Gospel for the Twenty Ninth Sunday (16 October 2016)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ”And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8 – NRSV)
This parable is unique to Luke. In it we hear one of his favourite themes – prayer. See also 6:28; 11:1–2; 22:40, 46; Acts 1:14; 2:42; 3:1; 6:4, 6; 10:4, 9, 30–31; 12:5, 12; 16:13, 16, 25; 20:36; 21:5; 22:17; 28:8.
Joseph Fitzmyer SJ writes: “Another important aspect of Christian life in Lucan thinking is the disciple’s ongoing communing with God. The emphasis that Luke gives to it begins in the Gospel itself, in which he depicts Jesus at prayer more often than any of the other evangelists, and then continues reference to it in the lives of the early Christians about whom he writes in Acts. He depicts Jesus often at prayer, because this is to become one of the ways in which the disciple is to follow him.
“Because of this emphasis on prayer, it is not surprising that the first episode in the Gospel, the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist, takes place when all the people assisting at the incense-offering were standing outside the sanctuary praying (1:10). Thus Luke’s entire account begins in the context of Jewish communal prayer, and during it Zechariah is told that his prayer has been heard (1:13). The Temple piety that surrounds the infancy narrative includes the notice about Anna, the prophetess, spending her days in the courts, joining in its common worship, fasting, and praying (2:36–38); and her declaration about the role of Jesus in the deliverance of Jerusalem implicitly flows from her communing with God. Thus the chord of prayer is struck in the infancy narrative.
“Moreover, it is only Luke who tells us that John the Baptist used to teach his disciples how to pray (11:1; cf. 5:33), without, however, giving any details about how they went about it. That note, at the introduction of the “Our Father,” when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them, proves to be the basis of the Lucan view of prayer in the lives of Christian disciples.
“Such details associate prayer with the Period of Israel. So it is not surprising that Luke depicts Jesus too at prayer. Many of the major episodes in Jesus’ ministry are explicitly linked with his prayer, occurring either before or during them. Thus, at his baptism (3:21), before the choosing of the Twelve (6:12), before Peter’s confession and the first announcement of the passion (9:18), at his transfiguration (9:28), before he teaches the “Our Father” (11:2), at the Last Supper (to strengthen Peter’s faith, 22:32), during his agony on the Mount of Olives (22:41), and on the cross itself (23:46). In some of these episodes Luke has preserved the details from the tradition before him that at times Jesus withdrew from his disciples or from the crowds to a secluded place to pray. On occasion he goes up the Mount of Olives or on some unnamed mountain to do so—a mountain being regarded as a special place for communing with the Father. Indeed, on one occasion Luke adds to his notice of Jesus’ retiring to the Mount of Olives the phrase, “as usual” (22:39).
“Luke not only portrays Jesus often withdrawing to pray (e.g. 5:16; 6:12), but on occasion tells us about how he prayed or about the substance of his prayer. This is done even above and beyond the implications of the context in which his prayer is mentioned (as above). Thus, in a passage derived from “Q,” he records Jesus’ thanksgiving to the Father, uttered in a moment of exultation in the holy Spirit, for what has been revealed to mere children about himself and his filial relation to the Father, something kept hidden from the wise and the learned, from prophets and kings (10:21–23). Again, after the Last Supper and on the Mount of Olives he prays, “Please, Father, take this cup away from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (22:42 [vv. 43–44 add details which are omitted in the best Greek mss.; see the NOTE]). The prayer of supplication that he utters, not to have to face the ordeal that awaits him, ends in filial submission to the salvific plan that is to come to realization. Again, his filial confidence is recorded as he prays on the cross, “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit,” echoing the words of Ps 31:6 (23:46). In these various prayers Jesus communes with his heavenly Father in praise or thanksgiving, supplication, resignation, and filial confidence.
“Alone among the evangelists, Luke portrays the disciples asking Jesus during his ministry to teach them to pray, making reference to the practice of John mentioned above (11:1). And in this context he derived from “Q” a form of the “Our Father.” Here too the content of Christian prayer is displayed: God is acknowledged as Father, is praised, recognized as the source of material sustenance, forgiveness, and freedom from temptation.
“Against the background of this plea for instruction in prayer, one reads a number of other injunctions of the Lucan Jesus that bear on it. Thus he tells the parable of the dishonest judge because of “the need to pray always and never give up” (18:1), citing the example of the importunate widow and commenting on the value of supplicating God: “Will not God then vindicate his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night?” (18:6). As Jesus sends out the Seventy(-two), he instructs them not only about what they are to do (preach, heal, etc.), but also about prayer: “Beg the owner of the harvest to send out laborers enough for his harvest” (10:2). Again, his instruction about prayer given in the “Our Father” is followed by the parable of the persistent friend (11:5–8) and further sayings on the efficacy of prayer (11:9–13).
“This characteristic of Christian discipleship is inculcated in the Lucan account not merely by the instruction and example of Jesus himself during his ministry, but is depicted as part of the life of the early Christians. From the very beginning of Acts the community is engaged in the activity of communing with God. The Eleven, Mary and his “brothers” (now clearly depicted among the believers), and other women devote themselves to common prayer with one accord (Acts 1:14). This is noted even prior to Pentecost and the reception of the gift of the Spirit. Reference is further made to community prayer in the summary statement of Acts 2:42; cf. 4:31; 12:12.
“It is interesting that Peter and John, even after Pentecost, go up to the Temple at the ninth hour, the hour of mid-afternoon prayer (3:1), thus still associating themselves with the prayer life of Israel (compare Luke 24:53 and the actions of Peter and Cornelius, the God-fearer, in Acts 10:9, 30; 11:5, where the liberating vision is accorded to Peter in the context of prayer).
“When the Seven are appointed to serve tables, this is done to allow the Twelve to engage in “prayer and ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Note the order of terms here: Luke clearly suggests that prayer is as important for the life of the Christian apostle as “the ministry of the word,” i.e. the preaching of the Christian message. For he boldly takes over and makes part of Christian life two features of Jewish piety, prayer and almsgiving, suggesting that they rise before God as a memorial (Acts 10:2–4).
“Luke does not hesitate to supply an example of Christian prayer, addressed to God as the Sovereign Lord (despota), in which he is recognized to be the creator, the inspirer of David in the composition of the psalms, and fashioner of the plan of salvation that saw its realization in the death of Jesus. It begs of God that disciples may be emboldened to preach the Christian message about him and his Anointed One fearlessly in the face of threats from kings and rulers and to heal in the name of his servant Jesus (Acts 4:24–30). Here one sees the sort of prayer that Luke has formulated on behalf of Peter and John, a petition for courage and boldness, that the disciples may carry out the roles expected of them. But the prayer becomes the context of their being filled with the holy Spirit.
“Just as important episodes in the life of Jesus took place in the context of prayer, so too important events in the life of the early community occur in the same context. The early Christians beg God to manifest his choice of a successor for Judas in the casting of lots (1:24); they pray earnestly for the deliverance of Peter from the hands of Herod Agrippa (12:5). Prayer accompanies the imposition of hands, as the Seven are appointed by the apostles (6:6) and as Barnabas and Saul are set apart for their mission (13:3); it also accompanies the appointment of elders in every church by these two (14:23).
“Nor does Luke pass over the place of prayer in the life of Paul, the hero of the latter part of Acts. Having been struck blind on the road to Damascus, his initiation into Christian life is begun as he is at prayer and accorded a vision of Ananias coming to help him (9:11; cf. 22:17), i.e. that he might regain his sight and be filled with the holy Spirit. Though he carries the Christian message to the Gentiles, he is presented insisting on his worship of the God of “our fathers” (24:14; cf. 27:23). His departure from the Ephesian elders summoned to Miletus takes place only after he has fallen to his knees to pray with them (20:36; cf. 21:5).
“Thus Luke does not hesitate to insist in diverse ways on the need of prayer in Christian life and on its varied forms and occasions. What begins in his account as a manifestation of Temple piety is made into a characteristic of Christian life—dependence on God and his Anointed, manifested now on both a common and an individual basis as a mode of communing with them. The reason for this exhortation to prayer in the Lucan writings is best expressed in the Gospel (22:46), when Jesus finds his disciples asleep while he himself prayed, “Get up and pray so that you may not be subjected to temptation” (peirasmos). Ceaseless prayer is demanded of them lest apostasy be their lot. For this communing with God is the mark of their faith, as Luke 18:1–8 makes clear: God will vindicate those who cry out to him, but will the Son of Man find faith on the earth when he comes? (Joseph A Fitzmyer SJ, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), Yale University Press, 2008, 244-247.)
In 1990 I visited China as the guest of the late Bishop Aloysius Jin of Shanghai. (He died on 27 April 2013 at the age of 96.) It was a remarkable experience, mostly because I met remarkable people. One of them was the bishop himself. He was a Jesuit and when he returned to China in 1951, after studying in Rome, he was arrested in 1955 and remained a prisoner of the Communist Party until 1982. For the first five years of his imprisonment, Bishop Jin told me he was “interrogated” from 8pm until 2am each day, six days a week. He said he spent thirteen years in solitary confinement and the rest of his imprisonment under house arrest. The man had extraordinary endurance.
Brother Damien, an elderly Chinese Marist Brother, was also a man of endurance. I sat opposite him at the meal table and I shall never forget the moment he fixed me in his gaze. He had an extraordinary sparkle in his eyes and a slight smile on his face. Grasping the front of his shirt he said in broken English, “They can’t do anything me now!” It was a humble but strong and definite statement of triumph. He had spent some thirty seven years in gaol.
Endurance is probably something of a national trait in China. It is certainly a most evident trait of the many thousands of Christians who persevered in their faith under imprisonment and torture in China. The same could be said of Christians from various other cultures and countries – many of them living amongst us here in Australia.
In fact, endurance is there in all those people who are faithful, who keep turning up for life, not just wilfully and gracelessly but willingly and gracefully. I think particularly of wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, who daily fulfil their commitments in marriage. It is heroic, really. But if you say that to these people, invariably the response is simply: “It’s what you do” There is something deeply human about this. It is the stuff of what actually makes us noble.
“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Among other things, this is a call to endurance. St Paul picks up the essence of it in his beautiful hymn to love: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1Corinthians 13:4-7)
What do you think distinguishes the wilful, graceless endurance from the willing and graceful endurance?