The Word Engaged
The image of Moses looking out over Joshua’s battle with Amalek does not easily fade from the mind. There he leans, his back against a rock, outstretched arms propped up by two aides. Whenever Moses lowers his arms for rest, the enemy begins to prevail; so Aaron and Hur stay at his side until sunset and victory, living crutches for his aching shoulders.
Now that’s persistence in prayer. Supposedly it is the kind of perseverance that Paul recommends for Timothy—and us all—in our living and giving of the faith. As long as we are laboring at faith, faith is winning. If we give up, faith loses. Therefore Paul advises Timothy to “preach the word, to stay with the task whether convenient or inconvenient, correcting, reproving, appealing, constantly teaching and never losing patience.”
Ah, but those inconvenient times, those days when the battle seems to have no end. Who will prop up our arms when they are wearied with prayer? The distressing thought surfaces: Why even bother to keep the arms held high when it seems that our begging brings no relief?
Jesus told his disciples a parable on the necessity of praying always and not losing heart. A widow pleads before a corrupt judge for vindication against an opponent. Irritation rather than compassion finally moves the judge to help her. The only way to stop her complaining is to give in to her pleading.
And this is a corrupt judge. How different it is with a good and bountiful God, who has given us life. It is God’s desire to help us when we call out by night and day; God is eager to answer our cries for help. Thus Jesus asks his hearers, “Will God delay long over them, do you suppose?”
But delay, by and large, is unfortunately what you experience. You wonder if you are even heard. Heaven seems at times to be wired like those labyrinthine voice-mail systems. You keep getting the runaround. You keep hitting the same buttons, hearing the same evasions.
I’ve spent over a year of days pleading for a miracle. I don’t often do that, but the situation merits it. Show your power, O God, to the world. Manifest your love for one of your chosen, young and true, a woman good and generous, now wounded and needy of your assistance. If not now, when? If not here, where? As the days wear on, I fear not only that you delay, but that the plea might never be answered. I grow weary holding up her cause to you.
The object of our belief is a God free of space’s limit, of time’s transience. And this is the complaint of only one—one person in the sea of humanity—with one prayer seemingly unanswered. My little voice is lost in the roar of pleading that resounds through the ages. Families in desperate poverty and loss join the chorus. Chants rise from Aleppo, requiems from Rwanda, dirges from the bloody wars, screams from the ghetto. Lost in the din of history is the weeping from battered children, abandoned souls, distraught minds. Who will prop up the outstretched arms of humanity, pained with almost endless ache?
Perhaps Jesus meant the story of the widow to represent the state of humanity itself, suffering in the wound of time. The very condition of our fallen creaturehood needs some final healing. All temporary cures, all wars won, all peace treaties are just signals. There is no earthly final therapy, no definitive victory over death, no endless peace.
The object of our belief is a God free of space’s limit, of time’s transience. It is the God who deemed us good and abides in that judgment beyond all the evidence we provide to the contrary. It is the God who made our outstretched arms his own in the crucified one, who even in crushing loss said, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
What is required of us is to pray always. Our very being must be a prayer, a petition. What is asked of us is that we never lose heart; our very existence must become an act of trust.
There are, when it comes down to it, only two responses to our condition. We can give up hope in humanity and the God who fashioned us, or we can believe that the last word, beyond all our earthly disasters, is the word of love from the one who called us into existence.
Thus, for God incarnate a fundamental concern looms large. Christ asks but one thing of us: not that we comprise an invulnerable army, never wounded or pained, at the end of time, but that we form a vast cavalcade of men and women who, despite the sufferings of history, believe in his promise.
When the Son of Man comes, will he find
any faith on the earth? (Lk 18:8)
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. His untimely death is a grief for the many people he reached during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University