Sunday, October 20, 2013

Homily for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Oct. 20, 2013
Luke 18: 1-8
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.

“Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary” (Luke 18: 1).

Over the last 2 months, most of our gospel readings have included a parable:  guests at a wedding banquet; a man building a tower and a king preparing for war; the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons; an untrustworthy steward; a rich man and a poor beggar; a servant doing his duty.  The parables illustrate for us God’s mercy, our need to repent, our obligations toward one another, etc.

Today we hear a parable about prayer—constant, persistent, untiring prayer.

There are 2 characters in this parable, a judge and a widow.  They’re typical characters of ordinary life in Jesus’ time, not only in the Middle East but anywhere, and the scenario that Jesus describes could still take place in many places in the Middle East.  In fact, a late-19th-century traveler in Mesopotamia reports a scene remarkably like the one that Jesus has us imagine:

Immediately on entering the gate of the city on one side stood … a large open hall, the court of Justice of the place.  On a slightly raised dais at the further end sat the judge, half buried in cushions.  Round him squatted various secretaries and other notables.  The populace crowded into the rest of the hall, a dozen voices clamouring at once, each claiming that his cause should be the first heard.  The more prudent litigants joined not in the fray, but held whispered communications with the secretaries, passing bribes, euphemistically called fees, into the hands of one or another.  When the greed of the underlings was satisfied, one of them would whisper to the [judge], who would promptly call such and such a case.  It seemed to be ordinarily taken for granted that judgment would go for the litigant who had bribed highest.  But meantime a poor woman on the skirts of the crowd perpetually interrupted the proceedings with loud cries for justice.  She was sternly bidden to be silent, and reproachfully told that she came there every day.  “And so I will,” she cried out, “till the [judge] hears me.”  At length, … the judge impatiently demanded, “what does that woman want?”  Her story was soon told.  Her only son had been taken for a soldier, and she was alone, and could not till her piece of ground; yet the tax-gatherer had forced her to pay the impost, from which as a lone widow she could be exempt.  The judge asked a few questions, and said, “Let her be exempt.”  Thus her perseverance was rewarded.  Had she had money to fee a clerk, she might have been excused long before.[1]

In the Middle East honor is one of the highest values, and most people will do anything to preserve their honor and their family’s honor; bringing shame on the family or oneself is to be avoided at any cost.  But the judge in the parable is corrupt:  he “neither fears God nor respects any human being” (18:2).  Right and wrong, justice and impartiality mean nothing to him.  The Scriptures mean nothing to him—there is a long legal and prophetic tradition that mandates special care for orphans and widows.  He is utterly without shame, cares not a whit about his reputation, his honor.  We may well suspect that the widow can’t obtain “a just decision against [her] adversary” (18:3) because she has no money to offer as a bribe, or her adversary has offered more than she can.

The widow is a desperate woman.  That she shows up in court, that alone, shows how destitute and alone she is; her being in court is in itself something of a public scene.  As you know from current events, in most of the Middle East women have no place in public life.  Such as it is today, it was worse in ancient times.  This widow has no male in the family who can go to court for her and obtain a hearing.  Her only recourse is to show up in court day after day and create a scene. 

Credit: Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Peru
Finally, after “a long time” (18:4), the corrupt judge feels that he must give in to her and render justice to her “lest she come and strike me” (18:5).  The Greek word that St. Luke uses here is a prizefighting term that means literally “to strike a blow under the eye,” or we might say, “to give a black eye.”  Metaphorically, it means to batter someone down, to wear someone out, and so most translations say something like, “she’s going to wear me out with her persistence.”  One commentator says the verse basically means, “lest she give me a headache!”[2]  The widow’s becoming a real pain in the neck.  Any parent who’s had to deal with kids in the days before Christmas, or with a 17-year-old wanting the car keys, can appreciate the judge’s situation.

So, Jesus says, because of the widow’s persistence the dishonest judge does what he should’ve done in the first place.  And Jesus applies that to our prayers to God:  “Won’t God secure the rights of his chosen ones [his elect] who call out to him day and night?” (18:7).  There are 2 suppositions there:  1st, God stands in contrast to the judge; he certainly is not corrupt or wicked.  2d, God’s chosen ones call out, i.e., pray, day and night, persistently, like the widow.  Picture St. Monica praying for years for the conversion of her son Augustine.  Picture Mother Teresa praying for years despite the interior emptiness and utter absence of God that she felt.

Now, what are God’s elect to pray for so persistently?  The widow sought justice or vindication against an adversary; the Greek word means “one opposing another’s right or justice.”  We, too, have an adversary who opposes our justice, or in Christian terms, our justification, our being made right in God’s eyes.  That adversary is Satan, a word that means “opponent” or “adversary.”  If we are to win out over this adversary, we must persist in prayer.  If we are to become just in God’s eyes, i.e., have our sins erased and be made clean and holy, we must persist in prayer, must “call out to God day and night” for mercy, for strength, for help.

We might have many particular prayers that we want to make to God—you can easily think of the many things you pray for.  Those, God does not necessarily guarantee to you that he will answer in the way you want.  (Spiritual writers will tell you that God will answer with what you need, not with what you want.)  But we all need, and I trust we all want, to reject our sins, to be forgiven, to be healed of the deepest wounds in our hearts.  We want to become holy and be saved, to be numbered among those whom we will celebrate in 13 days:  all the saints.  If we pray sincerely and persistently for God to come to us, to fill our hearts, to forgive us and make us whole, to put us and keep in a good relationship with him, “I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily” (18:8).  God earnestly desires our salvation—which is the entire purpose of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—so he cannot refuse our heartfelt prayer.

       [1] H.B. Tristram, Eastern Customs in Bible Lands (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1894), pp. 228-229, quoted in Kenneth E. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 134.
       [2] Bailey, p. 136.

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