Fifty-seventh in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Exodus 17:8-13; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2; Luke 18:1-8
One of the reasons certain Gnostic sects wrote off the God of the Old Testament as false is the presence throughout Israel’s scriptural history of stories such as the one in today’s First Reading. The God Who supports Israelite efforts to mow down the armies in their path and to put their whole society under a ban of destruction seemed to them (and can still seem to us!) incompatible with the God Who is Love Jesus reveals and His Apostles propagate through the New Testament. The tales of the chosen people of God mowing down their enemies by divine sanction, or even by divine command, are honestly problematic for those who consider Scripture the literal be-all and end-all of the faith. Surely there must have been a change of the view of God as the years progressed; surely the concept of God must have evolved, leaving behind false and irreconcilable ideas! But as we approach the end of this Year of Mercy, I propose that those of us of the ancient Catholic persuasion need not be so troubled by these old stories that make God out to be more like the editor-in-chief of DC Comics than the loving Creator and Sustainer of all that is. Our Scripture is more than a story, and our faith is super-Scriptural.
In this First Reading we read of the Israelites, led by Joshua under Moses, engaging the armies of the Amalekites, a nomadic culture who attacked Israel unprovoked. Many of us may not realize it, but the Amalekites recur throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as Israel’s archetypal enemy, one said to go all the way back to Esau, the older brother of Jacob/Israel who lost his birthright to him. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist or that the battles between them and Israel are not important because their historicity or accuracy is questionable. But it does mean that, as far their inclusion in the Bible, the event is more than the sum of the parts. It is not the battle itself that has something to teach us about God and salvation, but the things happening in and around it. In this case, Moses seeks the aid of God against the enemy. As long as his arms are raised to God the battle goes in Israel’s favor, and as his arms become tired Aaron and Hur stand beside him to hold up his arms so that Israel will not falter. The faith lesson in this story is not so much that God sanctions acts of war in self-defense against the infidel; however much we may relish or shun that discussion, it’s for another time. Rather, the lesson is that no matter the situation none of us is beyond the need for help, and the best way to get that help is to persistently help each other get it. Moses may have helped the army, but Aaron and Hur helped Moses when he could no longer do it himself, and they did not stop until their prayers were answered. If God will do that in the midst of war, imagine what He will do for us in less horrible states of life!
A bit of a stretch, you might say? Perhaps, but let’s read on. A similarly weird story comes to us in the Gospel reading, as Jesus tells the parable of a judge, a man who “neither feared God nor respected any human being,” being prevailed upon by a widow to make a ruling in her favor. The widow did this not by deception or shenanigan or any other method of attack; she simply kept bothering him about her issue until he finally did something to get rid of her! He’s a prime example of someone, as Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount, who is wicked yet knows how to give good gifts (albeit under duress). The lesson here from Jesus is not that God sanctions constantly bugging people until they give in to the pressure of our wishes. Rather, it’s that if a favorable judgment can come from even a dishonest judge, how much more will the Father, the Source of all good things, do favorable things for His people when they ask. Look at how much He helped Israel against the Amalekite aggressors at Moses’ request, not because the Amalekites were worthy of being struck down but because Israel prevailed upon Him by persistent prayer to do so, even holding up the arms of Moses for him. “[H]e will see to it that justice is done for them speedily,” Jesus tells us, because God is not slow to answer those who depend upon Him so much that they always call upon Him.
At the end of the Gospel Jesus asks a question that should give us pause: “But when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” Jesus has said before that faith even the size of a mustard seed can accomplish wonders, so great is the power of God manifest through those who believe in Him. How often has He talked about how so little is required of us, how there is need of only one thing and not many things. Yet here He wonders if even that small spark of faith will exist on the earth when the Son of Man comes in His glory. This problematic possibility speaks to the heart of our readings today, including the Second Reading in which we continue to read Saint Paul’s instructions to Timothy. He encourages his disciple and fellow bishop to encourage others, instructing them as he was instructed, being patient with them as Paul was patient with him. “Be persistent, whether it is convenient or inconvenient,” he pleads, even asking him to use the Scriptures for this very purpose. And it is here, in this sort-of plaintive passage, that Paul resolves the great disparities of salvation history as recorded throughout the Bible.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” This particular passage has itself been used by some to exalt Scripture as the ultimate authority in the Church. But it is clear from the context of the passage that Paul does not intend this; in fact, he invokes the authority of Christ, and even his own apostolic authority, more times in his writing than he does the authority of Scripture. Instead, he tells us that all of Scripture is a tool – a mighty tool, for its form and content, from its earliest oral traditions to its final written editions, are entirely inspired by God. And when we look to Scripture as a tool for teaching people to be righteous, to be just, to be catholic, to be people who act in accord with everything else, then its disparities stop being troublesome and start to become things of joyful wonder. Why shouldn’t Scripture be filed with weird and bizarre and sometimes inconvenient characters and stories? Why shouldn’t it speak of wars and captivity alongside peace and prosperity? Why shouldn’t it have poems and songs and folklore alongside history and law and catalogues? Why shouldn’t it be the most complicated book in existence? Isn’t human existence ridiculously complicated?
Have a little faith. In God. In the Church. In the Bible. There is a rhyme and reason to all of this. Use the tools we’ve been given wisely, with discernment but with trust too. We have indeed been equipped for every good work, but it does help to take time to go over all the instructions! That can be the difference, as my pastor would say, between taking it literally and taking it seriously.