little peoples “more righteous than they,” the prophet complains about the conquerors (1:12-17). God’s answer to this second complaint is narrated by the prophet in 2:1-4 (or 2:1-5).
The prophet makes himself a watchman, on the lookout for God’s answer to the problem—the seeming injustice caused by God’s judgment. God’s answer to the second complaint is that there is a “vision” of the justice yet to come, and the prophet should write this vision on publicly displayed tablets for all to read. “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; / it speaks of the end, and does not lie” (2:3). The content of this vision—or the first part of it—is given in verse 2:4, the last half of which is the famous quote, “the just shall live by his faith” (King James Version, quoted in Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; and Hebrews 10:37-38—the last a rather free translation).
This key verse is pretty difficult to interpret in its Hebrew version, especially the first half of the verse. (See the discussion by Ted Hiebert in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII [Abingdon Press, 1996], pp. 641-42.) It is clear that two persons are being contrasted, one is proud (or faint-hearted) and the other is the righteous or “just” one. Survival is the issue. The “proud” one will not be upright, or will not stand straight—that is, will not endure. The righteous one, on the other hand, will live—that is, will survive—because of his faith in God’s promise of justice. That survival of the righteous one is the “end” the vision refers to, which is an end that must be waited for. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; / it will surely come, it will not delay” (verse 3, NRSV).
Ted Hiebert summarizes the broader meaning. “At a time when the wicked are in control, when the vision describing God’s intention to reestablish justice has not yet become a reality, Habakkuk is called in the interim to trust God’s assurances and to remain faithful.” (Ibid., p. 642.)
The Lectionary reading stops with verse 4. However, the NRSV translation (and also the NIV) invites us to read verse 5 as the continuation of God’s answer to the complaint, an answer that further describes the proud or arrogant one who will not survive. He is a ravenous monster. Accepting the NRSV correction of the opening phrase, we read,
Moreover, wealth is treacherous;
the arrogant do not endure.
They open their throats wide as Sheol;
like Death they never have enough.
They gather all nations for themselves,
and collect all peoples as their own (verse 5).
The arrogant empire, which has been the instrument of God’s judgment, has become a terror to the nations.
The Psalm reading is another stanza from the great acrostic psalm devoted to praise of God’s instruction (torah) and guidance. (The technique and devotion of this Psalm were discussed in the Psalm reading for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, Oct. 17th, two Sundays ago.)
This stanza, in which all lines begin with the Hebrew letter tsādēh (18th in the alphabet), especially praises the righteousness (a word beginning with tsādēh) of God’s commandments and rule. “You are righteous, O Lord, / and your judgments are right” (verse 137, NRSV). This is precisely the affirmation contained in the vision Habakkuk is commanded to write in large letters. The key term “faith(fullness)” from Habakkuk 2:4 appears in the next verse of the psalm: “You have appointed your decrees in righteousness / and in all faithfulness (trustworthiness).”
The circle of Torah pietists who praised God in this psalm were dedicated to waiting, as the prophet had been commanded, until their faith in God’s justice is openly or secretly revealed in due time.
II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
The opening of this letter, written in Paul’s name, contains the standard items: the writers are Paul and his assistants Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy, they address the church of the Thessalonians in the name of God and Jesus, and they pray for grace and peace upon the church. The “thanksgiving” then is used to selectively praise aspects of that church’s life. We “boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring” (verse 4, NRSV). Steadfastness in faith under persecution—for that the Apostle gives thanks to God.
Our reading skips to what the apostles pray for, which is basically that the Thessalonians keep on keeping on—and by doing so keep attracting new converts to their novel way of living in the world. What Paul, Silas, and Timothy pray for is that God will work through the faithful, more than that the faithful will exert themselves. They pray “that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith…” (verse 11). If the Thessalonians make “good resolves” and plan “works of faith,” it will be God who determines how they go, whether they are acceptable and thus successful. Life in this congregation, where everyone is newly converted, is directed by God’s activity moving through the intentions and best efforts of the people.
For these new folks there are no old religious formalities to divert the pious from justice and mercy. This is a God-intoxicated community—that is even, perhaps, too much engrossed in the divine to fully care for day-to-day responsibilities (see 3:6-13).
The Gospel reading is the delightful story of short but rich Zacchaeus, the Chairman and CEO of Tax Collectors, Inc. of Jericho. (This story has to be a utopian fantasy for every fundraiser for a faith-based organization!)
Zacchaeus wanted to see who this new celebrity, Jesus, might be. Since his view was blocked by the crowds, he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to view Jesus as he passed. Jesus spotted him up the tree and, we may speculate, decided that there must be a project in this energetic guy. In any case, Jesus calls Zacchaeus out of the tree and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for a banquet that night – thereby changing Zacchaeus’ life forever.
Zacchaeus’ neighbors in Jericho—probably good observant Jews who avoided contact with unclean people and the disgraceful tax collectors—grumbled, not about Zacchaeus but about Jesus, who had “gone to be the guest of a sinner” (verse 7, NRSV).
At the gathering at Zacchaeus’ house, the host stands and makes a marvelous public declaration in response to his acceptance by Jesus. He vows to give half his possessions to the poor—the critical neighbors, most likely, receiving none of this generosity—and also to repay any fraudulent business transactions by 400 percent of the amounts involved. This latter vow might well have benefited some of the critical neighbors who had suffered from the computations of the tax collector! Outcast or not, they would relish a 400% return on their involuntary investments in his enterprises.
Zacchaeus is a striking case of one who turned from his evil ways and began to seek justice—all because the Lord summoned him in the midst of his opulent life. In a remarkable way, the judgment of the Lord had come unexpectedly upon Zacchaeus, and he responded generously, bringing blessings to the poor and bonuses to many of the carping but hopefully softened citizens of Jericho.
Jesus’ pronouncement declared that, “Today salvation has come to this house,” because this stature-challenged little outcast is also a son of Abraham, and thus an heir to the promises of blessing to the peoples.