Tax collectors were not the most loved people in 1st Century Roman Palestine. The economic situation at the time was characterized by the notion of "limited good," that is, all goods (both tangible goods such as food, money, and property; and intangible goods such as power and status) were in limited supply and were already distributed. In this equation, to take more than what is rightfully yours meant that your neighbor would have less.
This Sunday's gospel reading deals with the necessity of being persistent in prayer. To understand the drama of Jesus' story of the determined widow and the corrupt judge, it is important to appreciate the justice system of the ancient Near East. We need to forget the ordered nature of our own courts where (usually) one person speaks at a time and there is an orderly presentation of evidence by both sides of a dispute. We are a world away here from Judge Judy!
The Broad Embrace of God. What is called leprosy in the Bible may have been any skin ailment, from the dreaded disease itself to psoriasis or eczema. Such conditions were not only feared because of the possibility of contagion, but also abhorred because of the nature of their oozing sores. Besides the hygienic reason for the quarantine imposed on all those who were so afflicted, there was a religious stigma attached. Running sores kept people from participating in religious celebrations. They were thereby deemed unclean, unfit to be counted among a people who considered themselves "a kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Exod 19:6).
"Write down the vision clearly" (Hab 2:2). The lament of the prophet Habakkuk, as he decries the violence, strife, and clamorous discord in his day, seems to have a timelessness to it. During the recent hot summer, several US cities saw a spike in gun violence and senseless deaths. Public discourse has grown more rancorous as marchers proclaim competing visions for what would make for a peaceable world.
In the movie of John Grisham's novel "A Time to Kill," two lawyers engage in a battle of legal tricks and attempted power plays in a Southern U.S. courtroom. The younger lawyer, who is defending a black man who killed his daughter's white rapists, knows he is losing the case. At the eleventh hour it dawns on him that it is not strength, but weakness, that will turn the tide. He stands up in front of the jury, admits his ineptness, and then simply recounts the horrifying story of the child's rape.
"To What Lengths". On September 2, 2013 at the age of 64, Diana Nyad completed a roughly 110 - mile swim from Cuba to Florida. Fighting off jellyfish and chilly waters, not to mention the danger of getting attacked by fierce sharks, Diana swam for more than 48 hours to reach her goal, which she had previously attempted four times and failed. She is now the first person to officially complete the swim without the help of a shark cage. For me, this is a tremendous physical feat and a display of relentless will power. She definitely went to great lengths to achieve her dream. Interestingly, the Scriptural readings for this Sunday speak similarly about the determination of God, who goes to great lengths to show mercy and to find even one lost individual.
This Sunday and its Scripture readings come as a lot of us are get things underway again as fall arrives. Labor Day has passed. The school year has begun. And the days of summer have flown by too quickly - as they always seem to do.
Every culture has its proverbs-pithy sayings that give wisdom about how to live well. The readings from both Sirach and the gospel pass on proverbial wisdom about the virtue of humility. This is earthy wisdom. The word humility comes from the Latin word humilis, which means literally "on the ground," deriving from humus, "earth." So when we are advised to humble ourselves, it is an invitation to be "grounded," to be attentive to our connectedness with Earth. This entails consciousness of our interconnectedness with all persons and all Earth's creatures and with God. As Ben Sira, who penned the book of Sirach, avers, in humbling oneself one finds favor with God. In other words, through humility we gain proper consciousness of our place in relation to God.