October 16, 2016
TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Moses versus the Amalekites
I lift my eyes to the mountains
2 Tm 3:14-4:2
All scripture is inspired by God
A persistent widow
Anyone who has been to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, sometimes known as the Wailing Wall, will know that the Jewish tradition includes praying with the entire body. The continual swaying back and forth of the worshipers make that evident to the stoic and self-conscious visitor.
An appreciation of the total person in prayer might be seen part of the tradition behind the story of Moses and Amalek. It is not enough for Moses to pray with his inner spirit alone. It must be evident in his entire person. And so it is when the battle wages and Moses has his arms lifted in prayer, the Israelites win. When he fades, they fade. And so the help of Aaron and Hur are enlisted to help him keep his arms up.
We find this entire account peculiar and mechanical. It is true that there clearly are folklore elements in the story. But it also is making the point that prayer is not to end when you get tired. Maybe especially when you get tired.
Amalek, encountered here in the people’s wandering in the desert as they look for a homeland to settle, had come to stand for the entire history of Israel’s enemies. And so the story of the battle became a figure for the continued difficulties facing the people of God in their journey through time.
We may also find it peculiar that Moses should need help when he announces at the beginning that he has a staff in his hand. But it may be that the editor of this part of Exodus, the one who brought the various stories of Moses into a coherent sequence, may have introduced the staff as a continuity device. He added the staff, emblem of Moses’ authority (Ex 4:2-5, 17), to all the Moses stories he included in the account.
The Gospel parable of the widow has its own fine storyteller touches. The widow is prototypical of the weak and vulnerable in biblical tradition. The backstory here takes us again to Moses, and the covenant on Sinai. There we find the Covenant Law Code making a special case for the widow and orphan, the stranger in the land and the poor neighbor (Ex 22:20-16). The prophets return to these representative figures whenever they are assessing Israel’s loyalty to the covenant they made with God. How are the widow and orphan doing? Is the stranger in the land receiving abuse? Are the poor receiving due respect and support? The prophets metaphorically adopt a literary form, called the Covenant Lawsuit, which presents them as God’s attorneys, bringing Israel to court for breach of contract, having departed from their covenant with God.
So it is with rich irony that these features come together in Jesus’ parable, with the judge being judged, and the widow pursuing her cause with persistence. It is amusing that the widow, symbol of vulnerability, should be in a position to threaten the judge. Or so the poor man feels.
And, of course, the lesson here, as in the story of Moses and Amalek, is one of persistence in prayer. If an unjust judge can be moved, all the more so a good God.
One part of the lesson, perhaps, is that what often appears to be a slow response on the part of God, one that requires such persistence, has a sorting-out quality to it. It separates the chaff from the wheat when it comes to topics for prayers of petition. Over time, the real motivations persist, and not the trivial. In prayer we discover what is worth praying for. And in today’s stories we see examples of what that might be—war and injustice.
For reflection: Can you think of any examples of prayer that proved its importance through persistence?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.