PRAYING WITH, PRAYING FOR, PRAYING PERSISTENTLY
Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
October 17, 2010
Four Sundays back, Luke’s Gospel had us speak about the unjust steward who was cunning, wily, and whose self-provident ways led him to selfishly prepare for his own future. Today, Luke would have us consider the figure of an unjust judge who capitulates to the importunings of a widow in need. These are story stuff that merit a second look from story-starved writers of “telenovelas” (soap operas) known now in the Philippines as “teleseryes.”
Yes, there is unfolding drama in the parables of the Lord. Parables are basically stories, but, used skillfully by the master story-teller and teacher that Jesus was, are more than just bedtime stories to tuck children in bed with. No, parables were meant to disturb; they were meant to be so surprising as to catch people off guard, as to make hearers gasp in disbelief, and react either positively or negatively to them, especially if hearers miss the real lesson behind the initially shocking story.
Today’s parable is no exception to this. But the first reading is no less shocking. It recounts what appears to be a strange, almost magical story about Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and Hur, caught up in battle with Amalekites who “came and waged war against Israel.”
Taken in its right context, however, and pitted side by side with the other two readings, we see a totally different picture. We see, not magic, but a concrete portrayal of Moses and his companions, at prayer. We see a people in difficulty whose leaders show by their actions, how best to face a group of aggressors who are about to go against the plan of God for His beloved people. They do what they can. Moses sends Joshua to deal with the marauders. But they also take resort to prayer. By so doing, Moses prophetically tells his people, that ultimately, victory remains in God’s hands, and that in times of trial, prayer and faith in God are just as important as their feeble human efforts.
We live in equivalently difficult times. We live, too, in a world marred by conflictuality, tensions, and even by armed and, at times, violent, struggles. We reflect today on what today’s readings can teach us as we face the challenges of our times.
In the history of Christian spirituality, one of the images used to represent the call to a personal relationship with God, is that of Christian life as a call to engage in some kind of spiritual warfare. Like Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and Hur, we are continually face to face with forces that appear so formidable.
Our so-called “foes,” however, need not be external to us. Indeed, many times, our opponent resides in us, and comes from our very own person – our very own tendency to sin: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold into slavery to sin. What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:14-15). Indeed, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” as the Lord reminds us.
Moses knew this first hand. Moses, who “kept his hands raised up,” (a symbol of prayer), knew exhaustion at some point. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. He prayed. But he grew weary praying. And it was at such a time that others came to his support. Others came to pray with him. Others came to pray for him. And with others, persistent prayer spelled the difference between defeat and victory.
The times are indeed challenging, to say the least. All the trends, studies, and statistics do not sound good for institutionalized religion. Mainstream churches all over the world, including the catholic church all suffer from decline in memberships. Ironically, despite the mass exodus of people from organized religion, there is paradoxically so much hunger for spirituality, and for personal meaning in life today. But there is a strong and marked reaction against all forms of institutionalization, hierarchical structures, and authoritative pronouncements from leaders and pastors. Quick fix cults, and raucous evangelical groupings seem to be the favored menu of the day. Pastors like me, like Moses, can succumb to weariness and discouragement in the face of all this undeniable reality.
But today, I would like to think that we all are getting a shot in the arm, a much needed vaccine to guard us against the flu of despair and lack of faith. Our response to the first reading sums it all up: “Our help is from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”
The dramatic elements of the first reading show this much. Prayer is essential for the life of the serious leader like Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and Hur. Without prayer, the battle waged by the Amalekites in our midst, (which includes our own self-inflicted temptations) cannot be won. But the story makes it clear, that in the end, victory is God’s work. But the story also makes clear the pressing need for us not only to pray, but to pray with others, to pray for others. Aaron and Hur supporting Moses’ weary arms (and drooping spirit) represents this truth. At a time of weakness, pastors also need the prayer of those they work for and work with.
Six years ago, I preached a retreat to a group of families out in Solomon’s Island, southern Maryland. Even if I was suffering from another bout of severe allergic reactions that made every part of my body itch and twitch, and my face all flared out in rashes, and my skin crackling and cracking in utter discomfort, I found joy, solace, and strength in the simple and searching faith of these families who attended the retreat. I prayed for them. I prayed with them. But they prayed for me and with me. Their marked spiritual hunger that led them to be very attentive and receptive to what I told them, eventually made me go through the retreat without any hitches. The flock, through their prayer and attentiveness, became my support, an erstwhile shepherd in their midst.
The words of St. Paul to his protégé, Timothy, cannot be more apt in this regard: “proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).
The Lord has been leading me to a whole lot of realizations over the past few years. At a time when I can very well say to myself not without a little pride that I had “been there; done that” kind of thing, He still teaches me hard lessons to live by. And usually, His teachings come through the school of hard knocks – the school of suffering. Being sick for one who has always been healthy is most distressing. But it has led me to go back to the times when I thought that success depended on me; when I thought that the more than ten years I was in formation work owed a lot to my personal efforts and my pretended abilities. And the realization that not a few of those I wasted so much time for chose to follow a path different from the one I had hoped they would pursue, and that some of them might have just been going through the motions and taking advantage of the relative security provided by the seminary, was most disappointing.
I did so much. I planned so much. I did a whole lot more than what was expected of me. Or so, I thought. But there was one thing I sorely missed out on. I missed to give due emphasis to prayer. No, don’t get me wrong. I did pray. But the prayer the Lord teaches today is not that kind of prayer that attributes victory to the pray-er. The prayer that the Lord shows us today is the prayer that goes beyond disappointment, the prayer that is marked by persistence, by faith, and by communality. It is the prayer which guarantees victory, not for me, not on account of me, but guaranteed by God’s power and God’s love.
This means there is something more that the pray-er needs to do. He should give way, step aside, and while praying with faith, he or she ought to allow room for others to pray for him, pray with him, and – like Moses, Aaron, and Hur, and yes, the widow in Jesus’ parable - pray persistently.