Today’s readings deal with questions of concern today as well as in the distant past: If God is good and loving, why do we experience evil in our lives? And how are ‘good people’ to manage in hard times?
Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4
This prophetic book is a short one, with three parts: a dialogue with God on suffering, a list of disasters, and a song of praise. Nothing is known of this prophet except his name and what we can pick up from his writing. His date is uncertain, except for mention of the Chaldeans who replaced the Assyrians as the main power in the Near East in the late 7th and early 6th centuries BCE. Like all the prophets, Habakkuk is earnestly engaged with his own time, but its crises are not unlike those of our own times.
A. R. Ceresko (in the New Jerusalem Biblical Commentary) says that this prophet ‘makes an important and original contribution to the sum of Israel’s reflection on the nature of its God and of God’s ways with Israel.’ In the earlier view, when evil times came upon the country, the prophets warned that that God was punishing the people and they looked for wrongdoing – which was not hard to find. This then would explain attacks from their powerful neighbours. Habakkuk asks God if it can be right to use even more evil nations against his own people. The answer for the prophet comes in seeing ‘the wider context of God’s saving design.’ The key is in the last words of our selection today, having ‘confidence and trust in God’s faithfulness.’ Ceresko also stresses that ‘the book repeatedly condemns ‘all forms of oppression and exploitation as well as pride and arrogance’ that stand opposed to humble faith. God’s way of dealing with us is loving and, despite how desperate things may seem, and we can put our trust in him.
Our selection today opens with the prophet’s questions. First, why his prayers seem unanswered, and secondly why God seems to ignore all the violence and discord around his people. Then comes God’s reply, as Habukkuk understands it, that God’s action will come in God’s own time. In the meantime, the call is to ‘live by faithfulness’. (These words were quoted by St Paul in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11, where he is explaining the role of faith in the life of Christians.) Habakkuk himself shows a profound faith and waits confidently and evenly joyfully for God’s action, as expressed most firmly in the last words of the book, 3:17-19.
Habakkuk, like the book of Job, shows that doubts and questions about God are not necessarily something wrong. By bringing them into reflection and prayer, we may grow in both understanding and in faith. The Old Testament often uses challenging words to God in prayer which may sound startling to us, but show an underlying confidence that God wants to hear all our concerns. We do not always get clear answers, but what we are to do is to trust God to bring a good end in spite of injustice, tyranny, and violence.
Psalm 94/95: 1-2, 6-9
The psalm response is a call to trust and not to avoid the kind of complaining the Israelites showed during their hard times in the Sinai desert. (See Exodus 17 for the story of ‘Massa and Meribah’.) Instead of such ‘muttering’ against the Lord, the psalmist calls us to rejoice and praise God who treats us as a shepherd with a well-cared-for flock.
2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14
This book is written by the same anonymous disciple who wrote 1 Timothy. The words that describe how a church leader should act can as well be applied to all who by baptism and by God’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our lives, have also received gifts of faith and love. It fits well following Habakkuk’s call to faith and joy.
In his journey to Jerusalem format, Luke continues to collect short sections from the traditions he has, not always with logical connections. Today we hear two different temptations that can affect disciples. Asking Jesus for an increase in faith may seem like a good prayer, but Jesus gives a startling reply, using exaggeration as he often does to stress a point. Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, suggests that Jesus’s reply indicates that it is not the quantity of faith that is important but its quality. Another aspect is that it is an excuse for any failure to say we would do more if God gave us more faith. Instead we should look for what we are called to do with what faith we profess.
The mulberry/sycamore tree was large with a complicated root system, so it would have been very hard to dig out and move, and ‘planting it in the sea’ hardly possible. The exaggeration fits the confidence in God that comes out in Habukkuk, and in Jesus’ promise that ‘nothing is impossible to God’ and that in Christ we can, as St Paul says, ‘do all things’. We have no need to plant trees in the ocean – rather we are invited to think of what we can do when we have chosen to love God and serve others.
The parable raises a different point – about wanting credit for what we have done rather than understanding that all we have is a gift of God. Jesus, as so often in the parables, takes a common situation his listeners would understand: how an ordinary householder behaves with his servants. Slaves/servants were bound to carry out all the work asked of them and would not expect their master to serve them. Whatever we do in God’s service is something we already owe for all God has done for us. It adds nothing to the All-powerful God and does not give him anything – or in the words of the parable provide a ‘profit’. Jesus is not saying we receive no reward, for Luke in other places speaks of how abundantly God responds even to our simplest good actions like ‘giving a cup of water’. It is more a lesson about wanting to ‘bargain’ with God, to expect praise when instead we owe God thanks. St Augustine in a sermon against ‘glorying’ in our achievements, said, ‘Look, if you will, for merit, motivation, or just recompense – and see whether you will find anything but sheer grace.’
Habukkuk’s song of trust and joy, 3:17-19, has helped me in difficult times:
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
Though the produce of the olive fails and fields yields no food,
Though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon mountain heights.