Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, October 6, 2019
At the time of this prophecy, God's people had been unfaithful. A pagan nation is making war against them. The prophet takes this for granted: misfortunes like war are punishment for infidelity. What he complains to God about is that the punishment is excessive and comes from the hands of pagans.
The veteran Saint Paul had made the young Timothy a bishop by the laying on of hands. Paul, now a prisoner, writes to encourage Timothy to live out his calling.
This section of Saint Luke's gospel gives us two of Jesus' sayings: one about faith and one about how demanding it can be to live as a disciple.
The Historical and Literary Situation: The first two chapters of the book of Habakkuk (HAB uh cook, with a short A) take the form of a dialog: the prophet complains, the Lord answers, the prophet complains again, and again the Lord replies. The setting is around 600 B.C.E. God's people are in trouble. They have been unfaithful, and another nation is making war against them. Habakkuk takes this for granted. People in his time believed that misfortune, whether personal or national, is deserved punishment for sin. It's that simple.
So that's not what makes Habakkuk complain. What puzzles and irritates him is that Judah's punishment comes at the hands of brutal pagans who are overly aggressive. As The New Jerusalem Bible puts it, "Why should the bad be punished by the worse? Why should [the Lord] appear to strengthen the arm of injustice?" To use such peoples is unworthy of the the holiness of God. Furthermore, the prophet thinks the punishment has gone on quite long enough, and that the excesses of the enemy are going unpunished. Habakkuk breaks new ground by demanding of God an account of all that God has let go on. (Our Lectionary selection draws from the prophet's first complaint and the Lord's second reply. The whole dialog is much richer.)
Your Proclamation: As lector, make the complaint-response structure clear by an appropriate pause and contrasting tones of voice. Habakkuk, in the first sentences, should sound very impatient, on the border of outrage. Can't imagine how that sounds? Remember in high school how you had to do Patrick Henry's speech from the American Revolution, "Give me liberty or give me death!" The buildup to that climax is the kind of outrage you need. So is the indictment of King George III in the United States' Declaration of Independence (1776).
Then, slowly, deliberately, "The Lord answered me and said: ..." Continue slowly and with patience in your voice. Say the final sentence with firmness, "but the just one, because of his faith, shall live". (Saint Paul was to make much of this sentence in his letter to the Romans. It's the sentence that ties the first reading most clearly to today's gospel.)
The Historical Background: Remember that Timothy was a person, not a congregation. And Paul is speaking to him personally here. Paul had laid hands on Timothy, the gesture we still use in confirmation, ordination and the anointing of the sick. Timothy received gifts of the Spirit then, but he is responsible for choosing to exercise them (stirring them into flame). Paul refers to his own imprisonment, and does not want that condition to bring shame on his protegé Timothy.
Proclaiming It: These are straightforward words of encouragement from "an old hand" to a young servant of the Lord and of the church. Read them that way, more formally than you would a "pep talk," but in that spirit. Decide which words apply not only to Timothy but to yourself and the people in the assembly who will hear you, and emphasize those (perhaps "power and love and self-control" and "bear your share of hardship for the gospel"). Be sure to contrast "spirit of cowardice" with "power and love and self-control."
Habachuch [the prophet, source of today's 1st reading], published 1613 Theodor Galle after Jan van der Straet, Flemish, c. 1571 - 1633 engraving on laid paper plate: 17.7 x 13.9 cm (6 15/16 x 5 1/2 in.) sheet: 24.3 x 19 cm (9 9/16 x 7 1/2 in.) Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., U.S.A. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1974.55.7.p
The text around the portrait is loosely based on expressions in the biblical book of Habakuk, and comes, not at all loosely, from the Latijnsche Gedichten (Latin Poems) of Cornelius Kilianus, a Flemish translator/poet, 1607-1685. For a little more about that, see my discussion of Kilianus two weeks ago.
It might be interesting to know who posed for van der Straet. Biblical prophets were famously averse to portraits, lest the people treat them as idols. Western European artists put the faces of their patrons, friends, and others into their works representing honored (and, I suppose, dishonored) Biblical figures. So nobody knows what Habakuk looked like. Who is depicted here and why did the artist honor him by casting him as this particular prophet?
(Speaking of using models for portraits of the saintly, this page of Lector's Notes was updated in 2019 around the feast of Saint Louis, King of France, who lived in the 13th century. Simultaneously, the great Saint Louis Art Museum (Missouri, U.S.A.) used its Facebook account to tell this funny story of why a 17th-century man posed for a painting of King Saint Louis.)
This page updated August 26, 2019