Sunday, October 17, 2010

Helping Hands

When I was a child, there was a big “Family bible” in my parents’ bedroom, which I used to like to look at on occasion – not to read, but to look at the pictures. One of my favorites was a picture depicting the scene in today’s 1st reading [Exodus 17:8-13]. We usually think of Moses in super-size terms – thanks in part, I suppose, to the movies. Indeed, the Moses in that picture was a big, strong, heroic-looking figure, which made it seem that much more incongruous that he was being helped, physically helped, by Aaron and Hur, who were also rather impressive to look at and who supported Moses’ hands, one on one side and one on the other.

That, although I certainly had no clue at the time, was the larger point of the story – Israel’s weakness and need for God to fight on Israel’s behalf against the Amalekites. No doubt, individual Israelite warriors, like Joshua, were every bit as strong and courageous as their enemies. As a nation, however, Israel was relatively small and weak. Its survival depended on God, and that was the primary point of the story.

A corollary of that was that Israel could confidently count on God. The reality, however, was that Israel’s history had many defeats. Twice, the Temple would be destroyed. Twice the people would be forced into exile. That second exile would last almost 2000 years, until the providential restoration of Israeli statehood in my own lifetime.

And, of course, when we consider life from the perspective of the individual – like, for example, the widow in today’s Gospel [Luke 18:1-8] – we may well wonder just how warranted confidence in God really is.

There are two typical responses to this dilemma. The more modern one is simply to eliminate God from the calculation – either by denying his existence altogether, or (what ultimately amounts to pretty much the same thing) by denying his omnipotence).

The other, older approach, which has a long history indeed, is to try to make a deal with God. “Do ut des,” the ancient Romans used to say. “I give in order that you may give.” From time immemorial, folks have tried to please – or at least placate – God (or the gods), doing this or that, offering this or that, in the hope of striking a deal, which would entitle one to something from God in return. This is a classic “justice” argument.

Now, generally speaking, justice is very beneficial inhuman affairs. Societies certainly function better when citizens treat each other – and can expect to be treated – predictably and fairly on the basis of their supposed merits. Even in human affairs, however, the desirability of perfect justice is limited, and absolute justice is often softened in practice. That is why monarchs often carry a scepter in one hand – symbolizing justice – but balanced in the other by the Rod of Equity and Mercy. And, of course, in some settings – the family, for example, justice hardly enters into the picture at all, the language of justice being largely inappropriate to the reality of that relationship.

And so Jesus, in the parable we just heard, likens God to an unjust judge. We may, on occasion, perhaps think that we’ve really done our best and that therefore in fairness God should owe us something. Most of the time, we know better. Indeed, in the long run who would ever want to be judged solely by God’s justice? As Shakespeare so memorably expressed it, in Portia’s legal argument in The Merchant of Venice, “in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation.”

In the parable, the plaintiff is a widow, which suggests she is somewhat alone in the world, probably poor, at least not wealthy enough to retain a high-priced lawyer to argue the justice of her case – assuming she actually has a case. All she can do is call out to God day and night.

In the parable, the widow gets the judgment she needs – not because of the merits of her case – but because of her persistence.

When all is said and done, aren’t we all a lot like that widow?

The challenge – the challenge of faith – is to give up the self-absorbed preoccupation with convincing God that we deserve what we want. The challenge of faith is to stop talking to ourselves and start talking to God, confidently calling out day and night, acknowledging our need and confident that God will in the end judge us by the depth of that need.

And, just as Moses and Joshua depended on the help of Aaron and Hur, we too depend on one another. In the face of the harshness of life, who among us, standing alone can confidently call on God with as full a faith as the widow in the parable? That is why we pray every day at Mass: look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.

Homily At Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 17, 2010

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