Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

A lot of praying happens regularly in places other than church: at sick beds in hospitals, at sporting events, in homes where parents await their children at the end of the day, in cities and towns in the path of storms and wildfires, and lately in every place previously presumed safe including schools, malls, entertainment venues, and places of worship where unsuspecting people gather almost anywhere in the world. What must it be like for God to listen to whoever calls out to him, from the totally incredible to the utterly simple, from the totally ridiculous to the perfectly sublime? People will call on God in prayer in the midst of anger, helplessness, hopelessness, and frustration. Some who pray will be resigned and calm, trusting God will accomplish his divine purpose, but pleading God please, please, please be mindful of their present circumstances. Some will attempt to bargain with God, asking the improbable yet offering God what is of little or no use. Some will be grateful for God’s gracious and generous mercy. Some will be outright hostile, blaming God for misfortune and hurt, or calling God dismissive or indifferent. In desperation, some will threaten God with their own loss of faith. And some will ask for peace of mind and heart surrendering all to whatever God desires.

I have wondered sometimes how God deals with our prayers. Does God have a system: post-it notes, index cards, checklists, an army of angels at his beck and call? Is there a “first come—first serve” rule? Does God presort according to priority: offenses against himself, against nature, humans behaving badly, incurable illnesses, requests that just make God shake his head? How often does God say “no”? Does God listen to the good and the bad with equal compassion? Does God tire of hearing from the same people all the time or of hearing the same complaints? Would God need a break to clear his head and lower his heart rate? Is God ever tempted to roll his eyes or cringe? Does God get time to do other things like attend to other planets or save other creatures?

Each of us has relied on prayer for various reasons at various times in our lives, praising, thanking, pleading, persuading, bargaining, demanding. We may occasionally realize the absurdity of our concerns, as when in selfishness and childishness we obsess with acquiring beauty, popularity, wealth, and prosperity, or we demand God punish our enemies, or we think we can do a better job than God can. Occasionally we might admit our lack of faith, our hardness of heart, our unwillingness to surrender to God’s will. But in the face of fear, weariness, and unrelenting darkness we find ourselves returning to prayer again and again. We will light candles, and spend hours on our knees, and pray decade upon decade of the rosary. We will call upon the choirs of angels, the saints, and the Mother of God. We will make vows and promises: to reform our ways, to come to church every Sunday, to assist the poor and those in need, to go on pilgrimage to some holy site, to donate to a worthy cause. And when we think we have found a winning combination of faith and superstition, we will hold on to hope because we believe that God is not asleep, that God has not gone on vacation, that God truly hears the prayers of those who call out to him.

Today we hear encouragement to strengthen our belief in the power of prayer. The curious details in the reading from Exodus tell us that God does take sides. But it’s not a football game or a political contest. As Israel wages war against the Amalekites, Moses watches from a distance, noticing Israel advances when his arms are up, and are pushed back when his arms come down. So, Aaron and Hur are tasked to help keep his arms raised. Why does Israel’s victory that day depend solely on the position of Moses’ arms? Some are convinced cancer will disappear if only they light a candle or if they adopt some totally unrelated daily routine. Others believe their team will be victorious for as long as they don’t wash their socks or shirt or face. Is God manipulated so easily?

The widow in the gospel is persistent. We know nothing of her complaint. We hear that the judge is beholden to no one, so he has no dog in the fight. But because of her persistence and his fear of bodily harm, he rules in her favor. And Jesus observes, “Will not God then (who is merciful and just, slow to anger and full of compassion) 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.” Jesus assures us that God is attentive to our needs. God hears our prayers and will respond. And interestingly, Jesus tells us we can move God’s heart by our prayer and pleading. But God is no vending machine. God’s wisdom is beyond our understanding. And God’s will is fulfilled when the time is right. Meanwhile, we will call on him as children call on their parents, praising, thanking, pleading, persuading, bargaining, demanding. And God ever-wise, who sees into our hearts, who knows our thoughts and motives, who is merciful and just, slow to anger and full of compassion, will see to it that justice is done speedily for those he loves.

But the reward of prayer is not necessarily getting what we ask for, but the blessing that God in his wisdom wishes to bestow upon us. Jesus instructs us to pray always unquestioningly, confidently, persistently, tirelessly. Prayer is a most powerful weapon. If it does not change those for whom we pray, it will most certainly change us.

Rolo B Castillo © 2022