The Persistent Widow
Readings: Amos 2:6, 15-16, Luke 18:1-8, Marriage Love #365:5 (see below)
As is very common with biblical parables, we might find ourselves a little confused upon reading this one, asking “What is the point of this parable?” Understandably. There are not one, but several points to this parable. Among them, the utility of persistent prayer, the responsibility of society toward the vulnerable, the responsiveness of God towards our need, and reflection on the quality of faith. It can be a little hard to figure out where to place our attention.
We are first introduced to the unjust judge. Certainly to us even now, he reads as callous and potentially corrupt. Additionally, to the Jewish hearers of this parable, he would also have immediately appeared religiously bankrupt as well. The Jewish scriptures repeatedly advocate for the care of widows and orphans and foreigners, people who are easily forgotten, who have no obvious recourse for survival amid patriarchal structures. In this context, The judge did not revere God and God’s commands, and so of course, did not feel any responsibility towards the vulnerable.
Then we are introduced to the figure of the widow. Now, when I read this parable, my internal image of the widow is someone who is meek. Persistent yes, but diminutive. This is totally my own baggage but I imagine her in the the way that I might advocate for my own self in real life. (knock knock) “Um, excuse me, I’m so sorry to be bothering you, but I have this problem, can you help me? (knock knock) I know that you are terribly busy but if you wouldn’t mind taking a look at my case? (knock knock) Yes, I know, its me again, but I really could use your help…” etc etc.
This picture of the widow is not supported by the text, though it is hard for us to tell this by the English. What is often translated as “yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will vindicate her, or in the end she will wear me out by her continual coming,” in the original greek, is actually a boxing metaphor. Its literal usage means to beat someone black and blue. I’m not saying the language was meant to imply that the judge thought the widow was really going to get violent, but rather, that the use of such a metaphor creates a very different picture to the deferential one I instinctively created in my mind. The widow was being a nuisance in such a way that caused the judge to use language that evoked being under attack.
And we see that, even so, this widow is lifted up as a faithful example. So while the parable is framed as being about prayer, I think we could also draw some lessons about persistence in relation to injustice in general, and about how we might approach eradicating injustice.
From the widow’s example then, clearly, we are to be people who notice injustice. And, we are to be people who are troubled and concerned about injustice. And, we are to be people who are persistent about correcting injustice, who are not content with allowing corrupt institutions or people (ie the judge) to go about business-as-usual. If our situation is unjust, we are empowered to resist it, not just once, but over and over again, until justice is restored.
What is more, we are empowered to resist with passion. The widow was clearly passionate enough in her entreaties to the judge that he employed a fighting metaphor to characterize her. In a real situation, we cannot know how much the judge’s own paranoia, or guilty conscience, might be projecting on to her. But, I do think a reflection upon the utility of righteous anger is appropriate here.
We heard in our reading today about what Swedenborg called zeal, that is, the condition under which we are moved to act passionately out of love. He points out that zeal often looks very much like anger, in that it can appear strident, or bristly. However, what is key is not so much what the zeal looks like to an observer, but what is motivating it internally. He writes:
The zeal of a good love harbors in its inner aspects friendship and love, but the zeal of an evil love harbors in its inner aspects hatred and vengeance. We said that zeal appears in outward respects like anger and rage, both in those who are prompted by a good love and in those who are prompted by an evil love. But because the internal elements are different, so also their expressions of anger and rage are different…
The point being that what matters is the internal motivation. Righteous zeal or anger is trying to protect something good and just. It can certainly be working for something that is good and just for the self —the widow was advocating for herself and her own situation; it is not that zeal is must always completely self-less or purely altruistic in order to be motivated by something good. But ultimately, righteous anger is advocating for a just principle that serves more than the self. An example is the Civil rights movement: each person of color involved in this movement was certainly advocating for themselves and their own inherent right to be treated justly, but also in a larger sense, they were fighting for the principle that all people have a right to be treated justly, as much of MLKs soaring rhetoric demonstrated.
Whereas, zeal or anger that comes from a wellspring of hatred and vengeance might take upon it any number of external justifications, even might look like it is working for the greater good, but its ultimate root is the perverse satisfaction of seeing others suffer under its zeal. Again from our reading, Swedenborg writes:
...[its] internal element is hostile, savage, harsh, seething with hatred and vengeance, and it feeds on the delights of those emotions…. And even if it is appeased, still those emotions lie concealed within, like fires smoldering in the wood beneath the ash.
We are cautioned here against anger for the sake of anger, anger makes us feel powerful and potent and superior, as opposed to anger roused for the sake of justice itself, for the sake of how justice might be realized for all. Due to its emotional potency, anger can be seductive, even if we start out with good motivations, we can become addicted to how it makes us feel. Even more so if our anger has always burned for selfish reasons, smoldering in wait for a reason to lash out.
So it can be easy to imagine that anger is always a bad thing, and this can be confusing when we contemplate how often God is characterize as angry and wrathful in the bible. In the Old Testament, the prophets portrayed God as extremely angry when the Israelites consistently worshiped idols and ignored the vulnerable among them. From Amos we hear:
This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.(2:6) “I abhor the pride of Jacob and detest his fortresses; I will deliver up the city and everything in it.” (6:8)
Swedenborg makes the important point however, that even with God, how it might have appeared to the prophets, how they interpreted their visions in their context, is different from the reality. He writes:
So it is that the Lord's zeal, which in itself is love and compassion, is seen by them as anger…in fact there is no anger whatever in the Divine, nor any evil whatever, only pure forbearance and mercy. (1)
If God’s love and compassion are infinite, certainly God’s zeal, God’s passion, for us is beyond imagining. Love and compassion demand justice for all who are loved, demand that each beloved child of God be able to experience conditions of safety and contentment. Systems, like patriarchy for example, often serve some and not others, and can lead to some people, through no fault of their own, to be forgotten. But where injustice prevails, God sees those who are forgotten and lifts them up. Thus God’s zeal works for justice, for access for all to what they need to survive and thrive.
So how does God work to see that the forgotten, like the widow in the parable, be brought into community, into thriving? One way is through just systems and institutions instead of unjust ones. God gave a system of laws to a community, in the Old Testament this was the Israelites, and this community set up systems of justice so that they might be able to hold each other accountable to a shared mission for the greater good. And thus we see the widow appealing to the judge in the parable.
Such institutions are not infallible of course. People like the unjust judge rise up into power. People motivated by winning, by profit, supremacy, reputation, and glory. This is why we see in this parable a contrasting comparison between God and the judge. Even though this judge was associated with a system of justice, his heart was not in it. But God’s heart is always in it for us. God’s spirit moves along with those seeking for, working for, and creating justice. God’s spirit responds to this work and this desire. Our shared institutions, our shared vision for our communities need not be co-opted by selfishness. God will work with us to create and support a just world.
And so this widow is lifted up, that we might all seek the realization of a world in which she does not need to supplicate, did not need persistence, a world that sees her and values her automatically. For this we might pray, yes, in our minds and hearts, but we also pray with our feet, our letters, our compassionate and open conversation, our service, and our persistent protest.
Of course, when we talk about good zeal and bad zeal, righteous anger and unrighteous anger, we separate something in concept that is much more complicated in reality. We all act from mixed motivations. We all act from fear and self-centeredness sometimes, and altruism and love other times. We are simply human. So, if we are to take on the full import of this parable, to assimilate the necessity of persistent prayer towards a just world, we must recognize that our own hearts are a part of that world. Our persistent prayer cannot be for God’s intercession separate from our own engagement, for we know that God doesn’t work like that, our persistent prayer must be for justice to prevail in each and every heart, ours included.
For, righteous anger is powerful, and it is a very good thing in so far as it motivates us, gives us courage, gives us hope, gives us resilience, gives us the fortitude to do something difficult over and over again. But we cannot allow ourselves to get caught up in that power. Swedenborg writes:
The zeal of a good love immediately dies down and softens when the other desists from the attack; whereas the zeal of an evil love persists and is not extinguished.
Let us watch ourselves then, with both compassion and accountability, watch when our anger dissipates and when it does not, and ask ourselves what we holding on to and why. Zeal for justice is borne out of love, and when justice is achieved, love is what remains. It can be a cautious love, a wise love, a love with boundaries, a love born of clarity, but it holds possibility within it, not vengeance. A possibility that brings us all forward together, if we allow for it.
(1) Secrets of Heaven #8875
Amos 2:6, 14-16
6 This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. 7 They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.
14 The swift will not escape, the strong will not muster their strength, and the warrior will not save his life. 15 The archer will not stand his ground, the fleet-footed soldier will not get away, and the horseman will not save his life. 16 Even the bravest warriors will flee naked on that day,” declares the LORD.
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.' " 6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Marriage Love #365:5
The zeal of a good love harbors in its inner aspects friendship and love, but the zeal of an evil love harbors in its inner aspects hatred and vengeance. We said that zeal appears in outward respects like anger and rage, both in those who are prompted by a good love and in those who are prompted by an evil love. But because the internal elements are different, so also their expressions of anger and rage are different; and the differences are as follows:
1. The zeal of a good love is like a heavenly flame, which never leaps out to attack another, but only defends itself - defending itself against an evil assailant in much the same way as when such a one rushes at fire and is burned; whereas the zeal of an evil love is like a hellish flame, which spontaneously leaps out and rushes upon another and tries to devour him.
2. The zeal of a good love immediately dies down and softens when the other desists from the attack; whereas the zeal of an evil love persists and is not extinguished.
3. The reason for this is that the internal element in one who is prompted by a love of good, is, in itself, gentle, mild, friendly and kind. Consequently, even when, to protect itself, the external element hardens, stiffens, bristles, and so acts harshly, still it is tempered by the goodness which moves its internal element. Not so in evil people. In them the internal element is hostile, savage, harsh, seething with hatred and vengeance, and it feeds on the delights of those emotions. And even if it is appeased, still those emotions lie concealed within, like fires smoldering in the wood beneath the ash; and if these fires do not break out in the world, nevertheless they do after death.
Through the Love of God
Photo credit: Marcus Wöckel
Readings: Psalm 111:1-10, Luke 17:11-19, Heaven and Hell #404 (see below)
Well, it is just the beginning of October, but let’s get a jump on Thanksgiving shall we? Because, the story that we have heard from the bible today is all about gratitude. Jesus is traveling along the border between Samaria and Galilee. He meets ten lepers and heals them. It is interesting how it happens. They are not healed in Jesus’ presence; he sends them to see the priest and it says “as they went, they were cleansed.” They suddenly found themselves healed when they didn’t quite expect it. Yet, nine of them continued on their way, only one turned around and returned to Jesus to thank him. Jesus feigns surprise, and makes sure to point out that the one practicing gratitude is a Samaritan, an enemy of his fellow Judeans. Jesus has already told the story of the Good Samaritan a few chapters earlier, and this story drives home his point: we should be wary of the walls we erect between ourselves and others, for if we pay attention it is the Samaritan, the one the Judeans call “enemy” who is actually loving God and loving the neighbor as Jesus is teaching. This Samaritan’s gratitude is lifted up as a model.
Now, I did not grow up with a Thanksgiving holiday, and I’ve very much come to appreciate the tradition of setting a day aside to give thanks for our blessings in community. Perhaps the practice is as simple as saying grace at a feast, perhaps it is the practice of going around a table to say one thing we are grateful for, perhaps it is a yearly inventory of our blessings. Gratefulness is an important practice.
I do want to dive a little deeper and ask: Why though? Why is Thanksgiving so many people’s favorite holiday? Why is the practice of gratitude often so restorative? Why do we teach our children to say “thank you” when someone does something for them?
Certainly, it is a nice thing to do, it seems the right thing to do—but why is that? Because it is an acknowledgment that we exist in community, that we rely upon each other. It is the acknowledgement of the existence of someone else whose action made an impact upon us in some way, it is an acknowledgment that we are not islands but strands of a grand and beautiful web. Gratitude connects us to each other and to reverence.
Reverence, in the words of philosopher Paul Woodruff, is the recognition of something greater than the self.(1) Gratitude is one of the easiest and most important ways we enter into the experience of reverence. When we say thank you, we bring ourselves into the recognition of someone apart from the self, recognition of a need that we could not fulfill on our own, and therefore, a recognition that the self is not all-important or all-capable.
Or in the words of Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor “reverence stands in awe of something—something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits—so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.” (2)
This is essentially what we are doing here in church. God does not need our praise. God does not desire it. We heard that in our Swedenborg reading. We are here however, to be reverent, meaning to willingly let go of the primacy of self, and to consciously look outside of ourselves to see what else there might be, whether that be God, or community, or beauty, or insight or countless other things.
And when we notice and/or receive these things, these gifts, we fall on our knees in thankfulness that we are not alone in an empty world. Into this space of gratitude, we speak aloud an acknowledgement of our limits, our indebtedness, and our wonder. This is the push and pull of worship: to open our eyes to what God would have us see in ourselves and others, to take our awareness outside of our selfhood, to lay down our anxieties in front of someone who cares, to sing and pray and listen and speak ourselves into community with each other and God.
In Taylor’s words, “reverence [is] the proper attitude of a small and curious human being in a vast and fascinating world of experience.”(3) Humility and curiosity are key, for Jesus warned us in the text for today that our preconceptions about who we should be in community with, who we should be open to and grateful for, can get in the way of true reverence.
But our preconceptions of people are not the only things that get in the way. We often erect many obstacles to gratitude and reverence in our daily lives. As Taylor points out:
“The practice of paying attention really does take time. Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings be come not more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else. (note) We pay attention to the speedometer, the wristwatch, the cell phone, the list of things to do, all of which feed our illusion that life is manageable. Meanwhile, none of them meets the first criterion for reverence, which is to remind us that we are not gods. If anything these devices sustain the illusion that we might yet be gods—if only we could find some way to do more faster.”(4)
What is it that reminds us that we are not gods? Simple awareness. We remain so caught up in our own competence, our own opinions, our own delusions, but a simple autumn leaf and the awareness that we had nothing to do with its beauty and process and life, this can bring us around to our place in the order of things.
We hear this in the words of Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, who recounted a vision she had one day:
And in this [God] showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I look at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: what can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. (5)
The ten lepers were healed “as they went.” And so we also go about our lives, to and fro. As we go, will we notice our various healings, small and large alike, and will they remind us to praise, to be grateful, to see that everything has being through the love of God? In Taylor’s words, can we trust “that something as small as a hazelnut can become an altar in this world.”(6)
And so, as we explore for ourselves gratitude and praise in this season of Thanksgiving, as we meditate upon the ways gratitude shows that we belong to each other, let us hear this blessing from John O’Donohue:
May you listen to your longing to be free
May the frames of your belonging be generous enough for your dreams
May you arise each day with a voice of blessing whispering in your heart
May you find a harmony between your soul and your life
May the sanctuary of your soul never become haunted
May you know the eternal longing that lives at the heart of time
May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within
May you never place walls between the light and yourself
May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world to gather you, mind you, and embrace you in belonging.
1 Praise the LORD. I will extol the LORD with all my heart in the council of the upright and in the assembly. 2 Great are the works of the LORD; they are pondered by all who delight in them. 3 Glorious and majestic are his deeds, and his righteousness endures forever. 4 He has caused his wonders to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and compassionate. 5 He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever. 6 He has shown his people the power of his works, giving them the lands of other nations. 7 The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. 8 They are established for ever and ever, enacted in faithfulness and uprightness. 9 He provided redemption for his people; he ordained his covenant forever— holy and awesome is his name. 10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. 15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. 17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Heaven and Hell #404
Some spirits who thought themselves better informed than others claimed that in the world they had held to the belief that heavenly joy consisted solely in praising and glorifying God, and that this was an active life. They have been told, though, that praising and glorifying God is not an appropriate kind of active life, since God has no need of praise and glorification. Rather, God wants us to be useful to each other, to do the worthwhile things that are called works of charity. However, they could not connect any notion of heavenly joy with thoughtful good deeds, only a notion of servitude. The angels, though, bore witness that it was the freest life of all because it stemmed from a deep affection and was invariably accompanied by an indescribable pleasure.
The Greater Masterpiece
Readings: Habakkuk 1:1-7, 12-13, 2:1-4, Secrets of Heaven #3854:2-3 (see below)
This morning we are going to spend some time with the prophet Habakkuk. You’d be forgiven for asking: Who? Habakkuk is only included once in the three-year cycle of the lectionary and is not usually a go-to for other bible readings. And though the common invocation “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth by silent before him,” does come from Habakkuk, we might not have heard much more from him.
We don’t know a lot about Habakkuk. He does not provide us with much information about himself, nor is there much opportunity: the book itself is a scant three chapters long. We can surmise a few things. Since he prophecies about an immanent defeat for Judah by the Babylonians, he was probably active during the reign of King Jehoiakim, which was 609-598 BCE. This would make him a contemporary of the more well-known Jeremiah.
As obscure as Habakkuk may be, however, I think that even now we can resonate with his writings. We might know something of the world Habakkuk describes. He writes:
Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong-doing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife and conflict abounds. Therefore, the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. (1:2-4)
How familiar this sounds! Human beings, then and now, make choices that lead to corruption and violence, choices that seem to actively prevent justice from being manifested in the world. Those who love justice, who value integrity, see evil prospering and it is perplexing, it is discouraging. Habakkuk, too, sees the prevalence of such forces and it pains him, distresses him, not only because they exist, but that their existence might imply that God tolerates these evils.
So he makes a complaint to God, lays out his case for his reasonable and rational distress, and asks for God’s reply. He asks: why does injustice prevail? and desires for God to answer for the state of the world. God’s initial reply, as characterized by Habakkuk, complicates matters. God says that he is sending the Babylonians to lay waste to the Israelites as payment for their crimes. This is how ancient peoples of all kinds understood the relationship between the divine and human history. They saw the divine as interceding directly in human affairs. That human history could be interpreted to reveal God’s acts of justice on a worldwide scale. Modern religion has, in many sectors, re-evaluated and evolved this relationship between God and human history. Even so, we see elements of evangelical religion stating that God has sent hurricanes or epidemics to punish certain groups of people whom they call sinners. So, we are not so far removed from this perspective as we might imagine.
Habakkuk though, pushes back. For as much as the Jewish tradition contained a strand of covenant thinking (ie God would give reward to those who followed the law, and punish those who didn’t), there was also a tradition such that we see in the book of Job, that grapples with a reality much less simple. For Habakkuk, God’s answer raised more questions on the topic of justice than it answered. How can it be just, Habakkuk asks, that even good people be destroyed wholesale by divine retribution. He asks God:
“Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (1:13)
It does not add up for him. How can God’s ends be met by the wicked and vicious Babylonians? Yes, the Israelites (or anyone else for that matter) should receive punishment for their misdeeds but by the Babylonians? This divine act would perform a retributive purpose but not a restorative one, and Habakkuk knew God to be deeply and steadfastly restorative. How can God answer injustice with more injustice, and still be considered divinely loving?
Habakkuk decides to wait upon the Lord once more, to press God for a different, better answer. He says:
“I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” (2:1)
This time God’s answer is different.
“Write the vision; make it plain upon tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it. It will surely come, it will not delay. Behold, he whose soul is puffed up in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” (2:2-3)
This is an answer that transcends Habakkuk’s original question. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “It is an answer… not in terms of thought, but in terms of existence.” (1) For still the vision awaits its time…and the righteous shall live by their faith. God opens up the realm of justice so that it is no longer about retribution in the short-term but rather restoration in God’s time. God turns the question back to us: What will you do, Habakkuk? What kind of vision will you write? What kind of vision will you live by? If you were truly to believe in the justice that forms the heart of God, how would you live differently?
Habakkuk had already given a clue that he was ready to hear such a word. He had written: I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” God’s answer and humankind’s response are linked. In the words of Heschel: the first is the meaningless without the second. (2) He says further: “The universe is done. The greater masterpiece still undone, still in the process of being created, is history.” (3)
The “greater masterpiece” still to be finished, is the story of our choices, the history that we make. We recall from our Swedenborg reading:
The Lord also foresaw that it would be impossible for any good to take root in humankind except in our freedom…
Evil and injustice are travesties, but they exist because we are given the gift, the respect, the mercy, of freedom. We are given the agency to craft an internal life of choices that reflects the divine, or reflects the lack of it. Swedenborg continues:
For every smallest fraction of a moment of a person's life entails a chain of consequences extending into eternity. Indeed every one is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so every single moment of the life both of our understanding and of our will is a new beginning.
Heschel says it this way: But God needs mercy, righteousness; His needs cannot be satisfied in temples, in space, but only in history, in time. (4)
What he is saying here is that God’s desire for mercy and righteousness cannot be satisfied in any other way than in the still quiet moment of human decision, pure only in its freedom. Every small fraction of a moment contains a new beginning that might become resonant with the desire of God, and along with Habakkuk, we mourn, bitterly, desperately, when that desire goes unfulfilled, when that moment of human decision decides to give birth to in-justice, to imbalance, to oppression.
And yet still the tension remains. Can any appeal to the ultimate value of freedom justify the worst of what humanity has wrought? How can it be that the freedom of one can be allowed to harm another? How can we bear to speak of the “greater masterpiece” while things are falling apart, while real suffering is happening in the here and now. It hurts. We cry out. We lament. And well we should. It is not a sign of a lack of faith to protest the existence of injustice, and of suffering, even to God. It is a sign we are taking seriously the desire of God, the vision of God, that would bring all people into thriving. It means, as Heschel says, we understand that “Justice is not an ancient custom, a human convention, a value, but a transcendent demand, freighted with divine concern.”(5)
And so it remains something of a divine mystery, a bewilderment, that God would, in any way, cede to us something so freighted with divine concern, something so important. What was God thinking? God was thinking that the only way for our choice for justice to mean something is if we have the opportunity not to make it.
This is where faith and hope come into the picture. Our brains don’t really help us out with this predicament. In the words of science writer Erik Vance, the human brain is a prediction machine.(6) Its job is to take what has happened in the past, apply it to the present in order to make a prediction about the future. This helps us survive in the world, to learn what we need to learn.
And yet, in this way of looking at the world, we are acutely vulnerable to Habakkuk’s lament. When we observe rampant and persistent injustice, oppression and suffering, when we recognize how long it has been a part of human history, a good prediction machine would say it will always be so. And this can completely overwhelm us, it can debilitate us.
But there is a part of the picture that is outside of our history, outside of our neurology, outside of reason and prediction, and this is God’s promise of ultimate restoration. We have no real reason to believe it, except that each of us have experienced it, a small moment of blooming, of joy, of healing, growing up through the cracks of this world, somehow, someway. And if we do believe in it, against all odds, if we believe that justice is possible in the future, we are free to act for it in the present. We are free to make it indispensable and spontaneous, as close to us as our breath. For Heschel writes: Justice is just as much a necessity as breathing is, and a constant occupation.” (7)
The last word of course, should go to Habakkuk. He writes: Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman? Or an image that teaches lies? For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, “Come to life!” Or to lifeless stone, “Wake up!” Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it.” (2:18-19)
If justice is just as much a necessity as breathing, indeed, let us look to where we find the breath of God, and may it be our own breath and life.
(1) Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, An Introduction, 143
(2) Ibid, 142
(3) Ibid, 198
(6) On Being with Krista Tippett, Interview with Erik Vance, The Drugs Inside Your Head, September 19, 2019
(7) Heschel, The Prophets, 199
Habakkuk 1:1-7, 12-13, 2:1-4
1 The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.
2 How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. 4 Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
The Lord's Answer
5 “Look at the nations and watch— and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. 6 I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor.
Habakkuk's Second Complaint
12 LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, you will never die. You, LORD, have appointed them to execute judgment; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. 13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?
2:1 I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.
The Lord's Answer
2 Then the LORD replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. 3 For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. 4 “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright— but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.
Secrets of Heaven #3854
 …The Lord foresaw from eternity what the human race was going to be like in the future and what every member of it was going to be like, and that evil was going to increase all the time, so that at length humankind, of themselves, would [wish to] rush headlong into hell. That being so, the Lord has provided not only the means by which He makes it possible for human beings to be diverted from hell and led towards heaven, but also does in His providence divert and lead us all the time. The Lord also foresaw that it would be impossible for any good to take root in humankind except in our freedom, for that which does not take root in freedom is dispelled at the first sign of evil and of temptation.
 From this it may be seen how far someone errs who believes that the Lord has not foreseen and does not see the smallest individual thing with a person, or that within the smallest individual thing He does not foresee and lead, when in fact the Lord's foresight and providence are present within the tiniest details of all the smallest individual things with us, and in details so tiny that it is impossible to comprehend in any manner of thought one in many millions of them. For every smallest fraction of a moment of a person's life entails a chain of consequences extending into eternity. Indeed every one is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so every single moment of the life both of our understanding and of our will is a new beginning.