Called to be persistent in the faith

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-As Jesus got nearer to Jerusalem and his passion and death, he would have been increasingly and even painfully aware of the need to establish and build up groups of believers; people able and ready to pass on his ideas about the fulfilment of the Jewish faith after his self definition and understanding. This clearly required commitment from his followers and a passing on of his interpretation of who he understood himself to be, and of the need for the community of his followers to be modelled on his values, that is of God’s way to be human, which is what the Kingdom is all about.

Our parable of the importunate widow fits in with this aim and with what we have been observing over the last weeks in Luke’s Gospel stories, with their insistence on our engaging with the relationship between humanity and God. In the previous parables of the Prodigal Son; the Unjust steward; Lazarus and the rich man; the story of the slaves and their master and finally, the cleansing of the ten lepers, we observed what we are in relation to God – his slaves, who always come empty handed to God. Nonetheless, that lack of clout, of any supposed bargaining chips vis a vis the divine does, not mean that we are nothing; for we are intended to share Christ’s glory and his very nature by God’s will, and as such have a capacity for living like the divine here and now, by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Luke’s widow (Luke 18:1-8) therefore has a strong sense of justice, which empowers her and makes her cry out that the truth be done. It is significant that it is a widow in this story, for some of Jesus’ harshest criticisms of the scribes and Pharisees were for their depriving widows of their inheritances and their rights. We note that this lady has no adult males to represent her in court against her opponent, which would have been the usual way of proceeding. She is on her own, alone, and represents the most vulnerable, and yet she sticks to her guns against the most powerful in the community. Wealthy men, those at the top of the social scale in Greco-Roman society, were required to fulfil their public role, their liturgies, by representing their cities and undertaking to give Games and provide public amenities as well as acting as judges in legal matters. Some were notoriously corrupt, like Verres Governor of Sicily whom Cicero prosecuted on behalf of the people there. But there were many of lesser rank who used the honorific system for their own advantage. We can assume that the judge’s cronies and equals were probably on the make to her disadvantage, and generally speaking poor people did not go to law since their chances of getting a fair hearing were often very slight. Our widow will have none of it, and so harasses the judge that he gives her her day in court, and dispenses justice in her favour, quite simply because he wants to shut her up. She stands in a long line of actors for the common good, and of care in and for the communities in which they live. You will recall that St Paul in 1 Corinthians strongly advised Christians to establish their own system to settle disputes within the community, and by the 4th century bishops and monasteries frequently fulfilled this role.

Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy (2 Tim 3:14-4:2) addresses a situation in which St Paul is similarly concerned for the future of the Christian Church in Ephesus, of which Timothy was a leader. Ephesus was a large city and the star of the Roman Province of Asia. With its important port and its control of trade routes all over the province, and especially up the Meander valley into the fertile wool-producing heartland, it had international links. It would have been bombarded with new religious ideas from all over the Empire and beyond, and Paul was aware how vulnerable the Christians were and how easy it would be for them to lose hold of their faith in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus, let alone how easy it would be for them to fall from grace and pervert their positions for their personal advantage. Earlier parts of this letter give a very jaundiced account of what were clearly problems related to the distribution of authority and the abuse of power within some Pauline communities. With this in mind, he advises Timothy to hold onto the faith he received and which has been passed down to him through his mother and grandmother, and he calls on him to preach this message and refute false ideas which may have been creeping in to pervert the original message. (We note that already he refers to these historical records about Christ as ‘scripture’.) Quite clearly, it was and is the duty of the local communities to proclaim the faith and as much of the two letters are about Paul’s own sufferings for the faith, he sees it as an inevitable consequence of standing up for the truth. This is the role of Christian communities, of churches, and we cannot shirk it.

We have another incident of community action for the faith from the book of Exodus (17:8-13). We should not simply see this as about success in battle, but about the survival of the Jewish faith against a pagan enemy who wished to destroy them and the faith of Abraham with it, and in consequence the inheritance not only of Jews, but of Christians too. Members of the Jewish community gathered round Moses and supported him, it was their intervention which enabled him to triumph over their attackers, and without this collaborative effort they would not have won the battle nor would their faith have survived.

In the stable West we comfortable Christians mostly do appreciate the action of our churches in helping the suffering of foreign parts, but I suspect it is rare for us to have to really battle for our very survival against aggressors on our doorstep. Yet we might pause to consider how essential this work is in parts of the Third World and that possibly, just possibly, at some time in the future we might be invited to take precisely such a role. Our feisty widow is emblematic of where we are all called to be.