The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. 2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. 2 Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
Life is hard. A life of discipleship is even harder. What should we do in the face of injustice and wrongdoing? Habakkuk answers, “Wait” (Habakkuk 2:3). What should we do in the face of hard-heartedness and offense? Luke answers, “Forgive” (Luke 17:4).
I wonder if the newsfeeds in Habakkuk’s day were filled with so much violence and hate. I wonder if he saw charred children from his watchtower. I wonder if the occasions of stumbling Jesus’ disciples faced involved people judging them for their race, gender, sexuality, or age. I wonder if they contemplated defending their very being before another before being asked to forgive. I wonder if there were teenagers in biblical times who in the face of such contention felt they could no longer bear to live.
To all of them and to us, the Lord speaks: “The righteous live by their faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Martin Luther found this comforting close to 500 years ago. I suspect this may have been because it was a radical shift for his own faith to at least be more in his realm of control than were the acquisition of indulgences common in his day. However, for me, and maybe for you, such a standard still feels daunting to reach.
With such high stakes, it’s little wonder to me that the disciples’ response to Jesus command to forgive is to cry out, “Increase our faith!”
But there is another way to read the words of Habakkuk. Grammatically, the Hebrew actually uses the third person singular. Thus, a more literal translation reads, “The righteous person will live by his faith.” The NRSV shifts to the plural in an effort to be gender inclusive; however, this shift blurs the ambiguity of the original Hebrew in which the subject of the pronoun is less clear.
Does the righteous person live by his or her own faith? Or by the faith of the Lord? In the ancient Greek translation of this text (the Bible Paul used), the translators favor the latter, rendering, “The righteous person will live by my faith.”
What then, does it mean for us, to approach Habakkuk from this perspective? How might the exhortation to live by God’s faith—or, better still, God’s faithfulness—change the way in which we approach our sinful and broken world of prejudice, violence, and fear? I’d like to suggest that it might do just what the disciples ask—increase our own faithfulness in turn.
Spurred by the hope of a God who remains faithful in the midst of the worst of circumstances, is it possible to conceive of ways (even as small as a mustard seed) that we too might begin to faithfully work towards justice? If it is, I am confident that, working together, such a commitment does indeed have the power to move political mountains!
The Rev. Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen is Co-Lead Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, NV. She holds her PhD from Vanderbilt University in New Testament and Early Christianity.