Oct 20, 2019: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Exodus 17:8-13

In those days, Amalek came and waged war against Israel.
Moses, therefore, said to Joshua,
“Pick out certain men,
and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. 
I will be standing on top of the hill
with the staff of God in my hand.” 
So Joshua did as Moses told him:
he engaged Amalek in battle
after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur.
As long as Moses kept his hands raised up,
Israel had the better of the fight,
but when he let his hands rest,
Amalek had the better of the fight.
Moses’hands, however, grew tired;
so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. 
Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands,
one on one side and one on the other,
so that his hands remained steady till sunset.
And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people
with the edge of the sword.

The Book of Exodus is the second book of the Torah, the law of God as revealed to Moses. This book tells of the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt, the calling of Moses, the departure of the Israelites from Egypt (by passing through the Red Sea), and their forty years of wandering in the desert.

Today’s reading is the account of the Israelites’ desert battle with Amalek.  It conclusively shows the favored status of Israel with God.

In those days, Amalek came and waged war against Israel.

Amalek is not a person, but a nomadic confederacy of tribes that roamed the region of Mount Sinai.  The nation of Amalek is named for its ancestor, the grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12).  Just as Jacob (the ancestor of Israel) was lifelong enemies with his brother Esau, the Bible records a long history of enmity between the nations that descended from them.

This conflict is the first military activity of the newly-freed Israelites. This specific battle may have been for control of watering holes or pasturage for animals, both precious commodities in the desert and a common reason for warfare.

Moses, therefore, said to Joshua,

This is the first mention of Joshua in scripture. Joshua was a military leader; he is later named as Moses’ successor and leads the Israelites into the Promised Land.

“Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.”

The staff of God is presumably the same staff Moses used to perform wonders before Pharaoh (Exodus 4:2-4) and with which he parted and then gathered back the water of the sea (Exodus 14:16, 26-27). When Moses threw it on the ground, it changed into a serpent, and when he picked it up it turned back into a staff (Exodus 4:2-4).

So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur.

Moses and his brother Aaron were the ones who confronted Pharaoh and led the Israelites through the sea into the wilderness.

Hur was a companion to Moses and Aaron.  According to rabbinic tradition, Hur was the son of Miriam, and therefore Moses and Aaron’s nephew.

As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.

The uplifted hands of Moses resemble a kind of ritual that must be performed with great precision if the desired effects are to be achieved.  It’s almost as if Moses was a conduit of divine power.

However, not that while there is no question about it being the power of God at play here, there is no mention of Moses praying to God for help, or even that he raised his hands to heaven.  In fact, God is not even mentioned.  This may be a remnant of a more primitive understanding of divine involvement in war.

Moses’ hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady till sunset.

Even though Moses is God’s chosen instrument, he cannot do everything alone.  He needs the help of other leaders to make God’s presence and power visible in the community.

And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.

Many people have been troubled by the militant character of the Israelites and the thought that God not only endorsed their aggressive behavior but directed it.  Wars were generally fought over land or resources, essential if a people is to survive.  Maintaining that their God was committed to them in a particular way, the Israelites believed their God would want them to do whatever was necessary for their survival.  They also believed that because they were God’s chosen people, their enemies were God’s enemies.  Therefore, in fighting their own battles they would be fighting God’s battles.  Further, they also believed God was with them in their conflict, fighting for their cause. This is not meant to justify their militancy, but to explain their perspective.

2nd Reading – 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2

Beloved:
Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed,
because you know from whom you learned it,
and that from infancy you have known the sacred Scriptures,
which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation
through faith in Christ Jesus.
All Scripture is inspired by God
and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction,
and for training in righteousness,
so that one who belongs to God may be competent,
equipped for every good work.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus,
who will judge the living and the dead,
and by his appearing and his kingly power:
proclaim the word;
be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient;
convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.

As he continues to instruct Timothy (bishop of the church at Ephesus), Paul expounds on the excellence of the sacred Scriptures and their usefulness in the lives of Christians.  The passage ends with an exhortation to proclaim this magnificent word.

Beloved: Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and that from infancy you have known the sacred scriptures,

The scriptures to which Paul refers are what we call the Old Testament; most of the writings that comprise the New Testament hadn’t yet been written at this time.

Both Paul and Timothy were sons of Israel and well schooled in its religious traditions from an early age.  In the first century, a rabbi wrote that by the age of five a child should be studying the Scriptures (cf. Pirke Aboth 5:21).

which are capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

The true message of the Old Testament can be understood from a Christian perspective: when the scriptures are read in light of the events surrounding Jesus Christ, they lead one to faith in Jesus Christ. This is an important point because many Christians through the centuries erroneously believed that the New Testament made the message of the Old Testament obsolete.

This passage also clearly shows that although Paul insisted that only faith in Christ Jesus saves, he did not harbor anti-Judaic tendencies.

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

Paul believed that all Scripture was inspired by God and that it plays a very important role in the lives of believers.  In it are found:

  • the history of salvation from the beginning of time up to their own day,
  • the law that God gave through Moses,
  • the message of the prophets, and
  • instruction for wise living.

Its teaching can be used to refute false doctrines, its laws and counsels can direct those who are open-hearted, the discipline it promotes can lead to righteous living.

Training in the Scriptures, interpreted through faith in Christ, can help believers fulfill their religious duties.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.

Having expounded on the glories of the sacred Scriptures, Paul makes a solemn exhortation. Until Christ returns and brings his reign to fulfillment, Timothy is charged to remain faithful and perform his ministerial responsibilities.

The seriousness of Paul’s charge is seen in its strong eschatological tenor: he calls Timothy into the presence of God and of Christ, highlighting Christ’s sovereignty.  He has the power of Christ Jesus to accomplish these things, so he should not be fainthearted.

Gospel – Luke 18:1-8

Jesus told his disciples a parable
about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary. 
He said, “There was a judge in a certain town
who neither feared God nor respected any human being. 
And a widow in that town used to come to him and say,
‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’
For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought,
‘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
lest she finally come and strike me.’” 
The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says. 
Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones
who call out to him day and night? 
Will he be slow to answer them? 
I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. 
But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

The gospel readings for this week and next will feature parables on prayer.  Today’s parable highlights the need for persistence.

Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.

Luke introduces the parable by telling us what is being taught through the story. As we will see, this doesn’t reference continual prayer as much as unwavering fidelity to God.

He said, “There was a judge in a certain town who neither feared God nor respected any human being.

The judge is described as fearing neither God nor human beings, which is a way of saying he did not uphold the pivotal commandments of love of God and love of neighbor.  He was an unjust judge, not because he was an active adversary of anyone but because he failed to ensure that justice was served in the lives of all.

This is an extraordinarily serious charge against a judge, whose very function is to secure justice for all, especially the most vulnerable of society.  Sins of omission can be as devastating as sins of commission.

And a widow in that town used to come to him

Saint Luke is famous for his widow stories because widows of that time and place were extremely vulnerable. In Israelite society, if a man died without leaving children, his widow was expected to marry his brother, if there was one, in order to bring forth children to carry on her husband’s name.  Widows were in no way provided for financially; they were left defenseless to fend for themselves, without the possibility of finding work and completely at the mercy of friends and relatives.

Not only is the woman in this story widowed, she apparently has no male family member to appear before the judge to plead her cause, as was the custom.  A woman who has lost her male agency in a patriarchal society was completely powerless.

and say, ‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’

Though vulnerable, this woman is bold.  The text does not identify the specifics of her complaint, but it would be safe to assume that it has something to do with property or possessions.  In other words, she is at risk of losing even more and becoming more defenseless.

For a long time the judge was unwilling,

This makes sense if her adversary were a rich, influential man — the kind of citizen that a judge would be loathe to alienate.

but eventually he thought, ‘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 lest she finally come and strike me.’”

We aren’t told how long the standoff continued, but it was long enough to wear down the judge.  Jesus shows his sense of humor here; the original Greek suggests that the violence the judge feared was a black eye. Today, he might say “She’s all in my face!”

The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says. Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?

Jesus introduces an a fortiori argument: If an unjust judge will finally vindicate those who have been mistreated, how much more will God vindicate his chosen ones, who pray continually, crying out to him day and night?  The persistence of the woman becomes the model of resoluteness.  Like the woman in the parable, we cannot be certain when God will respond, so we must persist.

Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.

Jesus’ disciples are admonished to persevere in prayer day and night, regardless of how closed God might seem to be to their pleas.  This parable shows them that in God’s regard, it is not a question of disinterest but of timing.  God will answer in God’s time.

But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

The parable takes on an eschatological tone.  Using the title with which he generally identifies himself and the character of his messiahship, Jesus implies that he is the one who will ultimately come to execute justice.

The question he poses is sobering: “Will he find faith on the earth?”  Following the parable as it does, this could mean: Will there be people who persevere in prayer?  He leaves the question unanswered so the disciples can ponder it.

Connections and Themes

The theme of faith we’ve been exploring these last two weeks takes a slightly different turn this Sunday.  Today we consider the spiritual disciplines that exercise and deepen our faith, the overarching discipline being prayer.  The readings today offer various aspects of this prayer for our consideration.

Ceaseless prayer.  Our personal prayer must be persistent.  Like Moses and the woman in the gospel reading, we must be ceaseless in our prayer, not discouraged by difficulties we might have to face.  The woman’s persistence finally opened the door to the judge.  This story only captures one facet of prayer, namely, God’s openness to us.  In reality, prayer develops a mutual openness: God is open to our desire for God and we are open to God’s desire for us.  In the gospel account, it is the woman who was persistent; in reality, it is God who prevails upon us to open ourselves. 

Communal assistance. Regardless of how strange the first reading may appear to be, it very strongly emphasizes the communal dimension of prayer.  The Israelites would not have been able to prevail against the Amalekites without the prayerful action of Moses, but Moses would not have been able to persevere in his action of entreaty had not Aaron and Hur supported him.  The stress in today’s world on the importance of the individual, as important as this may be, has obscured the reality of our social nature and our inability to thrive or even survive without others.

What is true about life is true about prayer.  We are saved as a people.  Salvation may unfold in each life in a particular way, but it is not simply an individual quest or a personal blessing.  Christ saved all of humankind.  To develop a communal sense may be one of the most challenging aspects of discipleship for many of us today, but develop it we must.

Ministerial fulfillment.  As minister of the word, Timothy is admonished to keep preaching the gospel, to keep spreading the good news, to allow the Scriptures to continue to be a source of wisdom for himself and, through him, for all of the people who hear him. To have this kind of facility with Scripture requires that one enter into the deep meaning of the Scriptures and make them the basis of one’s prayer.  One must engage in what the monks call lectio divina, a prayerful reflective reading of the Scriptures.  This practice, or spiritual discipline, gives us access to God, and it also gives God access to us.  It moves us out of our penchant toward isolated devotion into ministerial commitment.  It gives us the courage and the gentleness to teach, to refute, to correct.  When our ministerial activity flows from prayer, it also flows from and strengthens right relationships with God, with the religious tradition, and with the community.  When this becomes a reality, the Son of Man will indeed find faith on earth.

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