October 16, 2022
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
2 Timothy 3:14–4:2
Do you know people who like to be bothered? Perhaps they enjoy being distracted from their daily rigmarole, or they thrive on the challenge of responding generously when inconvenienced.
God likes to be bothered. He thrives on it. In fact, in two of his parables on prayer, Jesus gives examples of people bothering others to describe what our prayer should look like. The people they petition, on the other hand, don’t like being bothered.
A few weeks back, we heard the story of the man who knocks on the door at midnight asking for bread to give to his unexpected guest, and his “friend” responds, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed.” (Luke 11:7) And this week, we hear the story of the persistent widow who demands a just decision from an icy-hearted judge. “While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being,” the judge grudgingly ruminates, “because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.” (Luke 18:4-5)
I imagine this widow as a kind of Miss Marple of the ancient Near East (Margaret Rutherford’s portrayal of the role, to be precise). She is the feisty old woman, sharp as a tack and handy with her cane, who has dealt with her fair share of disingenuous men, and is not to be underestimated. The Greek paints this image of her, as the judge weighs the very real possibility of her finally coming and “striking” him — literally, “giving him a black eye.” It is the same word Paul uses when he alludes to boxing in 1 Corinthians 9:26-27.
In both parables, the petitioner is said to “bother” the one being petitioned. Again, the Greek phrases this as to “cause trouble,” to “exhaust,” or more literally, to “cause weariness as though beaten.” If you’ve really been “bothered” in the ancient Near East, it’s as if you’ve been beaten up as by a hard day’s work.
In both parables, the one being bothered also resents it, but eventually responds because of the beggars’ “persistence” or “lack of restraint, audacity (and) shamelessness” in making their request. (Luke 11:8) The neighbor and the widow humble themselves to beg repeatedly because of their need.
Christ’s invitation is thus to be shameless in pummeling heaven with our prayers. If you feel like shaking your fist at God, go right ahead — sometimes it’s just what the doctor called for. If stingy misers will respond to need and render justice, how much more so will the God “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the resident alien, giving them food and clothing”? (Deuteronomy 10:18) “He will not ignore the supplication of the fatherless, nor the widow when she pours out her story.” (Sirach 35:14)
The King James Version puts it well: “Shall God not avenge his own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them?” (Luke 18:7) “He will render justice speedily.” The question is whether he will “find faith on earth” when he comes. (Luke 18:8)
In our struggle with prayer, we can easily lose heart. A situation seems hopeless. Our prayers seem to be in vain. God seems far away and out of reach. But the parables call us to rest assured that he hears our prayers and stands at the ready to render justice. This is invariable. What varies is our faith — our trust. Our faith often is in need of further formation, purification, testing, strengthening. God’s patience – his “bearing long,” “long-suffering,” “restraint” — is directed toward our salvation and the salvation of the world. (2 Peter 3:15) The part we have to play in that, and the precise way God actually responds, may not immediately be clear to us but often becomes so in retrospect as our story unfolds and the full picture of his wisdom emerges.
In the meantime, it is good for us to lean on one another, as Moses did while interceding for Joshua as he battled the Amalekites. As long as Moses raised his hands in prayer, Joshua and his picked men maintained the upper hand. “Moses’ hands, however, grew tired; so … Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady till sunset. And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.” (Exodus 17:12)
In addition to this simply being a great and epic story in its own right, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) We must pray for one another in the battles life puts before us. When we grow weary in prayer, we must lean on one another so that we not lose heart but persevere to the end, “exhausting” God instead with our unflagging prayers. He likes to be bothered.