Lectionary 29 – C (On commemoration of St. Luke, Evangelist)
Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, tireless guardian of your people, you are always ready to hear our cries. Teach us to rely day and night on your care. Inspire us to seek your enduring justice for all this suffering world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Genesis 32:22-31 Jacob’s struggle with the angel: I’ll not let go until you bless me.
2 Timothy 3:14–4:5 In the presence of Christ the judge, proclaim the message
Luke 18:1-8 The widow begs for justice; God grants justice to those who cry to him
Prayer has been a hot topic this year. There was that headline in the Daily News after one of the too many mass shootings that declared – Your Prayers Aren’t Working. An indictment aimed, not so much at God, but more are our lawmakers who offered prayers for the victims and families of the tragedy, but no actions to prevent future tragedies from happening. And of course, like in any war, there are the prayers from both sides on this election mayhem constantly rising up to the heavens. We can look forward to those prayers ending in 23 long days. Then, after Nov. 8, there will be prayers of another nature. Some sure to be sacrilegious. And then there is Luke’s gospel, both our featured gospel of this lectionary year and the work of today’s celebrated saint, in which we were invited to look at prayer back in July when we saw Jesus teaching what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. We saw how that beautiful gift is a model for coming to God in prayer.
And today, as Jesus is nearing Jerusalem where the events of his life-giving passion will play out, Luke again includes another one of Jesus parables that teaches us about prayer. He is the only gospel writer who includes this story of the nagging widow. Perhaps to understand his inclusion we are wise to remind ourselves that Luke, this Gentile, physician turned Evangelist and missionary, traveled with Paul spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. He himself did not grow up knowing of God. Luke, and the people that he and Paul were teaching, did not have age old connections to God through their ancestors – the chosen people, the children of Abraham – like Matthew, Mark, and John did, not to mention Luke’s traveling partner, Paul. Those who grew up as Jews had grown up hearing the psalmists shaken a fist to heaven and shouting “How long, O Lord?” They had sat around the Seder Table hearing the story of freedom given, but only after over 400 years of slavery, and all those anguished seemingly unanswered prayers.
Perhaps Luke and his fellow Gentile-believers did not have the holy patience that had been woven into the DNA of their fellow Jewish-born believers. And so, he one more time, before the faith challenging events of watching the savior betrayed, arrested, tried, humiliated, and crucified, he includes this troubling little parable about persistent prayer. Troubling because at face value it could look like Jesus is saying that if we just pray enough times, God will give in and give us what we want. But most of us know that this is not true. I hear from people all the time how much they are praying and yet their prayer is seeming to go unanswered and so they are having a crisis of faith. Is the strength of my faith based on God bending to my will? Too often it is, I must confess.
But let’s go back and look not at the judge who finally caves to the nagging widow, thinking we are learning something about God; let’s instead go back and look at the nagging widow and learn something about ourselves. For this parable features the most powerless person in the ancient community – a woman, a widow, who has been wronged. And we could probably add childless in there because if she had children, they would be fighting on her behalf.
In light of the events and revelations over the past ten days, (not mentioning any names) there has been a flood of testimony to the continued powerlessness that women are subjected to in the face of a male-dominated, abusive, and demeaning culture. It should not be difficult for us to imagine just how powerless this woman is feeling. But she has faith, she has courage, she has perseverance, she has hutzpah. She, at the bottom of the ladder, is bold to reach to the top and continuously demand attention. She will not be silenced.
And she is us. Broken and frail, powerless and sin-shamed human beings, who are also children of God. Though our own sin and the world’s corrupt power seeks to rob us of our very life, pushing us down the ladder further, Jesus tells us to reach up in faith, to reach up with perseverance, to reach up to God. To borrow a popular phrase of the current moment, “when we are pushed low, Jesus calls us to reach high. And prayer is the tool for the reaching. Prayer is the gift that helps us go high. Because when you pray to heaven, when you reach and connect with the creator and Lord of Light, you can’t go higher.
Luke’s gospel is filled with the powerless who reach to the heavens with prayer and praise. Powerless young Mary sings of God’s kingdom that turns the powers of the world upside down. We sang her song as our hymn of praise. Nobody shepherds of nowhere Bethlehem sing with joy for having been the first to see God in flesh appearing. Old man Simeon, has been persistently waiting to see the promised Messiah, and with a foot and a half in the grave, when he finally sees the baby Jesus being brought to the Temple, with all faith, he sings: Lord, let your servant die in peace, your word has been fulfilled.
The persistence of prayer teaches us (who are powerless) where our power resides – in the God who saves us. The persistence of prayer sustains the relationship. Though it may feel like a wrestling match sometimes. We see that the widow did not give up on the judge but stayed connected to him. In our first reading we see that Jacob would not let go until he had a blessing. The persistence of prayer may not change God’s will to match ours, but it will change us as we witness the working of God’s will in our lives.
And thus, we will see that God’s work is persistent. God, who was determined to save us from our broken and dying selves, spoke through the prophets, renewed and restored the people after wars and exiles, continued to call humanity to justice and mercy, and watched the unceasing failings and the faithlessness. And so our persistent God took the ultimate action, sending the Son to save us.
When Jesus said “God will quickly grant justice to them,” the cross was on his horizon. He was walking right to it. And it was not earthly justice like what that cranky judge handed out that was won for us that day, given only because the woman nagged enough. This is justice, undeserved and unconstrained, that is given to us though we don’t even have the wisdom to ask for it. Justice that restores our humanity and our God image of creation, empowers and resurrects. It is the justice that we who have witnessed this gift and who are blessed to stay connected to it through prayer, are called to work for in the world so that no one feels, powerless, abused, victimized, shamed, be it because of the color of their skin or the gender of their birth, of their self-understanding or the traditions of their faith.
Let our prayer, our unceasing, persistent, nagging connection to God, the merciful and just Creator of all, continue to change us so that we might change the world as witnesses of Jesus the Christ. Through the work of the Holy Spirit working through the gift of prayer, may Jesus find faith in our witness. And may the world witness the persistence of God in all that we say and do. In that, we will be doing the work of an evangelist.
The Rev. Mark Erson,