I met a young woman this week who told me how desperate she became two years ago when her husband broke his back in an accident and became paralysed from the chest down. At the time, she expressed her anger at God by swearing at him in words I cannot repeat here (but you can guess!) and she drove home from the Hospital looking for a lorry to drive under. But all the way home, miraculously it seems, not a single lorry was sighted! It seems a strange answer to prayer. Her husband remains paralysed, but despite immense difficulties, she copes, although she continues to swear – a lot!
That’s the point of our Gospel today ((Luke 18:1-8). Jesus does not suggest that we need to be polite when we pray, only persistent, because God is very close and is always listening; even if the answers we get are not exactly what we thought we wanted.
Our Old Testament Reading today (Exodus 17:8-13) is actually saying the same thing, but it also shows how difficult it is to read the Bible if we take it literally. Read on the surface, read literally, it seems to suggest that God will support us if we slaughter our enemies in battle. Indeed there are stupid fundamentalist Christians who read it that way! True Christians know that we are meant to treat such stories just like we treat Jesus’ story today of the corrupt judge and the nagging widow. Jesus is not suggesting that we should be like the nagging woman, nor that God is like that judge. Indeed, he explicitly says in this case, that God is NOT like the unjust judge.
As for our Old Testament reading, we know that Jesus explicitly disagrees with the idea of killing our enemies. Instead he tells us to love them and to do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:35) Remember too that when faced with those who came to arrest and kill him, he told his followers not to use their swords, for those who live by the sword will die by the sword. (Matthew 26:52) So why then do we read such passages as this one about slaughtering people? Well, most of all, we read it, as I am reminding you in all these talks on the Old Testament, because it teaches us more about Jesus and his background, and because all down the centuries Christian teachers have followed the example of Jesus and used even passages like these to talk about us and God.
Do you remember the story of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus after the death of Jesus? (Luke 24:13-35) They know their Old Testament well, but see no hope for themselves in its pages, no way of understanding why Jesus the Son of God had been killed in such an awful way. Then Jesus comes and walks with them, and explains things to them, showing them “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets… what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
So where is Jesus in this story of Moses up on the mountain praying whilst his people slaughter the Amalekites? The first Christians would have known instantly. Moses stands for Jesus. In all the words and actions of Moses, Jesus is present. For Jesus is not just a man who lived for 33 years 2000 years ago, but is also God with us, who “was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” So are we back to saying that Jesus supported all that killing? Of course not. What we have to do is look at that story more closely, and link it to our Gospel.
Prayer can often be a battle, a struggle against our own sin, or despair, or anger. It can also sometimes be a battle to survive in a world where there is much evil, and suffering, and rudeness, and also much temptation, and where all too easily such things can overwhelm us. In the midst of this battle we are reminded to look up and see someone who with outstretched arms is eternally supporting us. Who then like Moses stretches out his arms in prayer? Who, like Moses, finds this work agonisingly difficult and yet goes on to the end? The answer stares down at us in every Catholic Church. Jesus, with his arms outstretched on the cross, is not just a suffering man in the last stages of agony, but is also God himself, praying and supporting each one of us. He is there for every human being, whether they believe in him or not, and that is something each one of us needs to remember every day, even when in our own struggles all we can do is shout at God, just like that young woman does.
Unless we try to realise this for ourselves, then most of what we do in Church will not make sense. Knowing God is with us, whatever we feel like, is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian!