TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Ex 17:8-13 2Tim3:14-4:2 Lk18:1-8 – Persistence, Especially in Prayer
The Place of Scripture in the’ Christian Life; Seeking Justice; Pray and Act.
One of the most adaptable words in the English language is “persistent”. When ﬂies or bees or ants are persistent during a Summer picnic, we call them pesty. When children are persistent in wanting something, we consider them bold. But when politicians are persistent in pursuing the electorate, we call them astute. And when business people are persistent in following up sales prospects, we admire their tenacity. Today’s liturgy connects persistence with religion, especially in our prayers of petition.
In today’s Gospel, our Lord tells one of the stories that shows his sense of humour — the story of the unjust judge and the forlorn widow. The judge was the typiﬁcation of the person of inﬂuence whom one would be reluctant to antagonize, and the widow the stock Older Covenant typiﬁcation of the vulnerable and helpless. She is fragile in body but strong in faith.
In our idiom, we might picture her as a little old lady in tennis shoes, weighing less than ninety pounds, speaking perhaps with a high pitched and cracking voice. The original Greek suggests that the violence that the unjust judge feared was a black eye. Jesus makes the point that the only thing that will move this judge is persistence. And if this can happen with a widow before an unjust judge, how much more with the poor in spirit before the all just God!
St Luke is famous for his widow stories. The reason is that the widow of that time and place was more to be pitied than most widows of any time. She was considered in many ways to be still married to her husband. If he died without leaving children, she was expected to marry his brother, if there was one, in order to bring forth children to carry on her husband’s name. She was in no way provided for financially. She was left defenseless to fend for herself, without the possibility of finding work and completely at the mercy of friends and relatives.
Today, widows at the death of their husbands have rights — such as her husband’s will and social security programmes. Nevertheless, immediately after her husband dies life for her is a black pit of loneliness. She wants to die too (and some countries accommodate that wish). She feels vulnerable, unattractive, and unloved. She misses the friend she could say everything to, misses the buddy who was really in her corner. The more she was in love with her husband, the greater her sadness now. The Church still gives widows an honoured place, and with good reason.
Widows don’t like to be called widows, because of the possible connotation of a lady in a long black dress who has retired from the world. If she goes out and laughs in a restaurant, people look at her as the Merry Widow, which makes things even worse. The statement of many widows is, “You don’t ever get over the loss of your husband. You survive it.”
Sad to say, projections from census data‘ of some countries suggest that nearly 80 per cent of all married women can expect to survive their husbands by about 16 years. Underlying those projections are two trends. Women live longer than men (7 years on average), and men tend to marry women younger than themselves.
In Jesus’ story, the only weapon the widow had against the judge’s injustice was persistence. That is a virtue all of us should have. Years ago in Illinois, a young man with six months’ schooling to his credit ran for an ofﬁce in the legislature. As might have been expected, he was beaten. Next, he entered business but failed at that, too, and spent the next 17 years paying the debts of his worthless partner. He fell in love with a charming lady and became engaged — and she died. He, had a nervous breakdown. He ran for Congress and was defeated.
He then tried to obtain an appointment to the US. Land Ofﬁce, but didn’t succeed. He became a candidate for the Vice—Presidency and lost. Two years later he was defeated for Senator. He ran for ofﬁce once more and was elected. The man’s name was Abraham Lincoln. And it took Winston Churchill three years to get through the eighth grade, because he couldn’t pass English — of all things! Ironically, he was asked many years later to give the commencement address at Oxford University. His now famous speech consisted of only three words: “Never give up!”
Today’s First Reading backs up the Gospel’s urgings of persistence with the story of the ﬁrst military activity of the newly—freed Hebrew people — the Israelites against the Amalekites. A nomadic tribe, the Amalekites dwelt in the Negeb in the desert between Sinai and Canaan. In the battle, the perhaps fanciful story had it that, as long as Moses prayed with his arms outstretched, the Israelites were victorious. When he became tired and let down his arms, the Israelites began to lose. So Moses’ assistants Aaron and Hur held up his tired arms until victory was assured.
The Hebrew Scriptures always emphasize, though, that we don’t win battles only by our own force of weapons. As the refrain of today’s Responsorial Psalm says, our help is from the Lord. To this day, Rephidim, the place where today’s event happened, is sacred to Jewish memory.
Today’s portion of the second letter to Timothy reminds us of another dimension of our prayers — that they be other-directed. We should live and pray wholeheartedly for what we think we want. But we should at the same time pray and act not that our will predominate, but that “God’s will be done”— leaving it to God to differentiate between what we want and what we need.
What does it mean to do God’s will? St Cyprian (Treatise on the Lord is Prayer) put it this way. “Humility in our daily lives, an unwavering faith, a moral sense of modesty in conversation, justice in acts, mercy in deed, discipline, refusal to harm others, a readiness to suffer harm, peaceableness with our brothers, a whole—hearted love of the Lord, loving in him What is of the Father, fearing him because he is God, preferring nothing to him who preferred nothing to us, clinging tenaciously to his love, standing by his cross with loyalty and courage whenever there is any conflict involving his honour and his name, manifesting in our speech the constancy of our profession and under torture conﬁdence for the ﬁght, and in dying the endurance for which we will be crowned — this is what it means to… do the will of the Father.”
When and if we are in doubt about what is God’s will and what is our own, today’s portion of the letter advises Timothy to go, for one, to his teachers — in his case, principally his mother and grandmother. The home is the ﬁrst School of faith. The letter emphasizes also the usefulness of the inspired word of God in the Scriptures. When the letter speaks of Scripture being good for revealing God’s wisdom, for salvation, for teaching, for training in holiness, and for helping to correct ourselves, it is speaking of the Jewish Scriptures, for the New Testament hadn’t yet been collected. How much more does this advice apply now that we have the New Testament as well! Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Jesus!
We wonder. How long must any current Moses hold up his weary arms until the people of God will prevail? When will God vindicate His elect? Not long yet, says Jesus in the Gospel. But he promised that a long, long time ago. Can we still believe it? The truth is that the promise was fulﬁlled when Jesus, sharing the lot of pleading humanity, was cruciﬁed and rose from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection vindicated all sin and evil, and even death. The decisive battle in any war may have already occurred in a relatively early stage of the war, and yet the war still continues. Although the decisive effect of that battle is perhaps not recognized by all, it nevertheless already means victory. In the ministry of Jesus the decisive battle has been fought and won, Satan has fallen and the power of the evil spirits is broken. Yet the battle still goes on.
So we always gather in our assembly on Sunday to strengthen our faith, to remember God’s judgment, to hear it again spoken in all its power, and to encourage one another to live in accord with that judgment. That requires perseverance.
A little-known man who exempliﬁed that is John Harrison (1693-1776). Until the eighteenth century sailors navigated by following parallels of latitude and roughly estimating distance travelled east or west. Ships routinely missed their destinations. In 1714, England’s Parliament offered a large reward to anyone who provided a “practicable and useful” means of determining longitude.Most astronomers believed the answer lay in the sky, but Harrison, a clock maker, imagined a mechanical solution — a clock that would keep precise time at sea. By knowing the exact times at the Greenwich meridian and at a ship’s position, one could ﬁnd longitude by calculating the time difference. However, most scientists, including Isaac Newton, discounted Harrison’s idea. Harrison persisted. He spent decades — decades! — of his brilliant life through skepticism and ridicule, working on a timepiece. Even after completing his timepiece, an instrument we now call a chronometer, in 1759, he underwent a long series of unfair trials and demonstrations. Ultimately he triumphed.
Starting right now, let us make a ﬁrm commitment to persevere in those areas of our lives Where perseverance is most needed — relationships, family, faith, self—esteem, work, prayer. But let us temper our perseverance with the petition that, after all is said and done, “May God’s will, and not mine, be done!”