Readings: Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:1–4, 2 Thessalonians 1:1–4, 11–12 & Luke 19: 1–10
In our first reading this morning, from the Book of the prophet Habakkuk, the prophet is frustrated by the social injustice he is forced to continually witness, and he is even more frustrated by God’s failure to answer his prayer.
The protest to God of unanswered prayer is a common human complaint. “Give ear to my prayer, O God; do not hide yourself from my supplication” (Ps. 55:1). Why indeed does God allow suffering? Why doesn’t God answer the prayers of the faithful? Why the apparent divine silence in the face of human misery and earnest devout prayer?
Elie Wiesel was a Jewish survivor of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, and he tells the story of a young prisoner hanged by the SS, who was still alive and in agony thirty minutes later. While witnessing this awful event Wiesel was asking himself “Where is God? Where is he?” We might call this a lost prayer. Jesus prayed such a prayer in John’s Gospel, when he prayed that none of his followers be lost, even though Judas was already to betray him. God knows what lost prayer is, but Jesus still prayed such a prayer.
God Himself knows what it is like to feel the divine silence. As Wiesel continued his story from the death camp, he said he found himself answering the question of where God was. The answer was, “He is here. He is hanging on the gallows.” We hear something similar in the words of Psalm 22 that Jesus cried on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Here at least, in the incarnation, God experiences that human fear that there is no God. Here at least God knows what it is like to pray a prayer that seems to go unanswered.
Habakkuk made his protest at God’s apparent silence in the face of injustice and suffering, but then he faithfully stood watch in silence, and waited for God to answer him. God finally spoke, perhaps in a manner and way that Habakkuk did not expect. God the Father was apparently silent in response to the cry of despair from His Son on the cross. Like Habakkuk, the Son had no option but to stand watch in the silence of death and the stillness of the grave. Only on the third day did God give an answer, with a resounding vindication and act of love.
The Apostle Paul said of God, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Here is a reminder that God’s grace is most effective when we have finished our protest and outrage, and are silent. God then acts in ways we could never have imagined. The silence of God, in the face of passionate prayer for justice is always troubling, but that is part of the trial of faith, and God in Christ has experienced it personally.
Catholic spiritual writer Edward Hays relates a story from an early Christian monastic community, in which a young man goes to visit a wise hermit. He finds the monk sitting outside his cave, enjoying the sun, his dog lying lazily at his side. The seeker asks, “Why is it, Father, that some who seek God come to the desert and are zealous in prayer, but leave after a year or so, while others, like you, remain faithful to the quest for a lifetime?”
The old man responds, “One day my dog and I were sitting here quietly in the sun, as we are now. Suddenly, a large white rabbit ran across in front of us. Well, my dog jumped up, barking loudly, and took off after that big rabbit. He chased the rabbit over the hills with a passion. Soon, other dogs joined him, attracted by his barking. What a sight it was, as the pack of dogs ran barking across the creek, up stony embankments, and through thickets and thorns! Gradually, however, one by one, the other dogs dropped out of the pursuit, discouraged by the course and frustrated by the chase. Only my dog continued to hotly pursue the white rabbit.”
Confused, the young man asks, “What is the connection between the rabbit chase and the quest for God?”
The hermit replies, “Why didn’t the other dogs continue the chase? They had not seen the rabbit.” They were only attracted by the barking of the dog. But once you see the rabbit, you will never give up the chase. Seeing the rabbit, and not following the commotion, was what kept the old monk in the desert.
Once our heart’s eye has seen God, we are drawn to seek God forever. Perhaps what draws us is not something we can articulate clearly. Sometimes it feels as if darkness overcomes our vision, and sometimes the “sheer silence” (1 Kgs. 19:12b) of God is drowned out by the sound of the busy-ness of life, the harsh noise of conflict, or just the clamour of the world around us.
Habakkuk advises us to be patient. Even in the times when we do not sense a vision, or a way out of present difficulties, “there is still a vision for the appointed time” (2:3a). We will discover how we are being called and what we are to do next with our lives.
Our second reading, from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, continues the theme of patience in the face of suffering or injustice. Paul commends the Thessalonians for their “steadfastness and faith during their persecutions and the afflictions” (v. 4). This serves as a reminder that the Christian calling is not always to a life of ease and comfort, but to a unity with Christ in suffering. For comfortable Christians such as ourselves in the developed world, we would find such a suggestion more troubling than those Christians who live marginally in developing lands, where such an affirmation is a source of comfort.
For these people, suffering is a gift that shapes a life of endurance and a deeper reliance on the grace of God. We live in a high-speed, culture of pain avoidance; we do not like pain, and we will do most anything to see our way through the pain quickly and in order to regain a measure of “normalcy.” By its nature, however, endurance is not a quality we can develop in a hurry.
Real suffering is not a momentary affliction; for some people suffering is an unwelcome companion for years. Through endurance in such a context we gain an unparalleled opportunity to reflect deeply on our lives, perhaps to see there the fingerprints of God and internally to go beyond either despair, on the one hand, or indifferent optimism, on the other, on the way to an enduring hope.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:1–5)