God’s spirit will guide and instruct us

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  • October 11, 2007
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Oct. 21 (Exodus 17:8-13; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2; Luke 18:1-8)

The power that Moses seems to wield in this account of the battle with the Amalekites would be the envy of any military general or hockey coach. In an ancient version of high-tech warfare, Moses is able to make his army prevail simply by keeping his arm raised and extended. All that was needed were two assistants to hold up his weary arms.

This smacks a bit of magic and we would be hard pressed to find examples of it today. Battles and sports matches are won by superior training, performance, perseverance and a bit of luck. But the power of Moses lies in his superior leadership.

In the ancient world, generals were very visible during battles — no rear-area bunkers for them. It was important to be seen, for the men drew their inspiration and courage from the leader. In fact, the death or capture of the general was usually enough to decide the outcome of the battle, for his men would rapidly lose heart and run. As Moses extends his arm, it is a visible sign of not only his presence but that of God. It was important for the men in the heat of battle to see this unwavering presence.

The best way to lead and inspire is by presence and example rather than rhetoric or threats. In times of turmoil, struggle and uncertainty people need to hear genuine words of hope and encouragement from their leaders. But leaders should lead by example and from the thick of the action, not from thrones, boardrooms or the inner sanctums of their offices.

All Scripture is indeed inspired by God. But what does the author of this letter to Timothy mean, and what is left unsaid? When it was written, the Scripture of which he speaks was most likely the Hebrew Bible — what we call the Old Testament. He affirms its continuing validity and usefulness for followers of Jesus for moral and spiritual teaching and formation. There is continuity between the Scriptures of both covenants.  

This should not be used, as it sometimes is, as a prooftext for the literal inerrancy of Scripture. We continue to grow in our understanding of Scripture: an understanding of the literary forms used in its composition, the worldview and mentality of the authors, the historical and cultural influences and the changes introduced as it passed through many generations unlock layers of meaning.

Scripture is useful indeed, but it is not our only resource. We also have our intelligence, experience and the continuing presence of God’s Spirit to guide and instruct us. For example, we are extremely uncomfortable today — as we should be — with the capriciousness and violence attributed to God or the key characters in portions of the Bible. The source of these sorts of images is not divine, but human, and we do not hold them up as an example to follow. Unfortunately, some still do. The Scriptures point the way to God and to Jesus, but they themselves should not be worshipped or deified.

Interpreting the literary form is exactly what we have to do with the Gospel parable. Otherwise, we would be left thinking that God was like a corrupt judge who must be badgered into doing what is right. Drawing on the daily experience of his audience, Luke’s Jesus uses a humourous example of a corrupt judge to make his point. The widow does not give up, and her persistence pays off.

Half-hearted, lacklustre prayer is not very effective. Pray as if everything depends on you, while knowing that everything depends on God. Join your own spiritual energy with God and make things happen.

The story ends with the chilling question: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on Earth?” Giving up and losing heart is serious business, not only for us but for the world. It is one of the greatest challenges we face, and is an indulgence that people of faith cannot — dare not — permit themselves. Praying for a peaceful and just world might seem like shouting into the wind, but if enough people pray persistently and govern their lives as if it were already a reality, it will be.

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