Oct. 17, 2010 – Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Whatever people reacted when they heard Jesus teaching, they never thought he was boring. Indeed, he often upset them, because he spoke in ways that overturned their conventional ideas about God and proper human behavior.
One example is the Parable of the Dishonest Steward (Luke 16) that was read a few weeks ago, where Jesus seems at first to praise the steward for his dishonesty. Another example can be found in the Gospel from Luke 18, the Parable of the Persistent Widow, which is read today. Isn’t Jesus making a comparison between God and the unjust judge who doesn’t care about right and wrong but only his own peace and quiet?
But that’s a superficial reading of the parable. Jesus is making a contrast between the unjust judge and God. It is true that the judge doesn’t care about right or wrong. Perhaps, as was common in that day, he was even taking bribes from the other side in the case to delay a decision. Nevertheless, the persistence of the widow in pursuing her suit so wears him down that he finally delivers the just verdict, which is in her favor.
That’s where the contrast between God and the unjust judge becomes evident. Our heavenly Father loves us and is eager to answer our prayers, unlike the judge who does so grudgingly and only to get the widow off his back. God, to use Jesus’ words, “will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.”
However, persistence on our part is still called for. Sometimes our idea of “speedily” and God’s idea of it are not the same. And, to be honest, sometimes what we pray for is not what’s good for us. As Jesus said, “justice” will be done for us, which does not mean catering to our every whim. Just as responsible earthly parents know that the loving thing is often not to give children everything they ask for, so our Father wants to give us only what is best for us.
Persistence in prayer is a theme found throughout the readings for today. That may seem odd, for Jesus taught us, “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words… Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:7-8). But persistence and babbling on and on are not the same things.
The reading from Exodus 17 has Moses being persistent in prayer for the Israelites as they battle the Amalekites. It may seem strange to pray for God’s blessings in something as bloody as a slaughter, but it was necessary for the Chosen People, from whom the Messiah would come, to survive until “the fullness of time had come” (Gal 4:4). And in this case, the answer to Moses’ prayer was immediate and evident. As long as he lifted his arms to heaven seeking God’s help, Israel prevailed. When he sought to rest, the Amalekites had the advantage. Finally, Aaron and Hur came to Moses’ assistance, supporting his arms when he was too weary to lift them himself. One side lesson: Often it’s wise to ask others to join you in prayer, rather than trying to carry the whole burden by yourself.
St. Paul urged Timothy, also, to remain faithful to the teaching he had learned and to God’s revelation in the Scriptures. Paul even used that work “persistent” when encouraging Timothy in his work of ministry, whether or not it’s convenient at any given time. For God’s truth does not change according to what’s fashionable, and neither should the Christian’s work of prayer.
Persistence in prayer is faithfulness in prayer, keeping on at it regularly. So often we offer a quick prayer once or twice; and if we don’t get the answer we want immediately, we conclude that prayer doesn’t work. However, the ways of heaven are not the ways of this fallen world, and we often don’t fully grasp how God is working his loving purposes out in human affairs.
But we humans are fickle creatures. If we follow our feelings, we bounce from one thing to another, never taking the time and effort to fully master any endeavor. That’s why we need to make formal commitments, so we will have an incentive to follow through on our plans. We may have an excellent intention to pray for fifteen minutes a day, but if we decide we’ll do that only when we feel like it, we’ll “feel like it” less and less frequently. But if we write down on a commitment card that will be presented to God through his Church, we’re much more likely to follow through.
One final note to encourage persistent prayer: Maybe the purpose of prayer isn’t to get God to do our will anyway. Maybe the purpose of prayer is to align our wills to God’s. When we’re trying to master a difficult lesson in math or science, we’re doomed to fail if we give up the first time we don’t grasp it. Shouldn’t we be equally persistent with something that’s of greater importance than any science or math lesson?
Or take someone who’s just fallen in love. Doesn’t that person think it’s of supreme importance just to be in the beloved’s presence? Surely we should love God equally and equally desire to be in his presence. That’s an image of persistent prayer, simply wanting to be in God’s presence to get to know him better. Persistent prayer brings us closer to God, so our character becomes more like his. Why not make it a part of your life?x