Commentary on the Readings
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 20, 2019 – Year C
At times it is easy to lose one’s faith
A wise person of the Old Testament summarizes the accumulated life experiences: “From my youth to old age, I am yet to see the righteous forsaken or their children begging for alms. For the Lord loves justice and right and never forsakes his faithful ones. The wicked instead will perish and their breed will be cut off” (Ps 37:25,28).
Beautiful words, would we subscribe to them without some reservation? Who does not know examples that contradict it? Two weeks ago we have heard Habakkuk lamenting with the Lord. He said: In the country the evil ones dominate, doing all sorts of injustice and You, Lord, do not intervene.
In the Bible, one finds stupendous invocations to God asking his intervention when life on earth becomes intolerable. The Psalmist implores: “But you, O Lord, who have seen, do not keep silent. Do not stand far from me. Stir yourself up, stand up for my rights and my cause, my God and my Lord” (Ps 35:22-23). In the Book of Revelation, the martyrs raise their cry to the Lord: “Holy and righteous Lord, how long will it be before you render justice and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Rev 6:10).
Why is it that God does not respond always and immediately to these pleadings? If, although he could, he does not put an end to injustice; could he perhaps be considered innocent? How would he justify his silence?
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Even if I am not always aware, you, Lord, protect me in the shadow of your wings.”
The Amalekites was a nomad tribe who lived in the desolate region of the Sinai’s desert. Fewer people have been hated by the Israelites as the Amalekites.
They committed an unforgivable crime. The Israelites were on their journey towards the Promised Land. They had to pass through the Amalekites’ territory. Tired of the journey, they asked for some water and the Amalekites, instead of helping them, assaulted and killed the weakest of the caravan’s rear (Dt 25:17-19).
Today’s Reading refers to one of the first clashes with this tribe. The text says that Moses ordered Joshua to attack them, while he, together with Aaron and Hur, went up the mountain to beseech God’s help (vv. 12-13). It happened that, while Moses had his arms raised in prayer, Joshua won, but when because of fatigue he let them down, the Amalekites had the best of the fight (v. 11).
How to succeed in keeping Moses’ arms always raised in prayer? Aaron and Hur found the solution: they had Moses sit down on a rock and they, one at the right and the other at the left, sustained him. They remained so until evening and Israel routed the Amalekites.
The biblical passage does not mean to be an invitation to ask God for power to kill the enemies!
The people in antiquity believed that the gods fought alongside the people who adored them. Today, instructed by Jesus, we know that this is an archaic and rough concept of God. The narrated episode in the reading was inserted in the Bible because it has a theological message. It teaches us that those who want to achieve goals beyond one’s strength must pray without ceasing.
There are results that could be obtained only through prayer. We confront enemies that obstruct our life, take our breath away: ambition, hate, and unruly passion.
If only for a moment we let our arms down, if we interrupt prayer, immediately these enemies will take the upper hand. What remains for us is to resign to the dramatic experience of defeat. The arms should be kept raised … until evening, until the end of life without getting tired.
What values are worth committing our lives for? What principles to inculcate in our children? Must they be educated to compete, to vanquish, or to help the weakest? What value to give to money, family, children, health, one’s own image, success? The answers to these questions are many and diverse. What is the correct one?
The proposed solutions by people are uncertain and changeable, often conditioned more by fads than by solid reasons.
Paul suggests to Timothy the sure point of reference: the Sacred Scriptures. To convince him, he recalls the tie that binds him to the faith. He reminds him how he was educated since childhood in “sincere faith of your grandmother Lois and of your mother Eunice” (2 Tim 1:5).
He continues to explain the value of Sacred Scriptures. “It is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, refuting errors, for correcting and training in Christian faith. Through Scriptures, a man of God is made expert and thoroughly equipped for every good work” (vv. 14,16).
Those who found this treasure cannot hide it or consider it a good thing to be enjoyed in solitude. One must communicate one’s discovery to the brothers/sisters.
Paul implores Timothy—and through him all the animators of the community—to take advantage of every occasion to preach the Gospel (2 Tim 4:1-2).
The Apostle is worried that the faith of the disciples is not adequately nourished, with the unique and nutrient food: the Word of God, contained in the sacred books. In the same years Peter, turning to the neophytes, employs another moving image. He compares this Word to the milk that the mother church offers to her children. He says, “like newborn children, seek eagerly for the pure milk of the Word that will help you grow and reach salvation” (1 Pt 2:2).
It is an invitation to all communities not to reduce the Christian life to devotions, repetition of rites and religious ceremonies but to give importance to the study and meditation of the Sacred Scriptures.
Prayer must not be a way to force God to do our will. Why are we invited to turn to him with insistence? What is the meaning of prayer? To these questions, Jesus responds today with a parable (vv. 1-5) and with application to the life of the community (vv. 6-8). The parable starts with the presentation of personages.
The first is the judge whose duty should be that of protecting the weak and the defenseless, instead of being godless and unsympathetic. (v. 2). He himself, in his soliloquy, accepts that the wicked reputation he made of himself has been totally justified: “I neither fear God nor care for about people” (v. 4). Jesus’ description of this man is quite realistic. One would think that it refers to some cases of blatant injustice he has heard or witnessed.
The second personage is the widow. In the Middle Eastern literature and in the Bible she is a symbol of a defenseless person, exposed to abuse; a victim of exactions, who cannot appeal to anyone except to the Lord. Sirach is moved by her condition and threatens anyone who abuses her: “The Lord is judge and shows no partiality. He will not disadvantage the poor, he who hears the prayer of the oppressed. He does not disdain the plea of the orphan, nor the complaint of the widow. When tears flow down her cheeks, is she not crying out against the ones who caused her to weep? Her sorrow obtains God’s favor and her cry reaches the clouds” (Sir 35:12-16).
In the parable, a widow who suffered injustice is put to the scene. Perhaps she was deceived in a transition of inheritance or was a victim of a scam. Perhaps someone has exploited her work; certainly, she has been wronged and claims her rights but no one listens to her. She has no money to pay a lawyer nor knows someone who could plead her cause; no one to advise her. She has a single card in hand and plays it: she pesters the judge repeatedly, with obstinacy, at the cost of looking indiscreet (v. 3).
After having presented the two personages, the parable continues with the soliloquy of the judge. One day he decides to solve the case not because he realizes his misbehavior but he is tired and annoyed by the insistence of the woman. He says: this widow is troublesome, she pesters me and becomes unbearable (vv. 4-5).
The parable concludes here. The following verses (vv. 6-8) contain an actualization. We will comment on it later. First, we try to grasp the meaning and the message of the parable.
Who is the unjust judge? The answer seems obvious, and even embarrassing: it’s God! But it is not so. This personage, in reality, is secondary. He is introduced only to create an unsustainable situation that Jesus wants to draw attention to. It is the condition in which the disciples find themselves in this world that is still dominated by evil and profoundly marked by death.
At the time of Jesus, injustice was rampant in oppressive political, social, and religious systems. Today it is represented by abuses and fraudulence at the cost the poorest, by inexplicable and absurd events and practices that disturb and contradict our longing for life.
What do we do in these situations?
Here is the message of the parable: pray. Jesus has told so—says the evangelist—to inculcate the belief that it is necessary to pray always, without ceasing (v. 1).
Prayer is the greatest means in order not to lose one’s head in the most difficult and dramatic moments when everything seems to conspire against us and the Kingdom of God.
How to be always praying? Prayer should not be identified with monotonous repetition of formulae that weaken both, the one who recites it and the one who listens. I believe—even God may be annoyed, if they are not expressions of an authentic sentiment of the heart (cf. Am 5:23). Jesus calls the attention of the disciples not to pray as the pagans who believe it to be heard for their much speaking (Mt 6:7).
True prayer, that which must never be interrupted, consists in maintaining oneself in constant dialogue with the Lord. Dialogue with him makes us evaluate reality, events, and people with their criteria of judgment. We examine with him our thoughts, sentiments, reactions, and plans.
To pray always means not to take some decisions without first consulting him. If, even for a single moment one would interrupt this rapport with God, if—to use the image of the First Reading—the arms are let down, immediately the enemies of life and freedom will take the upper hand. These enemies are called passions, uncontrolled impulses, and instinctive reactions. They create conditions for foolish choices.
It is prayer that allows, for example, to control impatience in wishing to establish the Kingdom of God at all costs and by any means. It is prayer that blocks us to force consciences and teaches us to respect the freedom of each person.
The conclusion of the passage (vv. 6-8) is rather enigmatic. The last phrase: “but when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” seems to insinuate the doubt on the final success of Christ’s work. To understand it, it is necessary to verify what he is speaking about and who are listening to him. Then a correction to the translation must be also made.
It is the Lord who talks and the Gospel of Luke indicates that it is the Risen One. He turns to the chosen ones, the persecuted Christians of Luke’s community. He wants to give an answer to their faith dilemma.
We are in the 80s of the first century, when, in Asia Minor, a very violent persecution started. Domitian claims that all should adore him as a god. The pagan religious institutions, servile and flattering, adequately give in and support the maniacal eccentricity of the sovereign. The Christians do not. They cannot—as the Book of Revelation says (Rev 13)—bow before the “beast” (the Domitian divo) and for this, they undergo harassment and discrimination.
Now it’s clear who the widow of the parable is: it is the church of Luke, the church whose Spouse is taken away; it is this community that awaits his coming, even though she may not know the day or the hour of his return and that each day, with insistence, she is pleading: “Come Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).
To this invocation, the Lord gives a consoling answer, with a rhetoric question, “And will not God give justice to his chosen ones who day and night cry to him” followed by a peremptory affirmation; Yes, I tell you: He will bring justice to them soon; even if he makes them wait for long.” You may have noted that the question mark at the end of the sentence has been removed in my translation. This alteration makes the meaning of the text more coherent.
A major temptation of Christians is discouragement and distrust in the face of a long wait for the Spouse who delays and tolerates injustice.
The last sentence: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” does not refer to the end of the world but to the saving arrival of Christ in this world.
Before the inexplicable slowness of the judge, the widow could have resigned and despaired to the fate of not obtaining justice one day. The Lord alerts the community against this danger represented by discouragement and resignation of the thought that the Spouse is not coming any more to render justice. He will surely come, but will he find his chosen ones ready to welcome him? To someone, his slowness could cause a loss of faith!
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.