The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 26, 30 October 2016

Track One:
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 119:137-144

Track Two:
Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-8

II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Saint Luke 19:1-10

Background: Sacrifice – What was sacrificed?
There is a great deal of concern in the codes governing sacrifice that there be a level of purity in the animals that were sacrificed. They could not be blemished or damaged in any way, including being castrated. They were to be considered clean, which allowed mainly for bulls and oxen, cows and calves, sheep, lambs goats and kids, along with turtledoves and pigeons. The animal was required to be at least seven days old. Sacrifice, however, was not limited to animals. Bloodless sacrifices included the offering of flour or grains, wine and oil. At most sacrifices frankincense and salt were used, and in some instances leaven or honey. Of most importance, however, was the blood that was a product of the sacrifice. The blood was life and nephesh (soul). Blood would be sprinkled on the altar, or in some instances was smeared on the horns or side of the altar. In each sacrifice the following acts or gestures were followed: a) the laying on of a hand or hands, b) the killing, c) receiving the blood, d) bringing the blood to the altar, e) sprinkling the blood, and f) the burning of the sacrifice.

Track One:

First Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you "Violence!"
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous--
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there 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.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.

The initial verses briefly introduce us to Habakkuk, and then are followed by the argument that will inform the remainder of the oracles recorded here. What the prophet observes is the injustice of Judean culture, and he complains to God that he is forced to witness it. Verse one of the second section, could almost be read sotto voce to the audience – what will God do? You may want to go a read the whole of chapters one and two, for the initial complaint of Habakkuk is followed by a response from God in which God reveals plans for the punishment of Judea. That, then, is followed by another complaint on the part of the prophet.

There is a subtext here, one of waiting. The prophet must stand on the wall and await God’s word to him. What follows is to be committed to writing, so that more than casual hearers to understand. There is a desire for clarity, for God urgently wants the people to understand the entirety of his vision. The vision retains a certain hope – and it is valuable enough that one should wait for it. The audience is seen as two types of individuals – the proud and the righteous. We should, however, not leave off at the descriptor; “the proud” for there is a further definition as to their true makeup. “Their spirit is not right in them.” One commentator described this as a “faintheartedness” a weakness that would abandon any waiting upon the Lord. The word that is connected to the righteous one is the word “faith.” This one will wait for what God has purposed.

Breaking open Habakkuk:
1.          What is Habakkuk’s grievance against God?
2.          What is God’s grievance against Judah?
3.         What is Judah’s hope?

Psalm 119:137-144 Justus es, Domine

137  You are righteous, O Lord, *
and upright are your judgments.
138 You have issued your decrees *
with justice and in perfect faithfulness.
139 My indignation has consumed me, *
because my enemies forget your words.
140 Your word has been tested to the uttermost, *
and your servant holds it dear.
141 I am small and of little account, *
yet I do not forget your commandments.
142 Your justice is an everlasting justice *
and your law is the truth.
143 Trouble and distress have come upon me, *
yet your commandments are my delight.
144 The righteousness of your decrees is everlasting; *
grant me understanding, that I may live.

The commentator, Artur Weiser, is no fan of this particular psalm, calling it “a particularly artificial product of religious poetry.”[1] Its verses endlessly circle around their love of God’s law, which may account for Weiser’s final comment on the psalm as a whole,

“On the other hand, however, one cannot fail to realize that a piety such as is expressed in the psalm, according to which God’s word and law take the place of God himself and his wondrous works (v.13), are even worshipped (v. 48) and become the source of that comfort which as a rule is bestowed upon man by the divine saving grace (vv. 50, 92), carries with it the germs of a development which was bound to end in the self-righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes.”[2]

So what are we to make of our liturgical selection this morning? The speaker identifies so closely with the words that proceed from the mouth of God, that those who do not follow them are considered “enemies.” Perhaps that particular phraseology was enough to have the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary to ally this psalm with the Habakkuk text. The remainder is a panegyric on the Law of God, with a concluding prayer requesting wisdom.

Breaking open Psalm 119:

1.     What do you think is the best part of the Bible?
2.     The worst?
3.    How does it influence your life?


Track Two:

Second Reading: Isaiah 1:10-18

Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation--
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

The reading from Isaiah includes portions from two separate pericopes, all of 1:10-17, and one verse from 1:18-20. Both show evidence of the rib pattern that we have seen before, an invitation to a legal dispute. In verse 2 of this chapter we witness the court being assembled, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear O earth, for YHWH is speaking.” Verse 10 continues the dispute that is addressed now to the people who are characterized as residents of Sodom and Gomorrah – such is the severity of the accusations that will follow. The question is basically one of importance and standing. Is it the Word of God that directs the lives of the people, or is what they do ritually that makes for righteousness. God’s apparent attitude over these various holy assemblies and ceremonies makes for an unambiguous answer, “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.” For a point of comparison, you may wish to refer to Amos 5:22ff. and to Jeremiah 7:21ff., where the two prophets reject the whole sacrificial system. Others understand this to be an argument particular to the situation in which Isaiah and the people find themselves. As lookers on from a later time we might find the particularity argument more convincing – that is Isaiah’s true work here, to center the people once again in what God truly desires. Here we find the prophet’s usual messianic view: “seek justice,” “defend the orphan”, and so on.

Our liturgical selection includes verse 18 of the next section. In it we begin to hear words of reconciliation, “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.” There is some negotiation that needs to happen but we already know the outcome, for the sins of the people are about to be erased by a generous and gracious God. There is one condition raised, and unfortunately it lies beyond the liturgical selection of the reading from the lectionary. You might want to consider it, however, or even append it, “If you are will and hear.” Here is the operative behavior, the one that is striven for – apprehending God’s word and then acting on it.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.     How does God look upon your offerings?
2.     Why is God disdainful of Israel’s offerings?
3.    How is your worship worthy?

Psalm 32:1-8 Beati quorum

     Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!
2      Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!
3      While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.
4      For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
5      Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.
6      I said," I will confess my transgressions to the Lord." *
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
7      Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
8      You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

We have a psalm that celebrates completed actions on the part of God and the speaker: transgression, confession, and forgiveness. The details of the psalm reveal a certain level of textual difficulties, and so we need to rely in the central themes outlined above.

Breaking open Psalm 32:
1.     Do you have sins that are difficult to leave behind?
2.     How do you confess?
3.    Do you hear God’s forgiveness?

Second Reading: II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.

To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Following the proper address that begins the letter, we begin a prayer of thanksgiving. In it we understand what it is that Paul wishes to address with the people of Thessaloniki. Thus we can expect the letter to address the love and support that the members of the congregation have for one another, their steadfastness during persecutions, and a hoped for worthiness.

Breaking open II Thessalonians:
  1. For what is Paul thankful?
  2. What are your works of faith?
  3. Why does Paul boast of the people of Thessaloniki?

The Gospel: Saint Luke 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

Is wealth a blessing or an obstacle to faith? It is this fundamental question that Luke has been circling around over the last several chapters. The latest of these encounters involves us with Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector.  This blog spent some time introducing us to the office and social status of this class of people in the discussions about Proper 25 (see Pentecost XXIII, Proper 25). Now there is an encounter with Jesus, and we wonder what direction it will take. The draw of Jesus is palpable, and we wonder what it is in Zacchaeus’ life that attracts him to Jesus.  There are efforts that he has made to rectify the misdeeds of the past, “and if I have defrauded anyone of anything.” What is unspoken here is that he has defrauded and stolen, who he is indeed a sinner, not just presumed to be a sinner.

Jesus reverses the social situation by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ home – a presence that on-lookers take in with a certain amount of umbrage. Zacchaeus recognizes what has been done, not only in his “confession and repentance” but also in Jesus’ reverse invitation – thus the joy. The story concludes with a realization about wealth. It doesn’t make up for the man’s physical challenges (he was very short), nor does it provide a sense of security and well being to Zacchaeus. Jesus perceives Zacchaeus’ true wealth in his apparent faith that supersedes his status as a son of Abraham.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How does your wealth govern your life?
2.     How do you honor those who are in need?
3.    How is Jesus your guest?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Weiser, A. (1962), The Psalms, A Commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, page 739
[2]Weiser, page 740f.


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