Title: The just shall live by faith
Texts: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Luke 19:1-10
Date: October 31, 2010
Author: Thomas Lehman
As today is Halloween, Chapel Hill’s most celebrated holiday, it is appropriate to say that the word means the hallowed evening before November 1, All Saints Day, a holiday in Europe and elsewhere. In the Middle Ages, wealthy people wore new clothes on All Saints Day. The Catholic Church began its celebration of All Saints Day on the previous evening, so that the evening of the 31st was sacred. We do the same with Christmas Eve. Later a secular end-of-summer holiday corrupted the Christian observance of Halloween. One more word origin: the word holiday comes from old English for holy day, and recalls the many centuries during which the Church had the dominant influence over everyday life.
Our national elections take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, which is to say that November 1 is unsuitable. One reason for this is that it prevents Election Day from falling on All Saints Day.
Today is also notable as the 493rd anniversary of the posting by Martin Luther in 1517 of 95 theses on the door of the castle church at Wittenburg. Without digressing to review Luther’s arguments, it must be noted that he was very attached to the last line in today’s passage from Habakkuk: “The just shall live by faith” or “the righteous live by their faith.” This one phrase, quoted by the Apostle Paul and the writer of Hebrews, characterizes Luther’s beliefs better than any other, and the keepers of the lectionary must have smiled to see this passage fall exactly on the day when we are most likely to remember Luther. (Cf Romans 1:17 “The one who is righteous will live by faith,” Hebrews 10:38 “My righteous one will live by faith,” and Galations 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.’)
It surprises me that none of these four verses, from Habakkuk, Romans, Galatians, or Hebrews, is referenced in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.
Writers of great fiction know that some historical and literary themes are timeless. Habakkuk was written about 2600 years ago; he shouts out a timeless theme of despair, as you can recognize by supposing that you are trapped in one of our nation’s rough urban neighborhoods. You might well quote Chapter 1:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
Habakkuk struggles mightily with the problem of evil, which changes in form but appears in every age; why is there so much of it in a world said to be controlled by a God who cares for all people? Habakkuk and, more famously, Job show us that God is not offended when we express our doubts. When things around us are terrible, a professor recently wrote that “God wants us to push back.” (Kristen Swenson in Christian Century, 21 SEP 2010 p 21) That might be overstated, but we would be poor creatures indeed if we could not tell God when things are terrible.
Clearly Habakkuk thinks God is ignoring the world. The frustrated prophet has encountered evil. But consider Chapter 2, where he first says that
I will keep watch to see what (the Lord) will say to me,
and what he* will answer concerning my complaint.
The despairing prophet has not given up hope; instead, he is keeping watch so he won’t miss the word of the Lord. The answer is available to everyone, but one has to be alert to hear it: (IB)
God answers in these words:
(T)here 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.
4 Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
God’s promise restores the faith of this minor prophet, and he illustrates one of the most profound themes in the Bible: though the plot seldom unfolds as fast as we would wish, God’s action in history carries us from vexation to resolution, from sorrow to joy.
The Habakkuk reading ends with righteousness. When we read “the righteous live by their faith” in Ch. 2, verse 4, we see that righteousness and justice are synonyms, at least in the Bible. To lead a righteous life is to do justice.
Because this sermon is the only one in the three-year lectionary cycle with a text from Habakkuk, I will read three unassigned verses to help us appreciate this minor prophet.
1:14 You have made people like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
The next verses appear as the prophet responds to God’s promise. Both begin with the word “but,” as though to emphasize the change in the prophet’s understanding.
2:14 But the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea. [Cf. hymn 638]
2:20 But the Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth keep silence before him! (Hymn 38)
Turning to the New Testament, Luke 19 is our only source of the story of Zacchaeus. On first reading, it is a simple story, one you have probably heard from childhood. As Jesus walks through Jericho he attracts a crowd, and Zacchaeus, a small man, climbs a tree to observe the action. Jesus tells him to come down from the tree, and announces that he will shortly be a guest in the house of Zacchaeus. The crowd grumbles that Jesus has invited himself into the home of a sinner.
A tax collector was doubly offensive to the Jews, first because he was demanding payment of taxes that went to Rome, the oppressor, and second because he was both wealthy and a social outcast, and the Jews believed that “the righteous will prosper.” (Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Harper Collins, 1994, p 51)
This is not Jesus’ only encounter with a taxman. Luke 5 records another incident:
27 After this he went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 28 And he got up, left everything, and followed him.
29 Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax-collectors and others sitting at the table* with them. 30 The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 31 Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’
Bart Ehrman, UNC’s intrepid interpreter of the New Testament, writes that Jesus repeatedly spent time with the wicked and the outcasts, an example that most upright Christians have never cared to follow. (JESUS: Apocalyptic prophet of the new millennium, Oxford, 1999, p 187) In the view of Pharisees, Jesus was dredging the bottom of Jewish society. Note, however, in this second story of reaching out to a tax collector, that Levi left everything behind and became a disciple.
Back to Zacchaeus. One should not get carried away by the exact numbers in his pledge to make amends for his dishonesty as a tax collector. One shouldn’t, but it is nonetheless fun. He promises to give half of all he has to the poor. That leaves him with half of his wealth. Then he says he will repay fourfold to anyone whom he has defrauded. This sets a limit on the fraction of people he has defrauded, unless he is willing to go into debt. If he pays them four times the average amount, then he can have defrauded only 1/4 of 1/2, which is 1/8 of all those from who he has collected taxes. A tax collector who cheats no more than 1/8 of his taxpayers is less of a scoundrel than we expect.
What we can conclude is that Zacchaeus makes a sudden turn toward righteousness. He makes no profession of faith in the one who has called him down from the tree, nor does he promise faithful synagogue attendance. Nevertheless, Jesus summarizes his change of heart in these words: ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” We are told only that his transformation affects his use of his money. That Jesus makes such a positive assessment, announcing salvation for him and his household, surely affirms the importance of good stewardship in the Kingdom.
Note that Jesus does not say “salvation has come to this man,” but “to this house.” This suggests that Zacchaeus had a family, and that salvation can be a group experience. In other words, salvation can be contagious. A righteous person creates a space in which those around him can also be transformed. We should be such people, inspiring others by the kind of lives we lead.
When Jesus, referring to Zacchaeus, says to the crowd around him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham,” we think we know what Jesus means, because we have a concept of salvation based in the New Testament, especially as expounded by the apostle Paul.
But salvation deserves closer analysis. The word is used more times in the Old Testament than in the New, but in the Old it tends to mean God’s action in saving an individual or the people of Israel from physical harm or political oppression. In contrast, in the New Testament salvation usually means that God’s action reconciles us to God in spite of our sins. Is Zacchaeus one of the first persons to receive salvation in the New Testament sense? I don’t know, but at a minimum it should mean that he and his house are now among the people of God’s Kingdom. The Zacchaeus story marks a turning point in biblical history as the Old Testament concept of salvation gives way to the New.
Whatever fine point you wish to put on the story, it shows that (a) the kingdom is open to everyone, and (b) entry into it changes what one does with money.
The righteousness of God in the NT means God’s saving activity, taken as our justification by God’s grace through our faith. In other words, we are back to Habakkuk’s great insight, which inspired Luther. “The righteous live by their faith.” Habakkuk sets the course of a Godly life. We are to live the kind of life that God expects, the life that Jesus taught.
That the great assertion, “the just shall live by faith,” comes from the Old Testament pleases me very much. It is easy to emphasize the many differences between the OT and the NT, and to place ourselves entirely in the New. But here we find a powerful OT declaration that is not only quoted repeatedly in the NT, but that shines right through it to illuminate Christian belief through the centuries.
The Habakkuk quote is even more accurately rendered as “the righteous shall live by his faithfulness,” where faithfulness means a steadfast trust in God. Thus the text has a central OT meaning as well as its meaning when quoted in the New Testament, and the two meanings are not the same.
Habakkuk laments the tragedies of life among the Jewish people at a time of severe testing. He speaks generally against the evil he sees, and has to conclude that things will improve only in God’s own time. Jesus never set out to rid the Jewish people of Roman oppression. He deals with Zacchaeus as an individual, and brings about a wonderful transformation, seemingly in a moment. We need the overview of Habakkuk in this world of woes, but we should never forget Jesus’ example in this story of working for the Kingdom one person at a time. That can be our goal in every situation, to inspire one person at a time.
Our hymn 638 asserts with Habakkuk that God is working his purpose out. This states a fundamental belief for all who have lived in OT or NT times and consider themselves people of God’s Kingdom. We should all be people of faith, living in God’s Kingdom. In conclusion, let us sing this hymn.
[ “God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.
God is working his purpose out, and the time is drawing near.
Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” ]
Email to Greg Goering on Friday 29 October:
This Sunday I have the pleasure of preaching on lectionary texts that include the famous Habakkuk 2:4, “…the righteous live by their faith.” (NRSV)
The sermon has been close to final form for days, but I continue to tinker with it. Now, obviously at the last minute, I have picked up a book on my shelf, “The Prophets,” by Norman Podhoretz (Free Press, 2002). In a note on p. 214 he writes concerning this text, “Famous though these words are in KJV’s translation (and even though it was in that sense–also found in the Septuagint–that they were given enormous historical importance by St. Paul, who would use them as the basis of the doctrine of justification by faith), the Hebrew v’tzaddik b’emunato yikhyeh is more accurately rendered as “the righteous man will live by his faithfulness” (or “fidelity”) rather than his “faith.” But since such faithfulness or fidelity is equivalent in the Hebrew Bible to observance of the law, the verse ironically lends more support to the opposite doctrine of ‘justification by works.’”
It seems to me unlikely that Podhoretz reads the Hebrew more accurately than St. Paul. How do you read this? It is quite late to shift the emphasis of the sermon, but it would be fun to have an accurate rendering of the Hebrew.
Greg replied by phone on October 30. He acknowledged that the Hebrew means “faithfulness” rather than “faith.” He gives “faithfulness” the meaning of steadfast trust in God. Thus our New Testament-influenced meaning is not the same as the meaning in the Old Testament context. He added that OT scholars pay no attention to Podhoretz.
On timeless literary themes:
Maureen Dowd, a sharp-tongued New York Times columnist, recently described a drama whose plot could be quite contemporary. It was, she admitted after a few suspenseful paragraphs, taken from a new production of Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle, based on Norse legends.