Homily: Act Boldly, Live Justly

Exodus 17:8-13; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2; Luke 18:1-8

Today’s Gospel is about waiting and about not being discouraged, not losing heart. Somehow, we’ve too often read it as an instruction to “nag” God with our repeated requests, so God will eventually give in and give us what we want.

The story-line of the parable is clear and compelling. Once again, Jesus uses a figure from the very edges of society to teach his followers a lesson. In ancient Israel, widows were often listed among the more vulnerable members of society. And it appears that the widow of the parable has in fact been defrauded of her property by unscrupulous persons. Her only recourse is the local judge. But he has long since abandoned his covenant morality and is swayed only by bribes–something that the destitute widow cannot provide.

This unprincipled judge is proud of his freedom from the demands of true religion, Moreover, he is happy to proclaim this false freedom on every occasion.  However, the persistence of the widow gradually wears him down and finally causes him to grant her justice. The lesson drawn by Jesus is crystal clear: How much more likely is God, the most just of all judges, ready to grant our requests for justice when we are treated unfairly!

The “word for ‘widow’ in Hebrew means  ‘silent one’ or ‘one unable to speak’. In the patriarchal Mediterranean world males alone play a public role. Women do not speak on their own behalf.

So this “silent one” is certainly acting outside the normal bounds when she finds her voice and dares to speak up for herself. Maybe it’s because she knows that there’s a special place for her in the heart of God, as the Bible often says: widows, orphans, and aliens, the handicapped   — the “stranger in your midst” — all very close to the heart of God and the special focus of God’s concern, even if they are unnoticed by us and invisible to the world around them. We might ask ourselves who “the widows” are in our time: the ones without a voice, who speak up anyway to protest injustice.

Society may have told this widow that she was a nobody without a voice, but she knew otherwise, and her persistence helped her hold onto that knowledge:  She is willing to say what she wanted, out loud, day and night, over and over–whether she got it or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was. It was how she remembered the shape of her heart. The shape of her heart: it makes us wonder about the shape of our own heart and the health of our own prayer life, doesn’t it?

Life Implications

The point of this parable is probably more subtle than we may at first surmise. Jesus is not just telling us that we have to persevere doggedly in prayer even when no answer seems to be provided. That is true, no doubt; but the real point here concerns our attitude toward God. For many of us, God seems so remote and so insensitive to our pleas that we may feel that he is not that different from the judge in the parable. As a matter of experience, our God does not always seem ready to give us the justice that we seek.

The deeper lesson of the parable is concerned, therefore, with our experience of the reality and presence of God in our lives. It is faith alone that enables us to experience God as One who is exceedingly good and who loves us very much. We will want to persist in our prayers to Him, not just because we need His help, but primarily because we want simply to stay in touch with this wonderful Person, who loves us unconditionally. In the long run, this loving God will give us all that we need…and much more.

Our relationship with God is not unlike that of children who expect their parents to respond positively to every request they have. But good and loving parents know that these requests are not always in the best interest of their children. I suspect that many children would quit school or eat only junk food if their parents would allow it. The important thing for all concerned is to maintain a loving and trusting contact, in spite of occasional bumps in the road. Today’s parable reminds us that this is even more true of our relationship with God.  (Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B)

Several years ago, on National Public Radio’s news coverage of the terrible events in Burma, a BBC reporter shared the story of Ma Thida, a writer and doctor who was held in solitary confinement for six years after she wrote against the abuses in the government there. When asked how she survived those long years of waiting and suffering, she credited books, which were like ‘vitamins’ to the prisoners, and then she described her spiritual life. The reporter said that Ma Thida, a Buddhist, meditated 18-20 hours a day. Can you imagine that? The reporter cited her “deep engagement with her Faith.”

Shaped by prayer

Listening to that report as I drove home with this reading about the persistent widow on my mind, I wondered how many of us Christians are ‘deeply engaged’ with our Christian Faith. Jesus wanted his followers to do more than pray as a habit or a requirement. Then, as now, most people pray like they brush their teeth–once in the morning and once at night, as part of their spiritual hygiene program. Someone might add, “whether they need to or not.”  Does that ring true for you and me, in our spiritual life, in our prayer habits?

Jesus wants much more from and for his followers. As always, his teachings go right to the heart of the matter, to who we are as his disciples. Those 18-20 hours a day of meditating must have had an effect on Ma Thida, it must have shaped her and helped her to remember who she was. Our prayer life shapes us, too, and helps us to remember who, and whose, we are. It aligns us with the intentions of God.

So the story isn’t really about the persistent widow, or the corrupt judge who gave in rather than get  ‘a black eye’ — that’s what the word translated ‘wear me out’ really means!. The story is about God, and Jesus teaches us by contrasting the corrupt judge and God. If this corrupt judge responds to the persistent plea of a widow, how much more don’t you know a loving God will respond to the prayers of our hearts?

Two weeks ago, the television show ‘Glee’, provided a very moving exploration of the attitude of teens, and adults as well, toward prayer. Of course, our attitude toward prayer says much about our understanding of who God is, as the characters in this program illustrate. The seemingly heartless cheerleading coach, Sue, hardens her heart toward prayer even in the face of the teens trying to sustain their friend with prayer, and with talk of God, as he worries about his father. The young man, meanwhile, refuses to pray or even believe in God because of the pain he has experienced in churches that tell him he is a mistake because he is gay.  We learn, of course, about Sue’s disappointment when God didn’t answer her prayers for her retarded sister, even as we watch the handsome football player construct his own theology of prayer after he thinks he sees the face of Jesus in his grilled-cheese sandwich–and that Jesus seems to grant his every wish, magically.  What a lot to think about – and what a wonderful discussion-starter with the young people who surround us!

Bothering God

Our prayer life sustains us even in the worst of times, and it keeps us close to God: “You are going to trust what prayer means, regardless of what comes of it, because the process of praying itself gives you life. Prayer for something or someone keeps you engaged with what matters most to you, so you do not lose heart. And prayer teaches you to trust God, no matter what.

Today’s Gospel reading is about God and about Jesus returning to find people who have held fast and who have, through everything, trusted in God. Rather than thinking it’s a matter of getting or not getting what we ask for, prayer ‘keeps our hearts chasing after God’s heart. It’s how we bother God, and it’s how God bothers us back.  (© Kate Huey)

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