Persistence in prayer and absolute trust in God are the themes of two of today’s readings. The first story modern readers may find bizarre, the second requires us to understand how some startling details in a parable are to be interpreted. In between, the Letter urges persistence in living the Christian life, and reminds us of the value of reading and listening to scripture.
For this incident I turn to the translation and commentary on Exodus by the Jewish scholar Robert Alter (in The Five Books of Moses.) It is especially helpful at points which are harder to understand in our modern view of life. Moses was the great leader of the people and the prophet who received and handed on God’s revelation.
John E. Huesman, S.J. (in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary), also has some useful comments: Exodus is the foundation of the Jewish religion, in the same way as the Incarnation is the foundation of our Christianity. The name of the book comes from Greek (meaning the ‘way out of’) and it starts with the account of how the Hebrew people were rescued from slavery in Egypt and led out by God acting through Moses to the promised land of Israel. Today’s selection comes after their deliverance from Pharaoh at a point in their long journey through the Sinai Desert when they had begun to encounter difficulties and temptations.
The Amalekites were a war-like tribe who controlled the caravan routes across the desert and resisted any competition for control in their area. Moses has to become a battle leader, but he himself does not lead the fighting. Instead, he takes an intercessory role, portrayed by his use of the staff which had been his miraculous weapon against Pharaoh (for examples, see the stories beginning in Chapter 7). Some details of the staff sound more like magic to us than prayer. The Hebrews, however, valued the wholeness of the body with the spirit so that for them the raising of arms would be seen as praying. Compare the Psalmist who wrote, ‘May my prayer be as incense in your sight, the lifting of my hands like the evening sacrifice.’
During a long skirmish, Moses’ arms grow tired, and he needs assistance. Hur does not figure much in the bible compared to his brothers of Moses and Aaron, the latter the often mentioned ancestor of the Jewish priests. Joshua who leads the fighters will be the successor to Moses, and the one who finally brings the people in the Promised Land. (An account told in detail in the book named for him.)
This story highlights the need to persist in prayer, which explains why it was selected to fit today’s gospel reading. It can also be seen as an example of our need for praying together and supporting each other in life, in prayer.
We read all of the psalm today, one that is labelled in the Hebrew text as ‘A song of Ascents’. Some scholars think these were sung by pilgrims coming ‘up’ to the heights of Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals, especially Passover. While we can see echoes of a physical journey in the words, it is also appropriate as a song of trust for us whose journey is a spiritual pilgrimage.
2 Timothy 3:14-4:2
We continue with this Letter giving encouragement for living the Christian life. Although it is especially addressed to leaders and teachers, there is also advice applicable to others. Here the emphasis is on scripture, which was for the earliest Christians what we call the Old Testament, but by the time of this Letter might have included the earlier letters of St Paul and the gospel traditions. We can consider it as our full Bible, which can ‘guide our lives’, ‘teach us to be holy’ and ‘ready for any good work’. We hear scripture at every mass, and have been further encouraged by the Church to read and reflect on it in our personal lives. In this year, the bishops of England and Wales have put a special emphasis on bible reading and Pope Francis will begin an emphasis on Scripture in the new year.
Luke gives us the interpretation to this parable in the first verse, which can be useful if it seems that God is being compared to the ‘unjust judge’ – one who has a position of power but he does not take his moral duty seriously, nor really care for anyone else. Rather than making a comparison of the judge to God, the argument Jesus uses is the debating style of ‘if this is so, how much more….’ [‘a fortiori’] Once again Jesus starts with a situation that his listeners would recognize, a case of injustice which has been ignored by the authorities. That sort of neglect and unjust decisions is still in our news today. Rather than give up when she was refused, this widow is persistent. The judge is eventually so annoyed that he decides it is easier to give in. That is a recognisable situation now as well – people may give into a nagging beggar or a whining child just to get them to stop pestering. The lesson Jesus draws: if the widow can be persistent and get what she needs from an uncaring official, we are not to give up prayer to a loving God when we don’t immediately get what we ask for. God does not ‘give in’ to our pestering, but he does answer – sometime in ways and times we do not understand in the present.
When people pray for many good things that don’t seem to come their way in the time they expect, some are tempted to think God does not care, others sadly conclude that there is no God to respond. Instead, Jesus insists that God does care, and that in God’s acts ‘speedily’ despite how it long seems to our limited ideas of time. Here the prayer of the Our Father, ‘Your kingdom come,’ may have been in Luke’s mind.
The Greek word used can mean ‘belief’ but also bears the sense of ‘faithfulness’ or ‘trust’ in God and that fits well here. The ways of the Kingdom Jesus preached also help with the last line we hear, which can sound stark and even sad: ‘will the Son of Man find faith when he returns?’ In this context, it may be taken as: ‘will you listen to my words and pray trustfully for as long it may take for me to return?’