Mass readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
At a first glance we might think the subject of the scriptures today is prayer.
The story of Moses standing above a battlefield lending spiritual strength to the Israelites in the fight against the Amalekites through his prayer – we see this when his hands are raised, he’s praying, as am I when I extend my hands to pray on behalf of this community. So, when his hands fall, that means that Moses has stopped praying, and we then see that the Israelites start to fail. So, Moses needs to pray constantly through the course of the battle or the Israelites will lose.
Jesus talks about praying as well, and he assures us that God will not ignore his faithful ones who “cry out to him day and night”. And so, we have another suggestion of unceasing prayer as the means by which we persuade God to answer our petitions.
But I’ve got to point out that Jesus is not really talking about prayer per se, but rather justice. His example, his parable, gives us an unjust judge and as its central figure a poor widow demanding justice.
And Jesus does say, “Will God not grant justice to his chosen ones?”
So, this is about justice in an unjust world and where God fits into our struggle against evil.
Now you might look at that story of Moses, and ask how is that about justice? The Israelites fought with other nations; we have lots of stories describing their wars in the Bible. Isn’t that about praying for victory?
But this war story is also about injustice, cruelty and evil; and yes, about praying for victory over them.
You see, this battle comes not long after the Hebrew slaves have crossed the Red Sea, escaping Pharoah. They’re tired, hungry, thirsty, and it looks like they’ve still got a long journey ahead of them. They’re a ragtag bunch on the road to the Promised Land when they get spotted by the Amalekites. The Amalekites don’t help these escaped Hebrew slaves; rather, they attack a weak, almost defenseless people on the road. They victimize people escaping slavery. That’s what’s going on. That’s evil, unjust, wrong.
As individuals, as communities, we will face injustice in this life.
In our immediate personal lives, we can be treated unjustly by neighbours, friends and family, and see ourselves lose a sense of community with the people over the fence; be alienated from a sibling and feel the pain of that loss and wonder if they will ever do right by us, admit their error, be reconciled with us.
At the level of society, we see injustice all around us; many have experienced injustice, wrongful treatment, violations of rights by institutions, individuals, governments, private businesses and multi-national corporations; and justice, at least for the foreseeable future is forestalled, indefinitely delayed. You’ve heard it said there is one law for the rich and powerful and another for the weak and powerless – which is a corrosive idea that dispirits people, and weakens them even further, making it all the easier to victimize.
We have to resist the temptation to despair, to give up, to walk away and grow bitter and resentful, hating humanity, and perhaps, even God.
As a church, be it as parish or diocese or worldwide communion, we should remember the early days of our faith, the days of the first disciples gathered around Jesus.
As they listened to Jesus telling them about the unjust judge, how could they not think of examples of unjust authorities: the Romans, the Temple officials in Jerusalem, the Herodian princes of the Holy Land, the tax collectors, and so on. The world they knew was an unjust place and they were looking for Jesus to remedy the situation. And if they saw in him a second Moses, they must have thought it was down to him to fix things – to be like the great ancient lawgiver, and by his spiritual power bring about a victory for the just. Lift up your arms Jesus, stretch them out for us!
Well, I suppose he did, just not as expected.
But Jesus puts it back on them, and he puts the onus on us. We can’t simply complain about injustice, we have to do something about it; and the starting place is prayer. And not the prayer that is, “God do something.”
After all, I’m sure you’ve heard this before – God’s answer to “do something” is “I did, I sent you.”
Like the ancient Israelites going into battle against their enemies, we won’t succeed unless we start in prayer, continue in prayer, and in our successes offer prayer.
And that prayer effects an essential connection for us with God, it guides us in our actions so that we don’t become as bad as our enemies, so that we remember our goals, remember who we are as those who uphold justice, who are concerned with righteousness.
Fail to pray, and we will fail.
Like the ancient Christians whose faith was declared illegal, who were ironically accused of atheism, and who were blamed for every disaster by the civil authorities whose mismanagement and corruption were tell us who the real culprits were; we must stay grounded in prayer and guided by the Holy Spirit so that we do not practice the very evil we are the victims of. We’re called to be clever, right – like foxes. Find the way without using the tools of the devil. Be persistent, whether the time favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, encourage, all with the utmost patience.
History is filled with stories of rebellion and revolution where one can understand the issues and sympathize with those who rise up. However, too often once the revolutionaries get control, the rebels have captured the capital, they offer their own “justice” which is no justice at all – they mimic the old masters, keep their own dungeons, have their own firing squads. And they feel justified, they feel righteous. And I suppose, in their own imaginations they are. But in reality, they have become the evil they thought to defeat.
Prayer should not be just about victory over enemies – it’s never to be about winning. That should be the least of our petitions. Rather we should be asking God for wisdom, justice, truth and love; and then letting these things guide us wherever they might take you and I; take us as an army or you and I as individuals. That means the possibility of reconciliation; that means a mutual exchange that brings ourselves and our enemies into truth – and let’s not presume that we alone have all the truth. It can sadly mean conflict, and so sacrifice on our part so that truth is defended and justice is done.
We must know that our continuing commitment to prayer for justice, and our response to God’s call to justice has made the Church an agent of good through the long march of the centuries despite her many failings. That for the injustice we know now, we can recognize we’ve come a long way from the ancient days in Galilee when Jesus’ disciples heard our saviour’s words of promise that justice will come despite every circumstance stacked against it.
They believed, and so they prayed; and worked knowing that indeed, God had sent them into the world to preach a gospel of justice, love, peace and truth.
When our Lord comes again, will he find faith on earth? Well, who knows when that great event will come to pass? Rather, when we encounter him today, in word and sacrament, will he find faith in you and I? Faith that prompts us to prayer day and night, faith that prompts us to pester the unjust like the widow of his parable.
Let us pray for an increase in that faith; and then by that faith pour our hearts and minds into prayer for an increase in justice, and in holiness among us and throughout the world.