The true follower will persist in prayer

  • October 7, 2010
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Oct. 17 (Exodus 17:8-13; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2; Luke 18:1-8)

The image that a military commander projects on the battlefield is often an important element in an army’s victory or defeat. Our own time has not lacked flamboyant generals: Patton, Montgomery, MacArthur and others have left indelible images on our historical and cultural memory. In the ancient world the general was often in the thick of the fighting, and his death or capture would often signal the defeat of his army as his demoralized troops lost heart and fled.

The story of the battle between Israel and Amalek is a fine example. At first glance the strange story appears to belong in the realm of magic and we are hard-pressed to understand how Moses’ raised arms or a “staff of God” can make such a crucial difference in the battle’s outcome. The power of belief and image is the key: the Israelites clearly believed that the power of God flowed through Moses and the staff he carried packed some sort of special power. The sight of Moses with his arms and the staff raised blessing the troops must have been inspiring and exhilarating — all that his army needed to fight with extra ardour and zeal. Moses knew how to be a great leader and to inspire people to follow him, but even he needed the support of others.

What sort of symbolic gestures would give hope and courage to people in our own time? Inspiring leadership is a quality in very short supply today — maybe we should start looking for that “staff of God” or its equivalent.

“All Scripture is inspired by God” is often quoted in the context of discussions on Scripture and inspiration. It is important to note, however, that this passage in its entirety does not say that it must be read literally or that every word carries equal weight. Its chief purpose is to guide people in the moral and spiritual life — a useful guide for godly living. This letter was written before the New Testament was a reality so the author is referring to what we call the Old Testament. He is reassuring his audience that the Scriptures are still valid and helpful in the ongoing formation of upright and God-centred human beings. Our understanding and application of Scripture does not remain static and unchanging but evolves as humanity grows in wisdom, experience and a deeper appreciation of the complexities and dimensions of the human person. Reading and praying over Scripture is a continuous conversation and dialogue that we carry on with God in order to grow into the infinite mystery.

Once again Luke’s Jesus reaches into His audience’s everyday experience for an illustrative but amusing example for application to the Christian life. Today’s story is about persistence in prayer. Once again a rather dubious and sleazy character is centre stage — this time a corrupt and compassionless judge who cares nothing for public opinion or his standing before God.

The widow — marginalized and rather defenseless in that society — only wants simple justice in her lawsuit, which the calloused and corrupt judge is unwilling to grant. But rather than fading meekly into the shadows she begins to make his life miserable by her constant needling and arguing. He finally gives in to get rid of her and have some peace. Jesus drives home the point with a classic Lucan “lesser to the greater” argument: if this crooked judge gives the pesky widow justice, how much more God will hasten to come to the aid of those who cry out to Him day and night!

Half-hearted, lukewarm or scattered prayer will not do in Luke’s Gospel. The followers of Jesus have fire in their hearts and are willing to storm the gates of heaven with their prayers. But all of this requires great faith and Jesus ends His address to the crowd with a sobering question: When the Son of Man comes will He find faith on Earth?

The Son of Man might find plenty of religion and perhaps even a fair bit of zeal or fanaticism. But religion does not automatically equal the sort of large-hearted and yearning faith that the Gospel demands of the followers of Jesus. Persistent prayer on behalf of the world and other people is the most powerful tool in our possession.