The lectionary readings for this week are emphatically contextual, reminding us that scripture emerged from the real experiences of real people, who endured dark times and struggled to maintain their faith in God when the chips were down. Our collect emphasizes our need for God’s grace so that we may “run without stumbling” to obtain his “heavenly promises.” The gospel lesson this week, a much loved story from Jesus’ ministry on earth, illustrates how Christ always sees us, sees into our hearts, and is ready to draw us out of our brokenness and set us on the way to new life.
Our first reading continues our reading in the Minor Prophets, moving on now to Habakkuk. This book shares a familiar vocabulary with Jeremiah, here taking the form of a series of back-and-forth speeches between the prophet (speaking for his community) and God. The prophet’s complaint arises from the violence of the Babylonians directed against the people of Israel, and he asks “how long” the people will have to suffer and call out for help to God before they find justice and relief. God’s reply does not directly answer this question, but rather sets out further issues for consideration. Here we have an enduring question of faith: if God is loving and just, why do his people suffer? Nowhere is this question answered, but everywhere we are assured of God’s loving presence with us, even in the midst of suffering and injustice. God tells Habbakuk that there will be a “vision for the appointed time,” and meanwhile “the righteous live by their faith.”
The second reading for this week is the beginning of the second letter to the Thessalonians. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy write to encourage these young Christians who are enduring persecutions and afflictions. The writers remind them that their “faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.” They assure them that they are being prayed for and that God will “fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith.” Hmm, sounds like a common theme.
The gospel lesson from Luke is the familiar story of Zachaeus. He was the chief tax collector in his region and this job had allowed him to become rich; he also happened to be “short in stature.” Zachaeus wanted “to see who Jesus was,” and so he joined the crowd in Jericho, awaiting Jesus’ passing through on his way to Jerusalem. Because he couldn’t see over the crowd, Zachaeus climbed a sycamore tree for a better view. As Jesus passed by, he looked up, directly at the little man, and said, “Zachaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Again, Jesus was choosing the company of the wrong sort of people, and the crowd grumbled. The effect of Jesus’ presence on Zachaeus was immediate and powerful: he repented, not simply by adopting a new way of life in giving half of his wealth to the poor, but also by making amends through repaying four-fold what he had defrauded from anyone. Jesus announced to the crowd then, “Today salvation has come to this house.” This is the reign of God, coming into the world. Jesus went his way, on to Jerusalem. Zachaeus stayed put, establishing new life in God right where he was. Jesus’ last line in this reading is a summation of his whole ministry: “the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.” Jesus saw what this man desired; he offered it to him, and Zachaeus responded. This collaborator with the Roman authorities, despised by his neighbors as he grew rich on their suffering, is the one Jesus chooses and changes. What does this tell us?