Again, a figure from the peripheries of society offers a lesson. She finds her voice and speaks up for herself. She is prepared to say what ‘she wanted whether she got it or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was. It was how she remembered the shape of her heart…’ (Barbara Brown Taylor ‘Bothering God’ in Home by Another Way).
Reflecting on the woman in the gospel there are many people from the peripheries like her and speak up for herself or others. Greta Thunberg, a teenager with plaits and living with a disabilities who has protested and spoken out on the international stage against the apathy and indifference of so many with regard to the climate emergency.
There is Kathy Kelly who walks alongside and speaks to the world of the peaceful youth who have connected to peace in Afghanistan when all around them people seek peace through violence. There is Medea Benjamin, a peace activist and founder of Code Pink who among her many interruptions, interrupted a speech by President Obama four times about the closing of Guantanamo Bay by reminding him that he had the power to close the prison as he promised during his 2008 campaign. Her outspokenness called for great courage and exposed to the world Obama’s failure to keep his word. Amy Goodman, television journalist and host of “Democracy Now: the War and Peace Report” conducts a daily news hour in the face of mainstream media’s refusal to cover significant grassroots events and issues. Her program continues to be an invaluable daily information source on issues others will not touch and her example is an example of what can be accomplished for peace and social justice in the face of overwhelming odds. 40 years this month, Sr Theresa Kane, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and head of the Sisters of Mercy in the U.S., before 5,000 other sisters who had gathered to greet Pope John Paul II in Washington, D.C. directly challenged him a few days after he addressed men and women religious in Philadelphia by reaffirming the ban on women priests and saying that all-male priesthood ‘was the way that God had chosen to shepherd his flock.’ Sr Theresa uttered the memorable words: ‘Our contemplation leads us to state that the church in its struggle to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of our church. I urge you, Your Holiness, to be open to and respond to the voices coming from the women of this country who are desirous of serving in and through the church as fully participating members.’
Our readings raise the issue of prayer, and what it means to “pray always without ceasing” (in Jesus’ words). What do we hear? Whose image do we see? Who do we see? It would seem that any reference to prayer must be seen as the meeting place for God and ourselves where, we and the world we live in is changed by this encounter. The readings compare appear to contrast “men’s way of praying” with women’s. We see in the first reading that men pray that God might intervene to slaughter their enemies, whereas the woman in today’s gospel confronts the power structure of her day as her way of praying and working persistently to bring her world into harmony with God’s justice. How can God facilitate mass slaughter? It is a question that arises constantly as nations turn to the military to deal with conflicts and enlist God on their side. It is nothing new. This is the way of Jesus. His approach to pray is not something ad hoc and about changing God’s mind but represents adopting an attitude that is constantly seeking justice for the oppressed. Praying always means living from a place that won’t let go of justice concerns. God is not like the judge. Jesus’ point is that, “If an unjust judge responds to the prayer a poor person like the woman, how do we suppose God will respond when we ask for justice? For Jesus, God will respond swiftly, because that is who God is – the one who, as Martin Luther King put it, has established an arc of history that bends towards justice. Prayer is first and foremost being in the presence of the God of peace and justice and trusting that justice and truth will prevail. So when Jesus asks if the Son of Man will find faith, he is saying we will stand true in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. “When the Son of Man returns, do you think he’ll find that kind of faith anywhere?” We are more like to find this faith, this prayer, this persistence in women rather than men. Can they step up? Medea Benjamin encourages us to find our voices in defense of the voiceless imprisoned in US camps around the world. Amy Goodman and her “War and Peace Report” continually inspires to give up ideas that God calls us to cut our enemies down. Greta Thunberg reminds us that we are one people in one home which we need to take care of as we take care of each other. Kathy Kelly by standing alongside Afghan youth volunteers for peace reminds us that peace is possible and will come when people connect with one another. Anyone involved in peace and justice work invariably comes in contact with other people who work for social change - and are in it for the long haul. There are representations of the widow in today’s gospel every day in people who take the risk of confronting injustice in society, irrespective of the source, irrespective who perpetrates it, and sometimes they pay the price. Many have been arrested, imprisoned, killed or disappeared for their stand, yet others do not tire of the persistent pursuit of justice and peace as they confront patriarchy, militarism, violence, power and privilege; the victims of trafficking and those who resist it; the women whose husbands and children have disappeared yet continue to demand answers from those in authority; the women who continue to challenge the Church for being exclusive in the exercise of sacramental ministry; in gay and lesbian people who continue to struggle for ‘equal’ rights.
Whilst perseverance in prayer is often used as theme of today’s readings, we miss the main point if we do not see the gospel as call to get moving and pursue justice. And, in today’s gospel we have one who has little going for her except her determination to take a stand for what is right. In this case it is the judiciary, but there are many other institutions that seem untouchable, as we saw with Sr Theresa Kane, until challenged. Through persistence and tireless nonviolent confrontation (following the gospel nonviolence of Jesus) peace with justice is attained. And it happens through repeated actions of seemingly ‘inconsequential’ people who will not give up. The widow in the parable embodies God’s insistence on justice as seen in Jesus’ teaching and acting to attain it. The awful violence in Exodus reading notwithstanding, the important point is that our engagement with the world is not a solitary effort. We need to be in brotherhood and sisterhood, with friends, to bring about this change. Our prayer are opportunities for us to see our world with different eyes, with God’s eyes, and to educate us, rather than providing opportunities for us to shore up our convictions; to allow our prejudices be set more firmly; or even using prayer as weapon against others.
Again, the judge does NOT represent God. God does not act this way. The parable shows how things are in the world but this is not how it should be. Unlike the God Jesus reveals, the judge is not interested in listening to, or responding to, the cry of a vulnerable person seeking justice. It seems that it is God who is in the poor widow who demands help, justice, and redress from one who is not afraid of dispensing institutional violence. We that in political leaders who do not hesitate to place heavy burdens on the most vulnerable in our society and blame them for their situation. The terror, corruption and injustice that oppress people did not bother the judge – but this is what pains God.
So we can understand the gospel on two levels: one, where God’s voice calling out to us and pleading with us in the name of the marginalised; and secondly, an encouragement to get up, wake up, and not give up by being ‘seduced by moral disgust’. The pain, the anger, the rage are all God’s voice calling each one of us to action. Can we hear it? God is in the struggle and is in solidarity with us! The call for justice comes as people question the timing of God’s reign - ‘When will it come?’ When will things get better – for the people in West Papua as they continue to suffer oppression? for the poor of the earth, in particular the peoples of the Amazon at the moment? for asylum seekers in detention camps around the world? for the First Nations peoples who are aliens on their own land in Australia, the USA, and the Amazon? for people, and particularly women, who battle corporations that threaten their life and culture as they poison land with nuclear waste? And, for people living with mental illness at times living in isolation and loneliness?
Paul today tells us to persist, and to hang in there with the urgent tasks before us – ‘welcome or unwelcome, insist on it’. The patience called for does not mean sitting out the time or passive acceptance but an active struggle. Like ‘nonviolence’, it is not passivity, compliance, inactivity but nonviolent resistance. The closed universes of powerful institutions such as our places of employment, our churches and local and national governments cannot continue to stand. The call to keep persisting is based on the truth that God is present amongst us, and that it is also God who is crying out for justice where people struggle for change.
The woman in the story today reminds us of God who is forever trying to break into a closed world, to draw us into relationship; who makes us recognise what our relationships with God, neighbour and all creation demand of us. Her voice is God’s strident voice coming to us in many ways insisting that things can be different. God is affected by pain, suffering and injustice. God’s love does not to change. But, if our prayer makes us remote, self-righteous, bigoted or prejudicial, closed off or disengaged from others, does not orient ourselves outwards to God’s world, then we might need to ask what is happening and who we are really listening to: God’s Spirit or ourselves. Prayer really expresses our desire to be open to God so that we can hear God speaking to us through the voice of anyone who is silenced, neglected, marginalised or treating unjustly in other ways. So it seems that this parable is less about God as about us, about the state of our hearts and why we pray. What is at stake is not who God is and how God is active but who we are and how we are strengthened by prayer.
Compiled by Claude Mostowik msc,
Director, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Justice and Peace Centre, Erskineville NSW
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia [NSW]
President, Pax Christi Australia