Scripture and the Liturgy

The Battle of Prayer: 29th Sunday of OT

These commentaries are available in book form here. The volume for Year A, beginning November 27, is also available here. Don’t forget to pick up the volume on the fixed solemnities and feasts here.

Usually we think of men of prayer and men of war as complete opposites.  A monk in a habit—such as St. Francis—is a man dedicated to peace, a total contrast to one clad in armor brandishing weapons.  Yet the Readings for this Sunday combine the imagery of war and prayer in interesting ways that provoke our thoughts about the nature and reality of supplicating God.

1.  Our First Reading is 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.

We should recall the context here.  After the ten plagues and the Passover, Israel has left Egypt a few weeks ago, crossed the Red Sea, and now entered into the Sinai Peninsula, a vast, rocky, mountainous desert.  Amalek was a nation of nomads that controlled the northeastern part of the Sinai Peninsula and the southern part of the Negeb (the south Judean desert).  The Amalekites are not happy to have the Israelites moving through the outskirts of the their territory, and they sent bands of scouts to trail them.  According to Deut 25:18, the Amalekite raiders would kill off the weakest of the Israelites who lagged behind the main camp—that would be the ill, the elderly, poor families with many children, etc.  The Amalekites were an ancient expression of the culture of death.

Now on their way to Mount Sinai, the Israelites are attacked outright by the bulk of the Amalekite forces, and they are forced to respond, despite the fact that they are not military men but former slaves, and have few if any proper weapons.  It is a situation of great peril that could end with the complete annihilation of the Israelite people in the middle of a desert wasteland. 

The young man Joshua goes out to lead those forces the Israelites could muster, while Moses goes to the mountain top to beseech God in prayer.  The moral sense of this text is a good example of the complementarity of prayer and action, of ora et labora.  The people fight and pray: both are necessary, for the same reason that faith and works operate together.

How curious that Moses’ prayers are necessary!  Why doesn’t God just send victory without them?  Surely he could!  Yet this is the mystery of God’s will: that he chooses to incorporate our participation in the fulfillment of his plans (See Thomas, Summa Q. 83).  He ordains to grant victory to Israel through Moses’ intercession.  Prayer is a cooperation with God’s will for us.

In the Old Testament, there were no “secular” wars.  Every battle was both a physical and spiritual conflict, because the opposing armies always called on their respective gods.  The conflict of nations was the conflict of their divinities, and the stronger divinities won.  So here as well: there is a spiritual battle going on here between the LORD God of Israel and the gods of the Amalakites, just as earlier in Exodus the LORD took on the gods of Egypt through the ten plagues, defeating the Nile god, the crop god, the livestock gods, the sun god, etc.  In this spiritual conflict, prayer is vital—God chooses to use it as his means to victory.  This calls to mind later spiritual conflicts in the ministry of Jesus, when the disciples cannot defeat and demon and the Lord tells them: “This kind comes out only by prayer.” (Mark 9:29)

Benedict XVI points out that Moses, with both arms lifted up in prayer, strikes a pose on the mountaintop much like Christ on the cross.  So we can see Moses here as a type of Christ, prefiguring the great prayer to the Father that was the Passion and Crucifixion, the great prayer which defeated the Enemy of God’s people definitively.  We participate in that great Prayer of Christ on the cross at every Mass.

As a Church, we find ourselves very much in the position of the Israelites on their way to Sinai.  We have left Egypt (=slavery to sin by crossing through the sea (=Baptism), but now that we are free people we find we have a fight on our hands.

People are surprised sometimes to discover that the Christian life is a battle.  They supposed, perhaps, that things would be easier after baptism, or after conversion.  But you see, slaves don’t have to fight.  In Egypt, the Israelites weren’t in the army—they just slaved away in obedience to their Egyptian masters.  That’s like the life of sin: its not really a struggle.  You don’t fight temptation, you just obey it.  It’s not slaves, but free men who have to fight, who have to serve in the army.  So it is in the spiritual life.  When we leave our addictions behind, having experienced conversion, we enter this life of freedom, but discover that freedom entails struggle, that freedom cannot be maintained without fighting.

What gives us the power for this fight?  Prayer.  That’s the true source of our victory.  But it must be persevering prayer that continues until the final victory is won. 

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 121:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8:

R. (cf. 2) Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
I lift up my eyes toward the mountains;
whence shall help come to me?
My help is from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
R. Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
May he not suffer your foot to slip;
may he slumber not who guards you:
indeed he neither slumbers nor sleeps,
the guardian of Israel.
R. Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
The LORD is your guardian; the LORD is your shade;
he is beside you at your right hand.
The sun shall not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
R. Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
The LORD will guard you from all evil;
he will guard your life.
The LORD will guard your coming and your going,
both now and forever.
R. Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Appropriately, the Lectionary follows the account of the life-or-death spiritual battle against Amalek with a spiritual warfare psalm, an ancient prayer that the people of Israel once took on their lips to invoke the protection of their God, the LORD, against the curses and evils of a violent pagan world.  We should notice the line “the sun shall not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.”  Is this a prayer against sunburn?  But then what about the moon?  No one gets moonburn.  Who is ever harmed by the moon?

In order to understand this psalm, we must remember that the sun and moon were considered gods by almost all the surrounding pagan peoples, who would curse the Israelites in the name of their gods.  So Psalm 121 is reassuring Israel that the LORD will protect them against the malevolence of the sun god and moon god.  He can do this because he “made the heavens and the earth”, including the sun and the moon, which are not gods, but just heavenly bodies.  Nonetheless, there are malevolent spiritual powers out there, demons that threaten us with harm, but we can be assured: “The LORD will guard you from all evil, he will guard your life.” 

Let’s remember that Psalm 121 is a prayer.  The protection of the LORD is not “automatic”—he ordains that we have a role to play.  We need to take up this prayer on our lips, to create an “opening” for him to work, to send his protecting power into our lives. 

3.  Our Second Reading is 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2:

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.

The Second Reading breaks into two paragraphs: (1) meditation on the word, and (2) proclamation of the word. 

Timothy was St. Paul’s appointed assistant, one on whom St. Paul had laid hands—that is, ordained.  So Timothy is a type of the priest or bishop: one in holy orders who has the care of a local community of God’s people.  Therefore the instructions of St. Paul to Timothy are most applicable to men in orders.  The good priest must (1) meditate on the word and (2) proclaim it consistently.

First Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, “ is the closest thing to a proof-text for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura that Protestants are able to find.  However, this verse falls far short of saying that Scripture alone is sufficient for all the needs of the Church, apart from tradition and a teaching office.  Some Protestant apologists try to make the verse say more than it does by translating the Greek word ophelimos as “sufficient.”  But ophelimos does not mean “sufficient,” it means “useful” or “beneficial.”  The great irony of the Protestant slogan “sola Scriptura” is that the Bible itself nowhere teaches that Scripture alone is all we need for the Christian life and faith.  To the contrary, see 2 Thess. 2:15.

Be that as it may, as Catholics we could always do a better job of meditation on Scripture, especially among the clergy.  And to do so requires us not necessarily to add more things to our schedule, but just to pay more attention to the rhythm of prayer handed to us in the Church’s liturgy.  There is plenty of Scripture in the Liturgy of the Hours and the Lectionary.  Let’s be more attentive when we read it or hear it proclaimed.  Periodically, we should practice lectio continua reading of Scripture—entire books or sections straight through, perhaps while on a yearly retreat.  Lectio continua helps provide context to the excerpts of Scripture read in the liturgy, and exposes us to Scriptures that are not included in any cycle of readings.

The good priest meditates on Scripture, but also proclaims Scripture.  St Paul lays great emphasis on this, and by speaking of “being persistent whether convenient or inconvenientreprimand … with all patience …”, St. Paul clearly indicates that there will be opposition to the word: at times the word will be “inconvenient” to the congregation, people will have to be “reprimanded,” and to keep going in the face of this friction will require “patience.”  Thus it was true in the first generation of the Church and continues to be true today.  It takes courage to preach, but those who take orders have no choice—they are royal servants of the one who is going to appear “in kingly power.”

Although this second reading lays emphasis on Scripture and not so much in prayer, we can discern the common theme of persistence that runs throughout the reads: Moses’ persistence in prayer, Timothy’s persistence in preaching, the woman’s persistence in demanding justice.

4. Our Gospel is 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?”

We are nearing the end of Luke’s “Travel Narrative”, and in two weeks Jesus will be in Jericho, the eastern gateway to Judea, just a day’s walk from Jerusalem.  As he nears the end of the journey, he teaches on prayer.  Prayer will be so important in the dramatic events about to transpire in Passion Week:  Jesus will pray all night in Gethsemane, and urge his Apostles to do the same. 

As is his custom, Jesus uses an earthy, every-day-life example to teach spiritual lessons.  Israelites were well-familiar with government corruption and local officials who looked out only for themselves.  They could probably think of examples of civic judges, appointed by the Romans or some other authority, who had cared nothing for the widows, orphans, poor, and sick in their cities.  Yet this persistent widow prevails over the unjust judge in Jesus parable.  The judge concedes, lest “she finally come and strike me.”  This last line is probably a mistranslation: the Greek verb rendered “strike me” is better translated “wear me out.”  The judge is not worried about the old woman coming and hitting him with her cane, but just in become exhausted by her constant asking.

The message is simple: if evil authorities concede to persistence, how much more a loving Father!  So let us not give up persevering in prayer. 

St. Luke tells us that Jesus told this so that his disciples would “pray always.”  The Church takes seriously this command to pray always, and different devotional practices have arisen to carry it out.  The Liturgy of the Hours or Divine Office is the primary way the Church expresses her desire to “pray always,” by marking the passing of time through the day with prayer—explicit, communal, and vocal where possible. 

It’s not possible for all lay people to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, however. The Rosary started as a substitute for lay people who could not pray the Office, but wanted to be in communion with those who did. In this month of October, we reflect on the Rosary as a form of prayer that has often been described as a “weapon.” We should pray it intensely this month, using it as a “weapon” against all the evil that is taking place around us. St. Josemaria, who dedicated a great deal of time pondering how the laity should pray, devised a schedule of prayer for the Catholic layperson (here).  He also encouraged us to “turn our work into prayer,” by working well, with an intention of offering our work to God for a specific intention.  Speaking to students, he said, “An hour of study, for a modern apostle, is an hour of prayer,” and mutatis mutandis the same is true for those in other vocations.  St. Josemaria recommended the praying of brief aspirations all through the day, little acts of love or faith, like “My Jesus, I trust in you!” or “Mary Queen of Angels, pray for me!”  This is not a substitute for dedicating a quiet time of the day specifically for mental prayer (or meditation—that is, free-form interior conversation with God)—fifteen minutes to half an hour for most lay people.  But when all these forms of prayer are used together: aspirations, offering our labor, particular times of meditation, plus communal or familial recitation of vocal prayers (rosary, chaplets, etc.), we strive to be like Moses, with our hands always uplifted in prayer.  How necessary in a time when spiritual warfare is getting ever more severe!

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