Proper 26, Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 3, 2013

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4Psalm 119:137-1442 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12Luke 19:1-10

By Paul Nancarrow

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

The Book of Habakkuk is generally accepted to have been written in the last days of the kingdom of Judah, as the Babylonians were advancing on Jerusalem to besiege and conquer. The inclusion of this passage at this point in the semi-historical track of the lectionary — after we’ve already seen the fall of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Exile and the promise of a New Covenant through Jeremiah’s eyes, as well as the prediction of the Day of the Lord from Joel — seems a bit out of step. Perhaps the lectionary committee was attempting to highlight a theme more notional than strictly historical. After the Return from Exile, amid disappointments in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the restoration of the Temple, it became more often the case that prophets would set their calls to righteousness and justice against the background not of some particular historical fulfillment but of an ultimate Day of divine triumph. This catena of verses from Habakkuk echoes that design. At first the prophet complains that the social order has descended into violence, destruction, lawlessness, and the perversion of judgment, and desperately asks how long God will allow divine aims to be thwarted by human wickedness. In its original context this complaint may have been about the people of Jerusalem under Jehoiakim, or it may have been about the ruthless armies of Babylon; in the semi-historical lectionary track it may be taken to be about the disappointments of the Return. More significant than the historical referent, however, is the general condition of breakdown into destruction, and the deep desire for God to act in creative transformation. When God does reply to the prophet’s plaint, it is also significantly without historical referent: “there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” The vision is referred to “the end” as its “appointed time,” which means it is not limited to, and therefore cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed by, any specific historical event, such as the approach of the Babylonians or the rebuilding of the temple. Because the vision of “the end” is not limited to any one historical event, therefore all historical events can be measured and interpreted by it; this is why the prophet is told to “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it,” so that it can be read by those who “run” in time toward an ultimate fulfillment. And though the time of the end cannot be known, “it will surely come,” and it is faith in this final disclosure that empowers the righteous to live even in times of uncertainty and destructiveness. 

Psalm 119:137-144

Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm, in which each verse in each section begins with the same letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The content of each verse is more or less praise for Torah, but what holds the verses together is less their actual content than the poetic device of acrostic repetition. For this reason the verses can often seem disconnected or random in English, where we see their sense but not the original alphabet. What ties this section of the psalm to the Habakkuk reading is mostly verses 139 and 143: “My indignation has consumed me, because my enemies forget your words” and “Trouble and distress have come upon me, yet your commandments are my delight.” The conclusion of this section also echoes the resolution of the prophet’s vision: “The righteousness of your decrees is everlasting; grant me understanding, that I may live.” 

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

The Second Letter to the Christians in Thessalonika concentrates mainly on teachings about eschatology and encouragements to be faithful in expectation of the coming End. The final Sundays of the liturgical year are always given to apocalyptic and eschatological themes; we will see those emerging in the prophetic, epistolary, and gospel texts next week. This week’s assigned passage is an introduction to the letter, consisting of opening greetings and prayers, before turning to the main eschatological theme next Sunday. The greetings and prayers are fairly standard for Pauline letters, giving no hint of the particular themes to come, as, for instance, the greeting of 1 Corinthians does. Paul’s letters often speak of how the Apostle “gives thanks” for the recipient congregation, and “boasts” of their faith and steadfastness as a way of encouraging other congregations in their own spiritual growth. Especially touching is the note that “the love of every one of you for one another is increasing”: there is a nice blending here of the recognition of their communal commitment to a character of agape and each person’s individual experience of increasing in giving and receiving in generosity and grace. In view of the eschatological theme to be developed, it is also noteworthy that the author prays for the Thessalonians that God will “fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith.” The idea of fulfillment, though not explicitly apocalyptic, nevertheless invokes the promise that whatever is partial will be made whole, and that is a central promise of the Parousia. But even before that ultimate fulfillment, the phrase promises a profound cooperation of human and divine: the Thessalonians resolve to do certain good works, and they undertake to do faithful actions, and that is their doing what is in their power to do; but they are not alone in that doing, as their works are taken up into and fulfilled by the working of divine power. A non-substantialist, processive understanding of the Incarnation rests precisely on this notion of human operation and divine operation co-operating at the deepest levels of personal being; in that sense, what is prayed for the Thessalonians is that their “good resolves” and “works of faith” be new instantiations of the selfsame mystery of Incarnation. “The name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him,” because the Thessalonian faithful participate in the mystery of Jesus’ own divine life. The mystery of participation is the source not only of hope for the End, but of strength for the mission of Christ here and now. 

Luke 19:1-10

The story of Zacchaeus is a favorite in Sunday schools and books of children’s Bible stories, mostly because of the storytelling possibilities inherent in the figure of the tax collector who is “short in stature” and who climbs a tree in order to see Jesus. But for all its comic overtones, the story presents vivid instances of two of Luke’s major themes: the theme of the Great Reversal, and Luke’s particular view of the spiritual significance of wealth.

That the first will be last, the humble exalted, the outcast welcomed, the privileged dispossessed, and all measures of human success and importance broken and reordered in the Reign of God is a commonplace in all the Gospels. Luke of course shares the theme, but he gives it special attention in some of the material unique to his narrative; e.g., in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, in his unique beatitudes and complementary woes, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and in his mention of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and other wealthy women who, denied by their patriarchal society the right to accompany Jesus on his preaching tours, nonetheless support him with their wealth. This Great Reversal is evident in Mary’s song when she is carrying Jesus, and it is a dominant theme throughout Jesus’ ministry. Zacchaeus is also an exemplar of the Great Reversal, and on several levels. He is something of a paradox when first presented: he is a tax collector, which meant he wielded a certain power over his neighbors, a power that was an extension of the oppression of the Roman overlords, which made him both feared and despised; yet he is also a small man, which could well have made him the butt of jokes and an object of scorn; no doubt his readiness to take money from his fellow Jerichoans was urged on by his desire to appear big and powerful compared to the rest of them. But when he hears that Jesus is to pass by, he is quick to forfeit his appearance of importance and dignity: he runs ahead and climbs a tree — certainly an inappropriate and unbecoming thing for a rich man and a Roman agent to do — so that he can only see who Jesus is. Zacchaeus thus demonstrates a certain willingness to reverse himself — he is willing to lose some face, to lose some pride of life, in order to get a little closer to the real life — and Jesus recognizes this. Seeing him in the tree (and knowing instantly who he is and what it means for him to be up that tree — Luke slips in this brief note of Jesus’ supernatural or clairvoyant knowledge without extra remark), Jesus calls to him and makes him part of the Great Reversal. By coming to his home, so that the crowd grumbles “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner,” Jesus brings Zacchaeus into the process of Great Reversal as he has so many tax collectors, prostitutes, prodigals, lepers, Samaritans — and even Pharisees — already in the Gospel narrative. Zacchaeus’s eagerness to divest himself of (some of) his wealth, and to restore four times over any amount he has taken fraudulently, is another act of reversal, by which the financially exalted takes, voluntarily, a lower place. The story is full of reversals, all illustrating in one way or another the Great Reversal by which divine ideals become more fully embodied in human relations, and coming to a climax in Jesus’ declaration that “Today salvation has come to this house.”

The final reversal in the story, Zacchaeus’ giving away half his possessions, is an illustration of the other main theme of this passage, that is, Luke’s particular attitude toward wealth. Luke of course joins the other evangelists in narrating Jesus’ teachings on the dangers of wealth: its tendency to become an idol, its lure to spiritual pride, its inescapable involvement in systems of oppression. Luke seems particularly hard on those who look to money for happiness, as in the parable of the Rich Fool, which is unique to the Third Gospel. But Luke is also different from the other three Gospels in his deliberate references to characters who have money and use it to do good and godly things. I’ve already mentioned the wealthy women who support Jesus and the disciples in their travels; their money, though presumably just as dangerous as any other money — and especially Joanna’s, in that it comes from payment by Herod’s court! — is nevertheless recognized as a good thing because it furthers Jesus’ mission. Over against Luke’s parable of the Rich Fool is his parable of the Dishonest Manager, which includes the line “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” — which suggests that even corruptible money can be used to do good things worthy of being considered “treasure in heaven.” So also here: Zacchaeus proclaims he will give away half his possessions — implying of course he will keep half his possessions — and Jesus accepts this as evidence of his “salvation.” There is no demand that he sell all he have and give it to the poor, there is no call to walk away from everything and follow Jesus on the road. Jesus’ call to Zacchaeus is to “reverse in place”: to cease being coercive and greedy where he is, to release the wealth he has gained unfairly, and to use the wealth that remains to further the salvific ideals of Jesus’ mission in acts of monetary generosity and material compassion. The story of Zacchaeus is therefore another instance of Luke’s particular attitude toward the danger yet potential-for-good of wealth.

For a contemporary preacher or commentator, it is important to see these two aspects of the Zacchaeus story together. It would be tempting — especially in a middle-class, comfortably mainline congregational setting — to take this story as an endorsement of the good potential of wealth, and to reassure congregants that their money is a good thing and they needn’t be too worried about it. The passage could all too easily be used to call for, let us say, increased charitable giving from congregants, while leaving the oppressive structures of wealth in which most Americans participate unquestioned and unchallenged. But the story only endorses Zacchaeus’ keeping half his possessions within the larger context of the Great Reversal: what makes Zacchaeus’ wealth acceptable is not just that he is holding on to less of it, but that he himself has changed direction in his actions and ideals. It is because Zacchaeus is committed now to embodying divine purposes of justice and mutual well-being that his wealth can be an instrument of godly work. The same is true for congregants and congregations today: our participation in systems of finance and money can only become godly when it is directed toward realizing justice, right-relationships, and genuinely mutual well-being for all in the social system.