I want to share a passage from a book written in 1966 by Langdon Gilkey. As a young man just before the war, he journeyed to Peking (Beijing) China to teach English and was caught there when the Japanese army took over the city. In February, 1943 he and some 1,600 other foreign civilians were taken to camp to live out the war. There, they were expected to organize themselves and run the camp within the walls. The Japanese gave them small food allotments, but generally left them on their own. The section I will quote comes from the chapter Saints, Priests, and Preachers and begins on page 163 of my first edition.
A community needs ethical people, but does the secular world need religious people? Are the saints really good, is religious piety a requisite for communal virtue, do we need God in order to love our fellow man? ….
I had to admit to myself that no easy answer to these questions could be found merely by noting the way in which different types of people, religious and irreligious, behaved….
The most important lesson I learned is that there are no cut-and-dried categories in human life, no easily recognizable brand names by which we can estimate our fellows. Over and over “respectable people,” one of the commonest labels applied in social intercourse, turned out to be uncooperative, irritable, and worse, dishonest. Conversely, many who were neither respectable nor pious were in fact, valiant. At the same time, many obvious bums were just plain bums. It was the mystery, the richness, and the surprise of human beings that struck me the most when I looked round at my fellows.
Perhaps the most surprising of all was Clair Richards. She was a handsome, strong, self-sufficient, and possibly to some tastes hard-looking British woman in her thirties. As she swirled around the camp in her tight skirts and low-cut blouses, you knew the moment you saw her that she enjoyed boing to bed with men. But I must say, the frank and competent stare that met you when you spoke to her, plus her booming voice and rollicking laugh, tended to make a man, at least a young man, wonder more about his own capacities than about her obvious attractions. Inevitably, stories of a lurid past in Peking and Tientsin [Tiajin], of her having been the intimate of leading industrialists and diplomats, followed in her wake. How true or untrue these were, I shall never know.
[In 1944 a new director of Kitchen II, Row, was elected to stop theft and sloppy work.]
I was even more surprised when I found that it was Clair to whom he had given charge of women’s labor in the kitchen…. Despite her well-advertised labels, Clair had these virtues and to spare. Clair, with Row, completely changed both the morale and efficiency of that kitchen force. Looked upon by most of the pious as so wicked they were embarrassed to be seen talking with her she had in fact a higher moral character than they did.
Shantung Compound Harper & Row 1966 New additions are still being sold.
Habakkuk’s short prophetic work could almost be called the Reader’s Digest version of Jeremiah. While that would be a disservice to Jeremiah, they did deliver the same basic message to the same people in the same general time period, along with Nahum and Zephaniah. Put simply, you have sinned, you will be taken into captivity by Babylon, God still loves you and he will return you.
The big message for us is in the last words of today’s reading: the righteous will live by his faith. The thing about faith that has always been so difficult for we humans to get is, we live it, we don’t just have it. We always talk about having faith in the same way we talk about having a car. We don’t have faith, we act in faith.
Habakkuk was not complaining about improper sacrifices at the Temple or about drinking milk with a roast beef sandwich. He was after what was truly faith living. Avigayil down the street lost her husband and has three kids to support. What have you done to help her? Natan‘el broke his leg and can’t work. Have you taken care of the work for him?
In some ways, it was easier 3,000 years ago because they literally knew almost everyone they came into contact with and could easily know their needs. Today, we have to work at getting to know the people next door. How can I know what they need if I don’t even know who they are?
The answer from Habakkuk is: find a way. Faith goes into the unknown, the dark places we are afraid of and seeks out those who are hiding there. Faith does not concern itself with the surface trappings of our lives. We cannot hide behind our own ignorance. With the Psalmist we must say, give me understanding that I may live.
I wrote in an earlier exposition that faith either exist or it does not exist. The disciples had just asked Jesus to increase their faith and he gave the example of the mustard seed. Here in 2 Thessalonians, Paul says, your faith is growing more and more. Both statements are true, like so many theological concepts. What Jesus wanted his disciples to understand was that they and we cannot measure how much faith we have, we can only act on the faith we have. Paul adds that by acting on faith we receive more understanding so that we can live faith even more fully.
Zacchaeus is very much like Claire in the account from Gilkey above. He was a social outcast because he, a Jew, worked for the hated Romans and collected taxes two, three, ten times what the Romans required, keeping the extra for himself. He was wealthy beyond the dreams of working people, then or now.
We are not told much else about him. He met Jesus and gave away half of his fortune. (Don’t get distracted by asking why not all.) Jesus said, today salvation has come to this house. Zacchaeus acted. He could not allow himself to simply say, I love you Jesus. Not only did he give away more money than most people would make in a lifetime, he reformed. From then on he would only collect the taxes plus enough for him to live on. Greed no longer ruled his live. What happened to him after that is lost to us.
But what is not lost is the next verses just after today’s Gospel reading. While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. When the Kingdom of God comes, salvation will come with it. Look back a paragraph to the statement Jesus made about salvation.
If Zacchaeus received salvation, a dirty, disgusting, money-grubbing, scumbag, surely salvation has also come to the rest of us. To read ahead even more, the answer is, it depends on what we do with our faith, love, devotion to God. God has entrusted me with a precious gift. Will I use it, wear it out, and bring it back dinged up and dusty from meeting the needs of others?
Be righteous and do good.