Emunah and Halakhah
Walking on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus tells another story, about a widow demanding justice from a judge. He says it is about prayer, but quickly it becomes about faith and justice. It ends asking, When the Son of Man appears, will he find faith on earth? [Luke 18-8] The Hebrew word for faith is אמונה, emunah, and is an action-oriented word meaning "support". This is important because the Western concept of faith places the action on the one you have faith in, such as "faith in God". But, the Hebrew word emunah places the responsibility of action on those of us who "support God". When the Israelites find themselves embattled with a foe, as long as Moses holds his hands up, they prevail. When he tires and lets them down, they lose ground. Eventually, two of the Israelites find a rock for him to sit on, and then each of them hold up one of his arms. This is emunah. This is what faith looks like in the Bible: supporting and assisting others. All others.
As in we are to support and to love our neighbor, especially widows, orphans and the alien who lives among us – we are to provide them with daily bread. We are to give them a place to stay. We are to provide safety for them. And, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. [Leviticus 19:33-34] That is, true faith is striving for justice and peace for all people, loving your neighbor as yourself. And remembering where we come from and who saved us.
That is, we are to live according to the laws of the God of Israel: the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. This is called הֲלָכָה, halakhah – which is often translated as Judeo-Christian Law, but literally means “the path one walks.” The basic Biblical understanding of faith has nothing to do with what comes out of our mouths, what we say and believe. People are willing to say all kinds of things, and confess all sorts of beliefs, but it is our actions that matter in the world God creates for us, for all people and all creatures. In fact, halakhah demands that in addition to observing sabbath, praying at least twice a day, what to do when we wake up and go to bed, most important of all is the love we are to have for all other people and all creatures. Halakhah insists that neither people nor animals are to be mistreated. Neither God nor people look at what comes out of our mouths, but watch where our feet take us to provide justice for all people, all creatures and this fragile island home, the Earth. We are to walk the walk.
So, as we read that a widow comes to a judge asking for justice, [Luke 18:1-8] we immediately recall she represents a special protected class of people without resources. We are not told who her opponent is, nor what sort of justice she desires, but we do know that to live a life of faith, of halakha, it has to do with someone being required to do something that will improve her life. The judge we are told neither cares for God, nor does he care for people. We might say he is a secular rationalist. He does not reverence God, nor does he walk in God’s ways, and he does not follow human opinion polls, but rather does his job as he sees fit – which in some ways may make him an impartial and just judge.
Yet, he betrays his lack of concern for people in that he does care about his reputation. For when the text says that due to her persistence she will “wear him out,” the word literally means to “give him a black eye.” That is, his reputation will suffer if he does not grant her justice as understood in the halakhah YHWH has commanded. He will lose both his reputation and his privileged place in the community. The story is about faith, emunah, and that faith means doing justice, doing love of neighbor, including love of widows, orphans and resident aliens. This was summed up neatly by the prophet Micah approximately 700 years before the time of Jesus: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Granted, the judge in the story is not particularly humble, but he does do what is required whether or not he regards the teachings of halakhah. Jesus’s question, “When the Son of Man returns will he find faith on earth?” it means he expects to find anyone who claims to be walking in his way to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. That is, emunah, or faith, is the sum of our actions on behalf of God and of others – all others. There is no neutral stance – faith is action, action is faith. It is also true that prayer is action, and action is prayer.
This is true even among the most mundane things that we do, e.g. wash our hands, do the dishes, share a meal with others, observe sabbath. When everything we do is for God and for others, there is justice for all, and that is the sign that we are faithful people. This attentiveness to what we do is what Tich Nhat Hanh calls being mindful of every little thing we do. We are to remember that it is not about having faith “in God, and that God will do something for us,” but rather that the word emunah requires action from those of us who support God, support others, and walk on the path of God’s ways, God’s halakhah. It’s about being mindful of what we do.
That is, we are those people who speak God’s truth to Power, and are the hands and feet of God in this world. Bishop Desmond Tutu spoke of the life of faith as not remaining neutral and doing nothing in the face of injustice and the falseness of this world. Those who suffer are not at all impressed by our neutrality. The recently deceased Congressman Elijah Cummings, my representative in the United States Congress, summed this up earlier this year commenting on the risk, pain, sacrifice and suffering Michael Cohen had undertaken by testifying before the House Oversight Committee: “When we’re dancing with the angels, the question we’ll be asked is: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say and do nothing?”
This parable of Jesus declares a resounding, “No!” Jesus expects to see those of us who call ourselves Christians, whose faith means to walk the path he walked to Jerusalem and do the things that faith calls us to do on behalf of others, not standing on the side lines, but engaged in actions that declare that our hope and our faith is that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by a greater truth. And that acts of faith, hope, justice and charity are the very essence of what it means to be human, created in the image of God. Female and male, God creates us in God’s own image which is that of a God who loves, gives and is merciful.
As the Old Testament declares repeatedly, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” [Exodus 34:6] This is the God Jesus knows. The God who has faith in us to walk in his way. Jesus walks in the way of this God, in the ways of emunah and halakhah. In this little parable, Jesus urges us to be persistent in having the kind of faith that continually is acting on behalf of God and of others. So that when we are dancing with the angels there will be no question that we are not those people who live their lives on the side lines, but that we are those who walk in the way of the Lord. The question remains, When the Son of man comes will he find faith on earth?