Sunday, October 17
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ask Boldly, Live Justly
Holy One, we lift our eyes to you in hope and awe. Grant that we may reject all apathy of spirit, all impatience and anxiety, so that, with the persistence of the widow, we may lift our voice again and again to seek your justice. Amen.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, 'Grant me justice against my opponent'. For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, 'Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming'." And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
All Readings for This Week
Jeremiah 31:27-34 with Psalm 119:97-104 or
Genesis 32:22-31 with Psalm 121 and
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 and
Reflection and Focus Questions
by Kate Huey
1. Does prayer feel like a habit to you? Is that good, or not?
2. Who is "the widow" in your life situation, who may be asking for justice?
3. What do you think would happen if all Christians prayed for one hour each day?
4. How does your prayer life describe your belief in God?
5. Does it bother you to think of prayer as "bothering" God?
By the time the Gospel of Luke was written, people were starting to feel discouraged. They were tired of waiting for Jesus to return and bring all things to fulfillment, the deepest hope of their heart. They were tired of being persecuted as a tiny minority in a great big, powerful empire. They were anxious and suffering. Today's passage is about that 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.
Once again, Jesus uses a figure from the very edges of society to teach his followers a lesson. John Pilch tells us that 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 "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.
As usual, Barbara Brown Taylor gets inside this story and explores the heart of this woman. Society may have told her 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," Taylor says, "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 heartÉ." 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?
Several years ago, deep within the news coverage on National Public Radio of the terrible events in Myanmar (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, as a Buddhist, Ma Thida meditated 18-20 hours a day. Can you imagine that? The reporter cited her "deep engagement with Buddhism."
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 Christianity. Jesus wanted his followers to do more than pray as a habit or a requirement: "Then, as now," Barbara Brown Taylor says, "most people prayed like they brushed their teeth--once in the morning and once at night, as part of their spiritual hygiene program." (One might add, "whether they need to or not.") Does that ring true for you, in your spiritual life, in your 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, or using the argument from less to more. 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?
The October 5, 2010 episode of the television series, "Glee," provides 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 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 wonderful discussion-starter with the young people who surround us!
Our prayer life sustains us even in the worst of times, and it keeps us close to God: "You are going to trust the process," Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "regardless of what comes of it, because the process itself gives you life. The process keeps you engaged with what matters most to you, so you do not lose heart." The 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. There's nothing that works any better than that" (Taylor).
For further reflection
Mary Gordon, 20th century
Prayer is having something to say and someone to say it to.
Lao Tzu, 6th century B.C.E.
Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century
Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays.
Emily Dickinson, 19th century
Dwell in possibility.
Corrie ten Boom, 20th century
God raises the level of the impossible.
Weekly Seeds is a source for meditation and prayer based on the readings of the "Lectionary," a plan for weekly Bible readings used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.
Weekly Seeds is a resource of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.