The Coming of the Lord
Whenever preachers look at the week’s lectionary texts they tend to look for any common threads. Sometimes, in our eagerness to find the threads, we push the envelope, and I suppose that I could be accused of that in titling today’s meditation. Except that each of the texts, even the Gospel text, speaks of the coming of the Lord. It is true that in Luke’s gospel, the Lord is simply inviting himself over for dinner at Zacchaeus’s house, but it still has that “eschatological flavor” that is present in the other two texts. In the Lord’s coming, there is salvation. And salvation involves or leads to righteousness – a word that needs defining.
The Habakkuk text closes with the phrase “The righteous shall live by faith,” a phrase that is repeated in Romans 1:17 (not the lectionary reading for the week). This phrase proved troubling to Martin Luther, who saw in it the possibility of “work’s righteousness,” and so he wanted to emphasize the faith part of it, and insist that whatever righteousness is involved, that righteousness comes from Christ and not our own works. But that doesn’t seem to be the concern of Habakkuk. In these two brief selections from this so-called Minor Prophet, we hear the cry of a suffering people, who were witnessing in their midst violence, wrong-doing, and trouble-making. Indeed, considering the political bickering of the moment, these words stand out: “strife and contention arise.” The prophet is wondering when God will respond, going as far as declaring that he would stand at his watch post and keep watch until God answers his complaint. It is then that the Lord responds, telling him to write down a vision on a tablet that the runner can take around to the people. And the word that came to the people was this: “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come. It will not delay.” And then comes the kicker – be sure to look at the proud, for their spirit isn’t right – but “the righteous will live by faith.” And what is faith? It is living by trusting God? What is righteousness? It is God’s justice – God’s commitment to the poor and the marginalized of society. It may not have been what Luther had in mind at the time, but that seems to be what was on Habakkuk’s mind.
The second text, the one that comes from 2 Thessalonians serves as a response to concerns that the “parousia” or the return of Christ had already come. To use the title of a recent series of “apocalyptic themed books” they were afraid they had been “Left Behind,” and so the author (presumably Paul, but there are questions about authorship) offers a word of assurance. Don’t worry, because before anything like that happens you’ll start seeing the signs of rebellion and the rise of the lawless one, who will seat himself on God’s throne in the Temple, declaring himself to be God. But, don’t get too concerned, and don’t be alarmed by any “spirit, word, or letter” claiming to be from us declaring that the “day of the Lord” is already here. The Lord is coming, but don’t believe everything you hear. But the word that we need to hear comes at the end, in verses 11-12, which offers a word a judgment against those who take “pleasure in unrighteousness.” That is, those who fail to believe the truth and follow the Lawless One by living lives of unrighteousness. And what is meant by unrighteousness? Surely the definition is rooted in the message of the prophets, who call on the people of God to act justly toward those who are poor, to the widow, and the orphan.
Finally, we come to the story of Zacchaeus, one of the best known stories in the New Testament. We know this story because Zacchaeus seems to always be the butt of “short-people” jokes. He’s so short, he has to climb a tree to see Jesus. But it should be noted that this story falls on the heels of the previous week’s lectionary text where the attitudes of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector are compared. The Pharisee is sure of his own righteousness and needs no help from God; while the tax collector humbly asks that God take mercy on him, for he is a miserable sinner. Now, in this text, which follows on that parable, we meet up with a real tax collector who is keen on seeing Jesus. And, as a result the Lord decides to come to his house. Although the “righteous” folks in town are scandalized that Jesus would hang out with a sinner, Zacchaeus, the chief tax agent in Jericho, is so pleased by Jesus’ willingness to come to his house that he vows to change his life. And how might he do this? He commits himself to giving half of his possessions to the poor (an act of righteousness) and will repay those he has defrauded four times the amount that he had taken from them (considering that this is how he made his money – the profit that lies beyond what he had to give to Rome, he was essentially doing what Jesus asked of the rich young man (Luke 17:18ff) – he committed himself to giving everything he had and in return Jesus says that salvation had come to this house. He had committed himself to live by faith and doing so had become righteous.
The two messages that are embedded in these texts are these: First, the day of the Lord is coming, so keep watch, because God is faithful and will come at the appropriate time. And second the “righteous shall live by faith,” which means that if we’re trusting our lives into the care of God, we should live in the interim period in such a way that the righteousness of God will be on display – a righteousness that is illustrated by the decisions made by Zacchaeus.
By Bob Cornwall
Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November. Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.