When we pray for the concerns of the world in our chapel services at St. Jude’s Anglican Home, Dorothy, one of our residents, will usually ask the question: “If God is all powerful, why doesn’t he do something about the pain and suffering in the world?”
She is reframing in our time, the question that has plagued the human race for thousands of years. It is the same question that is on the lips of the prophet Habakkuk. He is disturbed by the lawlessness and disorder all around him – the product of a time of political upheaval and turmoil, not just in Israel, but in the whole of the ancient Near East. The confusion has precipitated a breakdown of the norms of society, leading to the violation of basic human rights. Everywhere he looks there is violence and evil. The wicked, the arrogant and the prideful, seem to thrive, while there is no justice for those who are humbly faithful. And there is just this nagging little thought that maybe God’s silence and inaction mean that all this is happening with God’s assent. But on a deeper level yet, he questions whether God is not just unwilling, but unable to restore some semblance of justice and order.
But despite his doubts, as he waits on God for an answer, we detect in the prophet an attitude of faithfulness that is underscored in the final verse by the call to God’s people to trust and have faith. Even these disturbing events are set in the larger context of God’s plan for salvation.
I hear an echo of this same message in our reading from the Second Letter to the Thesselonians. Despite the persecutions to which they are subjected, the Thesselonians are commended for their growing faith, mutual love, and steadfastness in the face of adversity. Through God’s grace and power, their “every good resolve and work of faith” will find fulfillment, as God’s plan of salvation is realized in the parousia – the ‘second coming’ of Christ.
The cry for justice in a world where humans do violence to one-another and wantonly destroy the Creation – and God’s call to trust and have faith, form an interesting framework for the story of Zacchaeus: the little man who wanted so much to see Jesus that he willingly let go of the dignity and decorum of his position in society, to climb a tree so he could see over the heads of the crowd. “He was a tax collector and was rich”, holding in tension two very different ‘types’ in the symbolism of Luke’s Gospel. He is at once the hated outsider who responds generously to God’s call; and he is the rich man, who has great difficulty liberating himself from the attachment to his possessions. He can choose to be either of these men.
But when Jesus sees him and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home, he is given the opportunity, in this moment, to take part in God’s salvation – a salvation that is not unfolding in some distant future but is already being inaugurated in the person of Jesus Christ “today”.
Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus invitation begins to answer for me the question of what it means to “have faith.” While those around – I am guessing Luke means those very righteous ones who follow all the proper rules of faith – while all these begin to grumble, because Jesus has once again violated the boundaries between clean and unclean, Zacchaeus takes a giant leap. He answers their grumbling as one who has been changed by an encounter with Christ. He promises to give – not the customary biblical tithe of ten percent – but half of his wealth to the poor, as well as a generous repayment to anyone he has defrauded. Because he has accepted Jesus’ offer to stay with him, and has made an about face in his way of relating to God and to others, salvation has come to his whole household.
As Walter Pilgrim writes in Good New to the Poor, “…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!” (Good News to the Poor, pg. 133).
To have faith always begins with an encounter with the Holy. Something so awe-some that it breaks into our everyday existence and grabs our attention. Some of us may hear Jesus calling to us when we are up a tree; or find in the wilderness, a bush burning, yet unconsumed. But for most of us, I suspect, the encounter will come in more subtle ways. The opportunity to see the Holy is always all around us: It is in the wonder of a newborn baby, in the kindness of a stranger, in the fragile beauty of a delicate flower, in the crashing of ocean waves, in storm clouds, and rainbows, and the last breath of a loved one dying… We only need to pay attention to see in each moment the presence and the invitation of the Holy One, whose love knows no boundaries.
But, the gospels are full of stories of people who met the Holy in the person of Jesus. For some it was a life-altering experience, but for many – the Herods, the Roman soldiers, or the piously perfect – he was someone to be mocked, or feared, or hated.
To have faith then, requires a response from us that brings about a radical change in the way we see and relate to the world and to others. Faith rises in gratitude from an acknowledgement of all that God has done and is doing for our sake: God has taken on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, who embodies God’s Justice and Peace, as a sign that God’s Kingdom has been established in our very midst. Every time we come together to make Eucharist, we encounter this Jesus in the bread broken and the wine poured, and in one-another as we gather as his living body in the world.
Through him we are commissioned to continue, as God’s partners, the work of healing and reconciling all of Creation. This is the life of discipleship – following in the footsteps of Jesus. But there is another dimension to this aspect of having faith. Not only does it bring about a radical change in our thoughts and actions, it touches every aspect of our lives, including those things over which we exercise a sense of ownership or entitlement – our time, the talents and abilities we embody, and the material goods we have in our possession. When God calls us into partnership, God equips us with the resources and abilities we will need, and empowers us through the Holy Spirit to use those gifts and resources to build up the Kingdom here and now. This is the life of stewardship. The two are intrinsically linked – we cannot be faithful disciples without being stewards of all God has given us; we cannot be faithful stewards without being disciples.
I think of the powerful example of Zacchaeus as both disciple and steward.
A man – who, for many, would be seen as an icon of injustice – will now, because of his encounter with Christ, live God’s justice, by using the wealth he has amassed at the expense of others, to make amends for the suffering he has caused, and to care for the poor. But he will not do this in a small way, but with the same extravagance with which God loves the world in Jesus Christ. And I can’t help but compare my own, often small, response, as I am tempted to live my life by the values of the world, so epitomized by those lottery commercials that tell me everything exists for my pleasure and benefit alone. When I think of the time I use up in idle activities; or the money I waste on things I don’t need; or the talents and abilities that are not exercised in constructive ways – and consider giving even half of these to God, I am overwhelmed by the possibilities: more time for prayer, new ways to serve, and funds for new ministry initiatives, to name but a few.
The question is, am I able to offer these things to God with the same extravagance with which God loves me in Jesus Christ? To have faith moves us from an encounter with the Holy, to a grateful response that brings about a radical transformation that holds nothing back from God, and moves us to a place of trust that God’s love will take even our small offerings and do amazing things with them.
To paraphrase Pilgrim; Jesus makes possible in my life what is humanly impossible for me to accomplish on my own.
At St. Jude’s, when Dorothy asks her question, I tell her that God did do something. I tell her that God came down to our level in the person of Jesus, and experienced all that it means to be human – the vulnerability, the pain and suffering, but also the joy and the delight. And in Jesus, God shows us what it means to be human – to live a love that can heal and transform the world. This is part of God’s plan for salvation which is unfolding for all of Creation, even when we cannot see evidence of it. And we are invited to be a part of it – today.
I invite you to continue the reflection: What does it mean to you to have faith? How has your encounter with the Holy One changed your life? How are you going to live that change in the world using those resources and abilities God has entrusted to you? May God 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. Amen