Contemporary and Awful and Faithful

Proper 26, Year C
Habakkuk 1:1-4;2:1-4
Psalm 119:137-144
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4,11-12
Luke 19:1-10

There is no single thread uniting all of the Lections for this week, but there are several smaller threads that unite one with another. Habakkuk begins with words as contemporary and awful as the week’s newspapers. Death and destruction and horror control human history but not God’s history. A brief word promised of God to the horrors is so important that he says it is written large enough that those running by can see it, and it will give hope to those who endure through their faithfulness.
“Trouble and anguish” also pervade 2 Thessalonians, but here it is the “persecutions and afflictions” that the faithful suffer through while waiting for the imminent return of Jesus. But here, the suffering has a direct purpose: “to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering.”
While salvation in the eschaton is the subject of 2 Thessalonians, the concern (well, one concern) of the Gospel text is with salvation in the present: “today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus announces to the crowd concerning Zacchaeus.

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Habakkuk is one of the most poignant and painful books in the Bible. Judah has evidently been faced first with corruption and then with invasion, and for each the prophet goes to God in prayer, searching for help or explanations for the crimes. The issue is theodicy, how can we justify the goodness of God and the powerfulness of God, with the presence of evil. The heart of the book consists of a prayer dialogue between Habakkuk (about whom we know nothing) and God (Yahweh), concerning the (theological) meaning behind the atrocities that have befallen his country. From references in the text, it seems that he wrote when Babylonian armies were ravaging Judah, before the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC, but the problem is universal. One could easily envision someone from Syria today making the same cries, or any one of a number of other countries that are going through political or economic or military ravages. For that matter, anyone we know whose body is being ravaged by MS or MD or cancer or Leukemia or any grindingly debilitating terminal disease, can identify with the tears of Habakkuk when he saw the end coming and looked to God for an explanation. His pain (especially in the sections not covered in the chosen Lections) is a universal, physical, emotional, and “theodical” pain.
The first section “how long, O Lord” stands in a tradition of other complaint passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. Here are some examples:
Pss. 13:1-2
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Psalm 62:3
3 How long will you assail a person,
will you batter your victim, all of you,
as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?

Job 19:2
2 “How long will you torment me,
and break me in pieces with words?

In vss. 2-4, Habakkuk seems concerned not about wars, but about the suffering caused by rampant corruption and injustice in his country, something that also sounds eerily contemporary. “Strife and contention arise,” he says. “The law becomes slack, and justice never prevails” (v.4). And he asks why God seems so silent on them. “How long will I cry for help and you will not listen” (v. 2).
Following that, in sections not included in our Lectionary, Yahweh responds. Not with explanations, but with confrontations:
“Look and seeI am rousing the Chaldeans (probably Babylonians)
      that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through he breadth of the earth
      To seize dwellings not their own” (vv. 5-6).
The trouble is that those sent to right the wrongs of oppression and corruption are an army which has “come for violence” (v. 9a) and not just to right the previous wrongs. “Justice and dignity proceed from themselves” (v. 7a), he says of them. “Their might is their God” (11b). The “cure” becomes worse than the “disease.”
After a devastating attack from an army who appear to be messengers of God’s will, Habakkuk returns to prayer once again, this time in despair over the increased suffering caused by the very ones he believes were sent to respond to his first prayer. He begins by acknowledging that God has “marked them for judgmentand established them for punishment” (v. 12). But his question is that since “Your eyes are too pure to behold evilwhy do you look upon the treacherous and are silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?” (v. 13). In other words, “Aren’t you God? Why do you allow this misery to happen to your people? Doesn’t using such wicked enemies as your agents go against your very essence? (v. 13).” The enemy is merciless and self-serving, like someone who catches helpless fish (v. 15); he worships his own achievement, in immense pride (v. 16). Does God care, when God’s appointed enemies are intent on “destroying nations”? (v. 17).
Following that, and returning to verses contained in the Lectionary, the prophet says that he will now wait for another word from Yahweh. “I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer” (v. 2: 1b). (As an interesting aside, note that 2:1, in the King James Version, is the verse taken by the Jehovah’s Witnesses for the title for their most important magazine, The Watchtower: “I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved.”)
The final response from God eventually comes (v. 2). The indication is that it is of such critical importance that the prophet should write the message sufficiently large that someone can even see it while running by. However, what is written on the tablets is never precisely stated. It is possible that it is included in the final message of v. 4. It is possible that the message from God, which is written large for runners (running from the Chaldeans?), which is “the vision for the appointed time,” that “speaks of the end,” and “does not lie,” is that “the righteous live by their faith(fulness)” v. 4c).
This is, incidentally, a phrase that is taken up and given critical importance by the Apostle Paul. He interprets it (some would say contorts it) to mean that if you have faith in Jesus Christ, then you will live (for eternity). What Habakkuk meant was that if you have faithfulness, i.e. steadfast trust, you will survive (in this life). This is a profound message in its own right and should be preached on its own and not connected to Paul. It is unfortunate that the most important phrase in the Pauline corpus is based on a misunderstanding of Habakkuk because it has great strength on its own, without Paul's help.
For what it’s worth, the two most famous places where Paul quotes it are:
Galatians 3:11      “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’”
Romans 1:17        “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’”
In the context of Habakkuk, it means something like, if you maintain your faithfulness and don’t give in, give up, or give out, then you will endure/survive/live until the end. It is a perfectly fine—though different—message than Paul’s. The point of Habakkuk is that overwhelming evil is not to be explained by logic.
I remember a fine made-for-TV movie during the eighties starring Jane Alexander and called (I think) “Testament.” It was about a town that was trying to survive following the explosion of nuclear weapons over the US. People in the town were slowly dying. A mother and her two children were trying to get by, but eventually the youngest child dies of radiation poisoning. At one point the mother attempts suicide with the children, but can’t go through with it. They eventually ask her, will we live? And she, now resigned to their fate, says, of course. We will always live until the end. We will survive until the very end. When we die it will be the end. We can’t rush it, we can’t delay it. If we are strong, we will survive until the end.
That’s a promise. Not an easy one, not always a satisfying one, to those of us who feel immortal and don’t want there to ever be an end. But it is a holy one. If you are faithful, i.e. strong, trusting, courageous, then God will be with you. You will feel “survival’ in your bones up to and including the very, very end.

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

There is some degree of debate among scholars as to whether 2 Thessalonians was actually written by Paul. Much of it sounds like him, but parts of it sound more like a polemic against an overly fervent reaction to some of the things he said in 1 Thessalonians. For example, while 1 Thessalonians assumes that Christ will come again soon (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), and emphasizes that his appearance will be a surprise, and that we cannot know when it will happen (see 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11), the “flavor” of 2 Thessalonians is in the opposite direction: Christ will come, but not soon. While some scholars explain the contrast between the two letters by saying that Paul wrote the second letter soon after the first to overcome the disruption that expectation of the imminent end caused, and to say that ethical conduct still matters, others see the shift in emphasis as being so abrupt as to make Pauline authorship unlikely. They also point out that significant differences in style suggest a different author for the second letter.[1]
One problematic issue is with the lectionary’s version of the text, which leaves out the heart of the passage in vv. 5-10. The reason is that these vss. are full of all of the blood and guts of hell fire and damnation that the pre-millennialist fundamentalists love, but which give liberals a nose bleed. But when they are left out, we lose the entire point of the passage, which is the coming, the parousia, of Jesus Christ.
Paul begins the letter (after introductory salutations) by giving thanks for the Christians at Thessalonica for two things:
(1)   their growth in “faith” (v. 3) and love—because faith works itself out in love; and
(2)   their example to other churches of remaining faithful in spite of sufferings (probably ostracism) (v. 4). (Perhaps this is a point of connection with Habakkuk?)
That they do endure through their sufferings is “evidence” (v. 5) that, at the end of the era, God will find them worthy of eternal life. When Christ comes again (“is revealed ...”, v. 7), God will cause those who hurt them to suffer (v. 6) “inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God” (v. 8) (this is when the nosebleed comes in). God  will grant “relief” (v. 7, rest) to those who have suffered.
In general, those who have never heard of God, and those who have heard but refused to accept the gospel, will suffer “eternal destruction” (v. 9, presumably the opposite of “eternal life”), forever separated from Christ. When Christ comes again, he will raise the faithful (“saints”, v. 10) to be with him. With this objective (“to this end”, v. 11), Paul (or whoever) continually petitions God in prayer first, to make the Christians at Thessalonica worthy of being called by God, and second, to support to completion (through the power of, “the name of our Lord Jesus”, v. 12) whatever intentions (“resolve”) and acts of trust in God they initiate—so that Christ’s godliness (goodness) may be seen in them, and theirs in Christ—achieved through the Father’s and the Son’s “grace”, his gift of love.

Luke 19:1-10


The story takes place in Jericho, at the end of the “Travel Narrative” (chs. 9:51-19:27), which contains a great deal of material found only in Luke, which he drew from his special source, “L”. As he comes to the end of this section, Luke inserts this story, which is also found only in Luke.
This is also the end of a long section which began at Chapter 15, often called the “Gospel of the Outcast,” because in one way or another, all of the characters in it are marginalized or outcasts. This section is also occasionally called the “heart” of Luke’s Gospel, because, “here Luke’s use of his ‘L’ material seems to reveal a deliberate attempt to show God’s concern for those human beings whom people tend to despise or condemn.”[2]
Included in that section are stories of the Lost Coin, Sheep, and Son (Prodigal), the dishonest manager, the dishonest judge, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Ten Lepers, and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It is interesting to note and wonder about, that Luke ends his “Gospel of the Outcasts” just as Jesus is entering Jerusalem, in which he will be “despised and rejected,” and left to die outside the gates of the city….
In terms of the origin of the story itself, most Bible scholars question whether it is an actual story of Jesus. The “Jesus Seminar” people give it a black rating, which means not at all likely that it happened. One probable scenario is that it was expanded by Luke, or his tradition, from the story of the call of Levi the tax collector (Mk 2:14; Lk 5:27) with which it has a large number of similarities. Bultmann believes it to be derived and elaborated from that story, but by Luke’s tradition, not Luke himself. He believes that Luke himself added v. 8 (about Zacchaeus giving away half his goods, etc.) to the story. He thinks this for two reasons. First, because it contains some typical Lukan language and a message about giving to the poor, a major concern of Luke’s. (Or as Bultmann puts it, less generously, “its moral suits him.”[3]
Second, because vv. 7 and 9 read fairly well together without v. 8 in between them.[4] He also thinks that v. 10 is added, because it is a saying that shows up in other contexts unrelated to this story (Luke 9:56, Matt. 18:11). However, Joseph Fitzmyer and others disagree, saying that there is nothing wrong with saying that Jesus could have said the same thing on more than one occasion. 
To me, v 9 is a little garbled, and that may be a result of the passage’s composite nature. It begins with “Then Jesus said to him [Zacchaeus],” but then he addresses the crowd instead, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Bultmann argues that the solution is that the text should follow the ancient variants that have “Then Jesus said, “with reference to him” instead of “to him,” and I guess that helps, but if that is the case, I wonder why the nrsv folk never figured that out. In our English version, the passage is just unclear.

Note on Tax (Toll)-Collectors

This is probably not of great interest to anybody, but I looked it up so you’ve got to hear about it. There was a difference in Israel between a Toll-collector, and a Chief Toll-collector. Last week’s parable was about an underling. Tax collection in Jesus’ time was not like that of the “Republican” era of a few hundred years earlier. In those days there were huge and wealthy tax collection associations which were much more systematic in their collection. During Jesus’ time, the Imperial era, Rome farmed the collection out to cities, or individuals who paid the tax up front and then got it from the people by whatever means they could. The system was difficult and barely ever profitable. The leaders at the top occasionally made some money at it, but the underlings below (like last week’s tax collector) usually did not. Because of that, most tax collectors were rootless wanderers who could not make a living any other way. It’s only moderately important to point this out, (but you’ve got to hear about it), but there were two kinds of taxes: Direct taxes and indirect. Direct taxes were on property: land, crops, or individuals. Indirect were tolls, duties, and market items. The toll collectors (like Levi in Mark 2:14) sat at booths at bridges, gates, landings, etc. to asses the value and the taxes for items being transported for purpose of sale. (Incidentally, prostitutes had to pay tax on their bodies when crossing a border because it was used for commercial purposes.)
An interesting problem in interpreting this passage is that, logically, some tax collectors were dishonest, but at least some others must have been honest, and some were in between. However, they are universally dissed in the Gospels. Why? To understand that, Malina and Rohrbaugh make the obvious observation that taxes were collected on almost nobody but the rich (those who had land or property). The poor had little to be taxed for, and there was no middle class to speak of. So, logically, those who would hate the tax collectors and be constantly calling for tax relief, would most of the time be those of the wealthy classes (or those from the poorer classes who have been convinced by the wealthy and the media that our taxes are too high, but that’s another story). It’s interesting to note, that in almost every instance of a negative assessment of tax collectors in the NT, it comes from the (wealthy) Pharisees. Read for example, Matthew 9:9-12, Jesus’ call of Matthew the tax collector, and the criticism by the Pharisees; Matthew 22:15-22, the Pharisees questioning of Jesus about who should pay taxes; or last week’s Lection, Luke 18:9-14, comparing a pompous Pharisee and a repentant tax collector.[5]
By contrast to this, tax collectors are all but universally befriended by Jesus.  See for example, Matt:9:-12, the call of Matthew; Matt. 21:31, Jesus’ assessment that even the “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you[the ‘chief priests and the elders of the people’],” and that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed [John] and even after you [the chief priests, etc.] saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” And others.
Perhaps the greatest interpretive problem in the story is v. 8. The nrsv has the verbs in the future tense, “Half of my possessions I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Joseph Fitzmyer, in his commentary on Luke, notes that the problem with this translation is that in the Greek, the words are all in the present tense, which dramatically alters the meaning of the passage: didōmi (“I give away”), and apodidomi (“I give, pay back”). The question, then, for preachers is, do these words describe Zacchaeus’ future promise under a change life, or a defense of his present practices? The present tense of the sentence seems to argue for the latter (present practice).
To understand Zacchaeus’ comments as a defense of his present actions may make him look a bit self-righteous and boastful, but that isn’t necessarily a reason for Jesus not to affirm him. Consider:
(1)   Is it clear that he is a repentant sinner (as he is usually interpreted), like the toll-collector (18:9-15), the “woman of the city” (7:37-48, or the prodigal son (15:11-32)? He doesn’t beg for mercy (as in 17:13; 18:38) or express sorrow (as in 15:21; 18:13).
(2)   Jesus makes no reference to the man’s faith, or to his growing faith or to any other kind of faith (as he does in 7:50; 8:48), or to his repentance or conversion (as in 15:7, 10), or to anything at all.
The traditional interpretation also occasionally creates a time break between v. 7, and v. 8 (between the criticism of “all” his  neighbors,  and  his  “promise” of good deeds). It is

often assumed that between the two times, Jesus has gone into Zacchaeus’  home,  converted him,  and  then  at v. 8, he comes out and says he is now planning on giving away half his goods. But in the literal text, there is no time break. All of the action and all of the conversation take place on the front steps of Zacchaeus’ home in only a few moments. The sense is that he is a man eager to see Jesus. Jesus senses this, and calls up to him and says he wants to stay in his home. Zacchaeus comes down to oblige, but many (wealthy Pharisees?) in the crowd are offended by it and call him a sinner, to which he defends himself by saying he gives away half his goods and if he is found to have cheated anyone, he returns four times back. Jesus then turns to him and says that Salvation is present in this house (and presumably in the man also). Without the overlay of the traditional interpretation, the story looks more like a vindication story than a forgiveness story.
Fitzmyer’s comment on this is that “Part of the problem [with understanding the story in this new way] is the modern reader’s reluctance to admit that the Lucan Jesus could declare the vindication of a rich person who was concerned for the poor and even for his own customary conduct.”[6]
Jesus’ statement in v. 9 (“salvation has come to this house today”) is not made as a pronouncement of a deed made by Jesus. There is no hint that Jesus actually did anything. The words are directed to the angry mob outside of Zacchaeus’ house. The words vindicate the behavior of Zacchaeus. They acknowledge that Zacchaeus is a child of Abraham, “with as much claim to the salvation which Jesus brings as any other Israelite.”[7] As Bultmann says, “Jesus does not establish his relationship to Zacchaeus by appealing to his morality, as v. 8 seems to suppose, but on the simple fact that Zacchaeus is as much a Jew as the rest.”[8] Note the very similar thought in 13:16, “and ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
A sermon which uses this interpretation could be a “discovery” sermon (“I used to think the story meant this, but I’ve now discovered that it means that”). People love that. Its point is that when Jesus discovers righteousness, even in unlikely sources, he still affirms the possibility of salvation. We (liberals?) tend to act like wealth alone condemns. But this story seems to say that Jesus will accept even the wealthy if their ethics live up to their faith.

[1] Proclamation Commentary; 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986).
[2] T.W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus, p. 282, cited in Fitzmyer, p. 1072.
[3] Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, tr. John Marsh (New York: Harper & Row, 1963, rev. ed. 1976), p. 34.
[4] History of the Synoptic Tradition, pp. 33-34.
[5] Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992, p. 388.
[6] Fitzmyer, p. 1221.
[7] Fitzmyer, Ibid.
[8] Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, p. 34