Sunday, October 3, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Hab 1:2-3, 2:2-4; 2 Tim 1:6-14; Lk 17:5-10

In 1981 Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a little book that became a national best-seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He wrote it after his own young son died of a rare childhood disease. Millions of people bought the book and read it because they identified with the premise in the title of the book. Evidently there were a lot of bad things that happened to a lot of good people. But Rabbi Kushner in the book was merely restating the message we heard in today’s first reading from the prophet Habakkuk. "I cry for help, but you do not listen. ... Why do you let me see ruin? ... Destruction and violence are before me." The answer that Habakkuk receives from the Lord is hardly satisfying. The Lord says: "Wait! Fulfillment will happen. ... Just wait. The just one will live by faith." That’s basically the same answer that Rabbi Kushner gave in his book.

But there’s a subtle meaning that’s often missed here. We, as Christians, have heard that passage from Habakkuk frequently. Mostly because St. Paul quotes it directly in his letter to the Romans as do other New Testament authors (Hb 10:38-39). But already in these New Testament passages an added dimension of meaning has appeared. The word "live" has begun to signify the reward that will be received after death. "Live" in this context means the reward of eternal life. But that’s not what was the meaning intended by the prophet Habakkuk. In the time he was writing—some six hundred years before Christ—the Jews had no belief in life after death. That won’t come along for another four hundred and fifty years. What Habakkuk really meant was that, even in the face of destruction and violence, one who is just still lives with faith in God’s promise. That means being a hope-filled person when everything seems hopeless. Now that’s a lot tougher message.

The prophet puts these words into the mouth of God: the just one lives by faith. What God wants—that is, for one to be righteous before God—is for you to be a hope-filled person. (The word, faith, in this context has the special meaning of hope.) Especially in times of great difficulty, when the chances of coming through this difficult time don’t seem very good. In the news lately there have been lots of reports about the two young men from Westfield, IN who disappeared during a plane flight in Alaska. The plane disappeared a month ago and searchers could find no trace of it. Then some partial wreckage was found a few days ago, but no sign of any persons. During this whole ordeal the young men’s parents have been in Alaska. The mother says over and over to reporters: "We just try to have hope." That’s being a hope-filled person in a time of great difficulty. The prophet Habakkuk would understand very well.

The story of Habakkuk is being played out in multiple dramas all the time. You just have to go out and read all the requests on your prayer board. There are many there who probably feel exactly like the prophet—overwhelmed with the challenges of life they face. We, as Christian ministers, have to try and help them be hoped-filled persons, despite overwhelming odds. I always like something that Harold Kushner wrote at the beginning of his book on the 23rd Psalm. He wrote: "God’s promise was never that life would be fair. God’s promise was that, when we had to confront the unfairness of life, we would not have to do it alone for God would be with us."(p. 3) The prophet Habakkuk would surely shout: Amen. In summing up the significance of the 23rd Psalm Kushner uses words that Habakkuk would agree with: "In his despair, the Psalmist cried out to God, and a miracle happened. The miracle was not that the dead came back to life, or that the man’s health and wealth were restored. The miracle was that he (again) found life worth living." (p. 11) The miracle was that he (once again) found life worth living. That’s beautifully said.

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