Father Donald Senior, CP

Keep those arms up…

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

Oct. 16: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ex 17:8-13; 2 Tm 3:14 — 4:2; Lk 18:1-8

The first reading for this Sunday is from the Book of Exodus and contains one of the Bible’s most memorable stories. The Amalekites — one of Israel’s feared and despised enemies — attack Moses and the people during their desert trek to the Promised Land.

Moses instructs Joshua, his second in command, to pick out some warriors to engage the enemy in battle. To encourage them, Moses promises to stand on top of a hill with “the staff of God” in his hand. So this is the haunting scene — Moses stands on the hill with Aaron and Hur at his side, and as long as he keeps his hands raised, the Israelites are winning the battle. But if Moses lets his hands down, the tide turns against Israel.

As the hours pass and Moses tires, Aaron and Hur find a rock for Moses to sit on and they stand next to him and hold up his arms. The Israelites finally triumph over the Amalekites.

What does this strange scene mean? The posture of raising one’s hands evokes a stance of prayer. As long as Moses perseveres in prayer, the Israelites have the strength to overcome their deadly enemy. At the same time, Moses’ stance also reminds Israel of God’s own unyielding protection of Israel — even though, as the stories of Exodus constantly remind us, the people’s foibles and infidelities wearied God.

Moses, too, becomes weary and needs the support of his companions to shore up his prayer. The psalm response for today, taken from Psalm 121, makes a similar point about God’s persevering love for Israel: “May he (God) slumber not who guards you; indeed he neither slumbers nor sleeps, the guardian of Israel.”

Coupled with the Gospel passage from Luke, the readings for this Sunday are an instruction on the need to persevere in prayer. The opening line says it plainly: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.”

The parable is that of the “unjust judge” who finally renders a fair decision in a case only because a widow in the town hounded him about it. The judge says to himself, “While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her.” He admits he is afraid not only that she will keep pestering him but that she might “finally come and strike me.”

Jesus tells his disciples, do you think God will not be more responsive to “his chosen ones who call out to him day and night”?

Sometimes people wonder if Jesus had a sense of humor — they need to read this parable. There are others like it, for example, a previous story in Luke (11:5-8) about a man who is sound asleep when a neighbor comes at midnight to borrow three loaves of bread. The man grumbles about being awakened but finally gives his friend the bread he asks — not because he is feeling particularly friendly but because he is afraid the man will keep on bothering him. Here, as in the parable in this Sunday’s reading, the point Jesus makes is the need to persevere in prayer.

Why this insistence? The point of Jesus’ teaching is that over time we are to build deep and abiding habits of the heart. Prayer is not just for a particular occasion when we need something — but it is a profound attitude, a lifelong understanding of reality.

Ultimately, we depend on God for everything. There are specific experiences that drive us to earnest prayer: concern about our health, the loss of a loved one, the hope that a job interview will be successful and so on. But we should also strive to maintain a never ending realization that we owe our God constant praise and thanksgiving.

At certain moments that realization rises to our lips in formal prayer but, our Scriptures remind us today, awareness of God’s loving presence should never be absent from our hearts.


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