Sister Joan Chittister began a recent talk with an interesting story. The master sent one of his servants to a tailor. "The master wants you to make him a new shirt by this time next week," the disciple informed the tailor. "God willing," the man replied, "the shirt will be finished in two days." But when the disciple returned, the tailor informed him, "It's not finished yet. But if it pleases God, in four more days it'll be done." The servant received another excuse on his next visit. "If God blesses me, the shirt will be ready day after tomorrow."
The frustrated young man immediately went to the master, informed him of the delays and asked what he should do. "Go back to the tailor," he commanded, "and ask him how long it will take him to finish the shirt if he lets God out of the picture!"
Joan's story dovetails perfectly with today's three readings. In each passage, those who think God is going to take care of their needs discover that they also must play a role in the process.
Moses' burning bush encounter with Yahweh is classic. For centuries Jews have prayed for freedom. Finally God informs Moses, "I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey . . . ."
Hearing these words, Moses no doubt is tempted to jump up and down in his bare feet and yell, "Praise the Lord! Yahweh's going to get us out of here!" But he'll stop jumping and yelling when he hears God's next words, words which for some reason are left out of our liturgical text. "Come now! I will send you to Pharaoh to lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt."
Were I Moses, I'd probably look around to see if anyone else is standing close enough to be the one to whom Yahweh's talking. If I couldn't locate any other person, I'd bow reverently, start walking backward, and excuse myself with "I think I hear my wife calling me for supper."
Though Moses longs for his people's liberation, he presumes Yahweh, not he, will be the liberator. He assumes God will do all the work and get all the glory. Everyone else, including himself, will just stand at a safe distance and enjoy the show. He never imagines he'll be the instrument of Israel's freedom.
Yet our sacred authors constantly remind us, "If you pray to God to take care of something, you'd better be willing to be part of the solution." God normally answers such prayers by pointing out that we're to be on the stage, not in the audience.
Paul employs a parallel argument in our I Corinthians pericope. At this point in his letter, he's reminding his readers of their obligation to actively give themselves to others in the community, especially those who don't share their theology. His basic thesis: no one is saved by just going along for the ride. Though the Exodus Israelites were some of the most blessed people in history, most failed to do what Yahweh expected them to do, ending up being "examples" for those in the Corinthian church who imitate their "non-involvement."
Jesus gives the same message in our gospel passage. He repeats the message at the heart of his ministry: "Repent!" He expects his followers to change their value systems. It's the only way they can experience God at work in their lives. Though he reminds them in a consoling way of God's patience, he still states, "If you do not repent, you will all perish . . . ."
No doubt our sacred writers would agree with the master's question. What good would be accomplished in our own lives if we did more than just pray that God bring it about? Perhaps we should end such prayers with the request, "Give me the courage, with your help, to achieve what I'm praying for."