Orbiting Dicta

29th Sunday of the Year: The Vision of Persistence

The juxtaposition of world events and the scriptural readings for our Sunday celebrations is occasionally surprisingly telling.  As Karl Barth once wrote wisely, “One broods alternately over the newspaper and the New Testament and actually sees fearfully little of the organic connection between the two worlds concerning which one should now be able to give a clear and powerful witness.” (Revolutionary Theology in the Making, p. 45.) Today should be no exception.

Bloody invasion and land-seizure is hardly a modern invention, despite the distressing examples in recent times, from the annexation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Crimea to the expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar and the Turkish onslaught into the Kurdish homeland of northern Syria this past week. Some might call it “business as usual.” It led to the Second Word War, the Korean War, the first Gulf War, and countless others in past ages. Scripture is no exception.

Exodus 17:8-13
Timothy 3:14-4:2
Luke 18:1-8

The account in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus describing the Amalekite “war” probably refers to a defensive attack against the invading Hebrews, as with the Edomites, Jebusites, Moabites, Philistines, and other adversaries who resisted the great divinely-sanctioned Hebrew land-grab – a biblical saga later appropriated by English Puritans to justify their bloody conquest of the New World. (It doesn’t take a magnifying glass to find Bethel, Canaan, Goshen, Hebron, Jericho, New Canaan, Salem, Zion, and dozens of other biblical place names on the map of the new “Promised Land.”  But,  like the “Indian Wars,” that is another story…) The point for our purposes is about perseverance in the pursuit of justice as much as in prayer.

In the gospel reading, Jesus doesn’t commend the judge in his parable for finally doing the right thing, much less for being incompetent, but praises the widow for her persistence in demanding justice. She, not he, is the central figure.  In a world seemingly awash with injustice, lawlessness, graft and grift in both low and high places, the example of her refusal to back down could hardly come at a more appropriate time.

Like the message of Jesus’ parable about that desperate widow, the point of the first reading, an initially charming story from the Book of Exodus that nevertheless ends with slaughter, is also about persistence, staying the course when fatigue and opposition seem about to wear us down. It’s about moral courage in difficult times, as Timothy is exhorted in the second reading, “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

And there lies the chief difference with regard to the kind of stubborn pig-headedness that just insists on “my way or the highway.” The quest for justice is not about  self-justification, much less self-aggrandizement, but about right – and rights. It takes moral vision – and a moral compass – to get that straight.

How could anyone not be impressed with moral courage of inmates of state and federal prisons who struggle for decades to prove their innocence, often (but not always) with the help of associations such as the Innocence Project, who sometimes appear to hold up their arms when they grow weary?  Or the persistent vision of teenagers like Greta Thunberg who in their struggle against the giants of industry refuse to back down but press ahead in the struggle for environmental justice?

For any number of reasons, the story of the “importunate widow” is as relevant today as perhaps never before. It brings to mind the catchy mantra occasionally seen on bumper stickers: “Work Hard, Pray Harder, Stay Humble.” And that’s a tall order.