Sunday, 31 October 2010
The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.1-4
I. 1.1-2.5 Dialogue between the Prophet and God
II 2.6-10 The Five Woes
III 3.1-19 The Canticle of Habakkuk
Our reading today, which is the only Sunday reading from Habakkuk in the Revised Common Lectionary, comes from the first section. In the dialogue between the prophet and God, Habakkuk first protests that because the Lord allows violence and destruction, he makes law and justice mere nothings. we read this objections today [1.2-4]. The Lord’s response, which is not part of our reading, is to point to the Chaldeans. This gives nothing of the expected comfort or promise of rescue; for the moment, only further fear an suffering can be expected [1.5-11].Such an unexpected response draws a further complaint from the prophet: he asks how long the Holy One will look on while the wicked one swallows up the righteous [1.12 -2.1]. Today’s reading continues with the final verse of this complaint (2.1) in which the prophet declares I will take my stand to watch … and look forth to see what he will answer … The Lord’s respnse is now that while the prophet cannot see the outcome, divine justice is inexorable and will come in God’s time [2.2-3]; in the meantime, the righteous must live by faith [2.4] This last verse received a wider application in St Paul’s letter to the Romans (1.17).
In form Psalm 119 is an alphabetical acrostic: each stanza is made up of eight lines all beginning with the same Hebrew letter. Almost every line contains the word ‘law’ or a synonym such as ‘commandment’, ‘decrees’, ‘precepts’, and the like. There is an overall mood of lament which suggests that it was meant to be a prayer for deliverance. It is also possible that this psalm is a purely literary exercise in honour of the law and the language of lament is just an imitation of other psalms.
In this stanza each line begins with the Hebrew letter sade. It is an acknowledgement of God’s justice, and acts today as a meditation on and a balance to the complaints of the prophet Habakkuk.
1.1-2 Salutation. Silvanus is Latin form of Silas, which is in turn either a Semitic name or a shortened Greek form of Silvanus. Silas is mentioned in Acts 15:22, 40; 16:19-25; 17:1-9; 18:5. [NOAB] The Silvanus mentioned in 1 Peter 5:12 may be the same person. On Timothy see Acts 16.1; 2 Timothy 1.5, 3.15. He is often mentioned in Acts and in named in the opening salutations here and in 1 Thessalonians and 2 Corinthians. Grace to you and peace: Paul combines the greetings usual in Greek and Hebrew society, but this greeting is not simply his own good wishes, it is the grace and peace of God in Christ Jesus.
3-10. Thanksgiving Paul followed the customary practice in ancient letter-writing of opening a letters with a thanksgiving or prayer to God on behalf of the person addressed. Although the Thanksgiving and Prayer are spoken of separately, in the original they form one long, involved sentence (so NJBC). 3. as the Thessalonians’ faith grows abundantly, their love for one another is increasing. Since mutual love is Christ’s great commandment for his disciples, so it is the greatest sign and test of Christian faith. A community in which love for one another is not growing is one that lacks in faith. 4. Because their love increases they are steadfast in the face of persecution and affliction, and Paul can boast of them to the other churches: their life shows the truth of the Gospel he preaches. The mention of their steadfastness and faith recalls the words of the Lord to Habakkuk — the vision will not lie. If it seem slow wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
3.11-12. Prayer. The thanksgiving is followed by a prayer that the Christians at Thessalonica may be made worthy of God’s call. The purpose of this is not their benefit alone, but that the name of the Lord Jesus may be glorified in them. 12. The NJBC has an important note on the words according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ: grace ‘describes the sovereign gift both of God (the Father) and of the Lord Jesus Christ. The two personal subjects (under one article, developing 1.1-2) function as one being.’
This passage is followed by one more parable (of the Pounds, 19.11-27) before the narrative of the Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday, 19.28-40), the lament over Jerusalem (19.41-44) and the cleansing of the Temple (19.45-6).
1. Jericho was on a main trade route and was an important customs centre. It lies 7 km west of the River Jordan, 10 km north of the Dead Sea and 30 km east of Jerusalem. It lies 250 metres below sea level and thus it is considered to be the lowest city in the world [Source, website of the Jericho Municipality].
2. The name Zacchaeus means ‘clean’. He is described as a chief tax collector; this title appears nowhere else in ancient literature. Telones (Latin publicanus), which we translate ‘tax collector’, in fact had the wider meaning of a collector of tolls, customs, or taxes. Jericho, a frontier city through which merchandise passed, would be likely to have a main sub-collectors. We might describe Zacchaeus as ‘a superintendent of customs’. The NJBC notes that Zacchaeus ‘straddles two Lucan symbolic worlds: he is a toll collector, one who responds generously to God’s call (see 3.12-13; 5.27-32; 7.29-30; 18.9-14); he is also a rich man, one who finds great difficulty liberating himself from attachment to possessions (18.24-27)’
3. He sought to see Jesus. Zacchaeus must have heard of Jesus’ kindness to tax collectors and sinners, and wanted to see him. It is most unfortunate that the NRSV renders this as ‘was trying to see Jesus’; this obscures the fact that the same verb (to seek) appears in verse 10. the crowd: another reference to the multitude of people now accompanying Jesus. (see 18.36). The same people made up the procession in the triumphal entry to Jerusalem. They would be Galilean pilgrims going up to the passover. …because he was short of stature: the details of this story are such that R. Bauckman holds that if they ‘really are recollected, rather than the product of storytelling imagination, they can only have been recollected by’ Zacchaeus (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses p. 55).
4. … he climbed up into a sycamore tree: this is the fig-mulberry tree (Ficus sycomorus), not our sycamore; a tree with fruit like figs, and leaves like those of the mulberry tree. It has been remarked that, ‘with its short trunk and lateral branches forking in every direction, it would be easy to climb.’
5. Jesus … looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus’…: Jesus may have heard of this man before, and some of the people may now have pointed him out in his strange position. The evangelist does not say that he was trying to hide himself in the tree. He had climbed it simply that he might see Jesus, regardless of what people would think of his action. … make haste and come down: these words have often been interpreted as a call to humility. For I must stay at your house today. See 2.49: ‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ Must which occurs 18 times in Luke’s Gospel, conveys the theme of necessity: it is in accordance with God’s pan that Jesus invite himself to take Zacchaeus’ hospitality. Today is an equally important word in Luke: God’s salvation is not in some distant future, but is already being inaugurated in Jesus Christ. See verse 9 and 2.11.
7. All, that is not only the Pharisees and Scribes but the whole crowd of pilgrims murmur against Jesus’ crossing of the boundary between clean and unclean. But while before Jesus answered complaints about his associating with tax collectors (5.27-32) it is now the tax collector who answers the objection.
8. … I give to the poor … I restore it. The present tense here is open to two interpretations. It may mean that Zacchaeus was in the habit of practising the extraordinary generosity he here describes, or taken as a vow, his words indicate his intention to do so. By the first interpretation, Zacchaeus is arguing that he is not a sinner, because it is his customary conduct to be generous and just, but by the second, he is saying he is no longer a sinner; he resolves to change his ways The second interpretation is more generally accepted, and more indeed more likely. As Adeney wrote, ‘He speaks of giving half his goods, not half his income, as though contemplating a distribution of his property. Besides, the reference to restoring fourfold what is wrongly extorted could not apply to a constant habit. Nobody would make extortions at all under such circumstances. Lastly, it is less likely that Zacchaeus is boasting of his settled habits than that he is proving himself a new man at the coming of Jesus to his house.’ The promise of four-fold restitution goes beyond the demands of the Law, which required only that a thief caught and punished (Exod. xxii. i). In a case of voluntary restitution it was enough to restore the property with the addition of one-fifth of its value (Lev. vi. 5 ; Num. v. 7) (but see Exodus 22.1; was Zacchaeus calling himself a sheep-stealer?).
10. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost: The presence of Jesus makes possible what is humanly impossible. A wealthy man gets through the needle’s eye! But not without some radical change (NJBC). It is interesting to note that Zacchaeus ‘sought’ to see Jesus, but at the same time Jesus was seeking to save Zacchaeus. We must always remember this as a caution against thinking that religion is our ‘search for God’.