29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)
Has there been a time when the need for prayer has been more urgent? Actually, yes, there have been worse times than this, and for millions of people living around the world, what many of us might call the “worst of times” is nothing compared to their “every-damn-day times.” And that, I believe, is a very good starting point for reflecting on the readings for the 29th Sunday of ordinary time, year C.
From the first reading to the last we witness endurance in prayer, patience, and action. There’s Moses, whose unceasing prayer empowered the Israelites to defeat their enemy [EX 17:8-13]; the psalmist expresses confidence in God’s constant care and protection [PS 121]; Timothy receives instruction to lead his community with persistence and patience [2 Tim 3:14-4:2], and we learn from the parable of the persistent widow and the dishonest judge that justice is served to those who persevere [LK 18:1-8].
In the past week I have read and reread and researched and notated and meditated on these passages. And every day, like many of you, I have read articles online and in print, one after the other, and in the evening my husband and I watch news hours that report on the glut of injustice and the growing anxiety of our world’s citizens. There is a sense of helplessness arising that threatens to turn to violence at any moment.
Like a drum keeping time the words, wisdom, wisdom, beat with the pulse in my ears. I place my hand over my heart and feel, kindness, kindness. Even the cycle of my breath drives me to repeat the Tonglen, the prayer found in Tibetan Buddhism: I inhale the pain of the world, I exhale compassion.
I hear the widow’s cry for justice, I am using both my love of Scripture and the teachings of Jesus Christ to do my part in the world, I am assured of my creator’s protection along this obstacle strewn path on which we all travel, and I am trying mightily like Moses to keep my hands lifted in prayer.
But like some of you, I grow weary.
This holy path, our sacred journey, our wilderness wandering leads us past scenes of oppression that we are duty-bound to correct. Most recently our attention is given to the rejection of vile attitudes, lewd comments, and physical assault that demean and damage women. We reject this with the same fervor that we reject racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, antisemitism, and all prejudicial ideologies that derive energy from hatred. We do so because human oppression is an insult to the divine image in which we are created; we do so because when we actively correct wrongs perpetrated against one another we reflect the life-giving nature of God.
Pray. Pray harder. Pray for wisdom, guidance, stamina, courage, and patience.
As long as Moses held up his hands in prayer, the Israelites were successful in fending off their enemy. The widow’s persistence resulted in her attainment of what was rightfully hers. And Jesus assured his disciples that not only will God respond to the prayers of the chosen ones, God will do so without delay.
But our prayers are not answered without delay; at least they don’t seem to be. Maybe in God’s time they are, but we humans have been waiting a long time for justice to be served here on earth. How much longer must we persevere, Lord?
And that’s the thing. Both of these readings raise theological difficulties. Why must we ask God repeatedly for help, why can’t God just fix what is wrong? After all, all things are possible, we are told. What kind of God requires unrelenting requests for help?
The cry of the psalmist is our own, “I lift up my eyes toward the mountains; whence shall help come to me?” [PS 121]
In response to a recent story posted online about the harrowing plight of refuge children displaced by incessant bombing in Aleppo many readers commented that they were sending prayers to the affected children. Within seconds someone said, “Save your breath. Prayer is useless.” Similar comments expressing contempt both for prayer and for those who believe in God soon followed.
Prayer doesn’t work that way; God is not a magician and we are not babies who hold out our hands and pout until we get what we want. Frankly, to suggest that God doesn’t exist because the messes humans create are not magically cleaned up by God is a sign of immature faith and stunted spiritual development.
The answer to prayer is not its immediate fulfillment but more of a clarification of what we are seeking, and a strengthening of our resolve to take action. Jack Shea writes, “God suffuses the hearts of those who pray with justice, and then with empowered hearts they bring this justice into the affairs of earth.”
Prayer guides our growth into full humanness and spiritual maturity and gives us the courage and the strength to bring about a more just world. Prayer is life-giving!
Whatever form our prayer takes, let’s attend to the action God’s response compels us to take. Let’s keep our arms raised at all times and enlist the help of one another lest we grow weary with the effort.
“Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. [2 Tim 3:14-15]
 John Shea. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: The Relentless Widow. Year C edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. 2006. Page 291