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Homily notes: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C, 20 October 2019

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ  |  10 October 2019

The theme that links the First Reading, from the Book of Exodus (17:8-13) and the Gospel (Luke 18:1-8) today is clearly that of perseverance in prayer.

The Gospel in fact expresses this clearly when it has Jesus introduce a parable about ‘the need to pray at all times and not lose heart’.

The episode told in the First Reading, Exod 17:8-13, occurred, according to the Book of Exodus, early in the desert wandering of Israel following the deliverance from Egypt.

The climax of that deliverance came when Moses, on God’s instruction, lifted up his staff over the sea. At this the waters parted, allowing the Israelites to escape. When they were safe on the other side, Moses again lifted up his hands and the waters returned to engulf the pursuing Egyptians.

In the present episode Israelite confronts another enemy, the Amalekites. The victory is gained in a similar way. When Moses lifts up his staff, God fights for the Israelites and they prevail. But when he wilts and his hands droop, the fortunes of battle reverse. So, Aaron and Hur support Moses, holding up his hands until, as the sun is setting, Joshua gains the victory for Israel.

Perseverance in prayer

In the Christian tradition the episode has always been taken as a symbol of perseverance in prayer: when people pray they open themselves up to the power of God; when, through weariness or discouragement, their prayer begins to wilt, they move away from that source of strength. The assistance Aaron and Hur render to Moses shows how believers must support each other in prayer – especially as persevering in that exercise can often be a trial of faith.

The parable making up the Gospel appears to commend praying to God with the kind of persistence displayed by the widow in her dealings with the judge. But it hardly means to suggest that God needs to be worn down like the judge. Basically, it commends an attitude of trust in God that would motivate such persistence in prayer – even when the answer seems a long time coming.

As is sometimes the case in Jesus’ parables (see especially that of the Rogue Steward from Luke, chapter 16 that we heard as the Gospel four Sundays before), the action revolves around a rather unsavoury character.

A judge who fears neither God nor fellow human beings takes no action in defence of a widow who had appealed to him. Lacking the support of a husband and possibly adult sons, widows were particularly dependent on the smooth and fair working of the institutions of justice. Hence the plight of this woman, whose entreaties the judge so long ignores.

Lazy judge

As Jesus tells the story, the lazy judge stirs himself on her behalf only when he suspects that her verbal entreaties are about to give way to actual physical violence. Translated literally, what he says to himself is ‘lest she come and give me a black eye’ (The Greek expression is at home in the boxing arena).

As with the Rogue Steward, the judge moves against his own previous inclination because he realises that a stage has been reached where to take no action may incur serious loss. The force of the parable emerges on an a fortiori kind of logic. If the unjust judge at long last – albeit through base and self-interested motives – moves to grant justice to the woman, how much more certainly and readily will the God of all goodness move to grant justice to chosen ones who make entreaty day and night.

Faith in God

Since the parable is ultimately about the character of God, it is understandable that its final comment has to do with faith.

Faith in God, displayed in prayer that is both trusting and calm as well as constant and persistent, is the right attitude for the present time – a time of waiting and hope, rather than possession of the Kingdom.

In a world where so much injustice prevails and where the poor, such as the widow, continue to cry out for justice day and night, the challenge of the parable is sharp.

Those whose actions or inertia allow the world to remain for the majority an unjust and inhospitable place must reckon with the truth that God proclaimed in the Gospel is a God aligned with the cause of the poor. How long can such a God allow the situation to go on without redress?

A similar warning in view of the accountability to come emerges from the instruction given to church leaders, in the person of Paul’s protege Timothy, in the Second Reading, 2 Tim 3:14  4:2.

It also contains a valuable early reflection on the role and function of scripture in the life of the community of faith. Those, in particular, who would aspire to leadership must take care to equip themselves with this resource.


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