This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 18:1–8:
Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary. He said, “There was a judge in a certain town who neither feared God nor respected any human being. And a widow in that town used to come to him and say, ‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’ For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought, ‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.’”
The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says. Will not God then 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. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Yesterday my wife and I went to confession, which as I’ve written a number of times is an experience that begins with dread and ends with relief, bordering on exhilaration. After receiving absolution, I went off to reflect on the readings for both yesterday and today, and these struck home even more than usual. In all our readings, but especially the Gospel and the passage from Exodus, the power and necessity of perseverance is made clear — and not just perseverance, but also solidarity in prayer.
Our first reading tells one of the more well-known episodes from Exodus — the battle between Israel and Amelek during the nation’s wandering in the desert. Moses appoints Joshua as the commander of the Israelite army, while Moses goes to the mountaintop with Aaron and Hur. Moses lifts up his arms in prayer to the Lord, and the battle goes well until he tires and his arms drop. Amalek then gains the upper hand until Moses lifts up his hands again, only to suffer reversal when his arms droop again. Finally, Aaron and Hur have Moses sit and the two of them keep Moses’ arms raised until Israel wins the battle.
On the surface, that may not seem to have much to do with the parable Jesus tells in Luke 18. There is no battle, and no one is actually praying. Instead, a widow has to deal with a dishonest judge — one reluctant to do justice even though he knows the widow is in the right. The corrupt judge finally gives in because the widow is unrelenting in her supplication. Her perseverance wears him down.
Both of these passages struck a chord after coming out of the confessional yesterday, in more ways than one. Since receiving my confirmation at 25, I’ve been to confession plenty of times. Okay, not plenty — I should go more often — but especially over the last decade or so, it’s been between 6-10 times a year. Some of the sins I confess are the same ones that I’ve confessed before, sins from which I need healing but still have not overcome. Sin is a struggle that repeats itself too often, and without confession to force me to confront it, it becomes very seductive and transforms itself into routine, then normality. Our popular culture encourages this; it tries to tell us that there really isn’t any such thing as sin, and that anything goes as long as it doesn’t make anyone else feel bad. Confession forces me to step back and confront the reality of sin, rather than the illusion and glamour of it — as in the first definition of glamour found in Webster, “a magic spell.”
One could argue that confession hasn’t solved the problem, but it does, especially in its immediate aftermath. The clarity and resolve that follows confession does arm me with a greater ability to resist sin. The determination to keep returning to confession after I stumble and fall under that glamour again is a continuous prayer to the Lord for His grace to pick myself back up and try again. To put it in terms of our reading from Exodus, the sacrament of reconciliation allows me to lift my arms back up again so that the spiritual battle may turn in the Lord’s favor.
But I am not alone in this. In fact, I have two partners here in this world for that process — my wife (who usually dictates the confession schedule, if I’m going to be honest here) and the priest, who has a difficult task. He hears confessions every week and sometimes more, from the same people, who like myself confess the same sins. If that process might discourage lay people such as myself, imagine the weight these confessors assume in this process. They have a Sisyphean task, trying to roll the boulder of absolution not just up one mountain but hundreds of them, only to see them all roll back down sooner rather than later.
Yet the priest also perseveres, helping those who stumble to see their sin clearly and then reconciling them with the Lord. If my arms get raised in this process, then it’s because the priest and my wife are helping me to hold them up. This is the form that solidarity takes. Both ordained and laity help to lift each other out of the poverty of sin, sometimes especially so when we are at our weakest and know we need help more than ever.
As in our Gospel reading, we persevere in this process to shed sin and come close to the Lord. Jesus promises us that perseverance will not go unrewarded. The point of this parable is to tell us to take heart in our struggle. If a corrupt and cruel judge would give a widow her due just to shut her up, would not the God who loves us hear our cries and send us His grace?
But this parable has another meaning as well. The Israelites at this time had cried out for justice to the Lord, especially during the Roman occupation. They wanted a rescue from oppression and a return to God’s grace. The Lord had heard their please, and sent Jesus to show them the way to put aside sin and to form themselves for eternal life. But were the Israelites prepared to embrace a savior when He arrived, or were they too wedded to sin to recognize Him? Jesus clearly wants the former, but found the latter. This is why he asks at the end, “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
That is also a question for us to this day. We have been shown the path and taught the Word of God that takes us from our sinful, fallen state so that we can form ourselves for the Lord. Will we keep that faith, or will we despair and fall silently into the seductive arms of sin instead? Confession offers us the opportunity to turn toward faith and raise our arms, offers others the opportunity to help up keep those arms lifted — and us the opportunity to help keep other arms lifted, too. As Paul writes in his second letter to Timothy, “proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient; convince, reprimand, encourage all through patience and teaching.”
Perseverance and solidarity. That won the battle for Moses and the Israelites, and it’s a winning formula to this very day in our own spiritual battle to form ourselves to the Lord.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.