I got to give the “reflection” at church this week so this is what I said. I realise there is so much more that could be said on these readings but I tried to keep it positive because the people who asked me to speak deserved that.
There’s a scene in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with an angel and refuses to be give ground. He demands a blessing. I mention this because it is a form of faithfulness that I think we sometimes need to bring to our tradition and even to the scriptures and having found this week’s readings quite tough I bring to you my beginnings at wrestling, in the trust that each of us will find a way to continue that.
I used to read the gospel story as if God were the unjust judge and I in the place of the powerless widow was supposed to constantly harangue God with my prayers. I found this idea as appalling as a photo of a beloved that has had obscenities scribbled on it. God is beautiful precisely because of her justice and kindness and I don’t have to use prayer to bring her into line or force her to care.
If anything I am like the unjust judge, I like to be secured in my relatively comfortable life and ignore the plight of the less fortunate and God is more like the tiresome widow always nagging at me and dragging me out from my rest to talk about my supposed commitment to justice or to my vocation or to plead the cause of her children in some way.
So I question who we are in the story. When Jesus says “God will see to it that justice is done for them speedily” the use of the third person “them” is telling. When I studied Critical Indigenous Pedagogy we were asked to avoid using the third person “they, them, those people over there” because it is a set of pronouns for “others” for the people who are “not us”. But Jesus is using the third person to reclaim those who we have excluded, whoever they may be. God is interested in justice for “them” (he could have said “you” if he just meant believers and those who pray).
So it’s a bit of a stretch for us to ignore our privilege in this world, our comfortable and consumer-good heavy lives and to assume that we are the widow in the story. Are we actually so urgent in our desperation for justice? But I am not so sure that it is completely true either to say that we are not desperate for justice, to say that we are not also in some ways the powerless and the marginalised. The story may speak to us in two ways, encouraging me- the widow to persist and call for justice more loudly and naggingly and also warning me- the unjust judge that God sides with the nagging widows.
What does faithfulness mean then in the light of these roles I may play in my life?
I circle back to the first reading and leave aside for later my wrestling with the patriarchal and militaristic models of God’s relationship with human kind. I also pass over a model of God’s grace which is shown as success in mowing people down with a sword. I need to find a chink in the tradition that will let the light of Wisdom through.
Here is Moses, the great individual- larger than life and filled with power.
His body is exhausted so that his arms must be held up by others (this reminds me of one of the recent popes who was still brought out in old age and held up by others instead of being allowed to rest). The stress on an individual who is the ONLY conduit of God’s action is too great.
Whether we take a leadership role and beat ourselves up for our bodily limits, try to go beyond ourselves to cheat ourselves of rest, relationship and support or whether we take the passive followers role and stand back and let our leaders do too much, allow their hands to be held up past endurance I think there is a flawed model of church here.
Can’t we instead ask God to flow through all of us, so that my contribution becomes important but I can trust that another will do the work that I can’t get to? Can we learn by seeing that even this great leader, Moses was not able to act or wield that unbalanced amount of power without assistance. Our choices as a community support different models of leadership and it might be time to question who we are showing faithfulness to, why and how. Without having easy answers for questions like that I wonder whether at times it is better to stop holding up the hands of tired old structures and institutions and instead allowing God to come to each of us herself. In so far as we have power over others, it might be time to stop controlling, stop fighting even our own bodies.
The second reading invites me to be faithful to what I have learned because of where that learning came from. I need that encouragement not to give up on the church, to retain my membership to something that has been my family for so long and to respect my links with a history that is longer and more complex than my own life.
But I personally did not first learn to believe from a priest, bishop or pope and so it is not exclusively them that form “the church” that I am part of. My mother and grandmother spoke to me about faith on a daily basis. My dad read to me from the bible in my own language (Latvian). At church on Sundays all the older people put up with my toddlerish behaviour and tried to feed me lollies (although mum, a dentist, put a stop to that pretty quickly). Our parish priest was a family friend who went fishing with my grandfather. My teachers at school were mainly women, both the principal and the religion teacher were Mercy sisters.
Each of you has a different story of the particular way you learned faith but I would guess that you too did not learn it from patriarchs and crusading lords but from people who loved, accepted and sometimes challenged you (like my year 10 science teacher who upset me by telling me I was wrong to always use the male pronoun for God). Even now into my forties I am still relearning my faith from the same source. From love manifest in other people and creation.
So that source of faith
-The love of God shown in loving communities or individuals
-The beauty of God shown in the beauty of the earth
That is what we remain faithful to. This sort of faithfulness is not our Sunday best, but our every-day gear that comes with us into every situation, spreading that love and beauty to the whole world.
And then the persistence in demanding justice from worldly powers, or help from God will be grounded also in our faithfulness to the source of our knowing that God. Which is love
Thank you for the love you show by allowing me to speak. Please take a moment to reflect on your own path of persistence and faithfulness, or to wrestle with these readings and then if you choose, you might share your thoughts with each other.