I’m back…keep your snarky comments to yourselves. Today’s readings can be found here. I can’t remember the entire homily; there’s a section from part two that I know I’m missing – but this is a fairly close approximation of what I gave. Enjoy.
Did you ever notice that if we refer to someone by three names, it’s generally a bad sign for that person? John Wayne Gacy: possibly America’s most notorious serial killer. Not a good person. Lee Harvey Oswald. Presidential assassin. Not a good person. Michael Patrick Conway – probably innocent, but if she’s using all three names, Mom’s mad, so you know there’s going to be trouble…
Ever hear of Luke Timothy Johnson?
He’s not a presidential assassin, and not a serial killer…he’s a scripture scholar. (It’s unclear if he’s in trouble with his mother.). Dr. Johnson is widely regarding as an expert – perhaps the leading English-speaking expert – on the writings of Saint Luke: both his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Combined, they make up about a quarter of the entire New Testament, so it’s worth saying that Johnson is kind of a smart guy.
He and I are fighting.
He doesn’t know that, of course, and he probably doesn’t care what I think, but it is what it is. Look, I think he’s a good scholar. Since we’ve been reading so much from Luke at Sunday Mass recently – and during the week as well – I’ve had plenty of occasion to refer to his commentaries. And they’re very helpful. He breaks down the Greek text very neatly, puts things into context, shows where there are parallels to the Old Testament…but this week there was a slight aberration. After proving a very nice exegesis of this parable, Johnson concludes his remarks by saying, “We are meant, I think, to laugh.”
First of all, that’s a weasel move. Either we’re meant to laugh or we’re not; don’t throw that conditional in there. Secondly – and more importantly – no we aren’t. Jesus is very serious when it comes to prayer, and a scholar should know that. Eight different times in Luke’s gospel, Jesus goes apart from his disciples to pray; seven other times we see him teaching his disciples about prayer. It’s important to him, and so this story isn’t just for comic relief. Yes, it’s a ridiculous image. I have an image in my head of some little old lady going to the mayor of Pittsburgh’s house (I know, not a judge, but work with me) and banging on the door until he answers – and when he does, she smacks him right in the ridiculous beard of his with a purse and maybe throws a cat at him or something. It’s amusing, and it’s certainly over the top – but that’s how Jesus wants our prayer life to look.
He wants us to be very bold, very demanding, very insistent in our prayer. But so often, we’re not. Too often, we don’t even make prayer the first place we go to – indeed, it becomes sort of a last resort. That’s definitely how I made it through the seminary: the night before the exam, sitting at my desk, alternating between staring at my notes and staring at my crucifix, saying, “Help me Lord, I’m an idiot!” You could almost hear a voice replying, “I know. What were you waiting for?” We have to call the real estate agent in the morning – should we put in a counter offer on the house or not? Lord, what should we do? What were you waiting for? Should I take that new job and move away or not? I have to call the hiring manager in the morning – Lord, what should I do? What were you waiting for?
We’ve bought into the myth that we have to take ownership of everything ourselves. I have a decision to make, so I’m going to do all my research, I’m going to talk to my friends and relatives, I’ll Google this, I’ll Wikipedia that, I’ll make a chart with all the pros and cons or whatever…and in the end, we still can’t do it without God. Believe it or not, God does not want to see you being so stressed out and tired and so on. He wants your happiness, and that can only happen if your life is rooted in Him. So he asks us to pray, and pray persistently, that we might always be welcoming Him into our hearts.
There’s another aspect of prayer that we need to consider today, as well, and that is that there’s a communal aspect to it. It’s certainly acceptable to pray by yourself – in fact, that’s a necessity – but our Lord also expects to come together to pray. That’s why He called us to be a church in the first place. The first reading makes this clear in powerful fashion. Moses sends Joshua and the army into battle against Amalek and his army, and as he does so, Moses begins to pray for them. Now, he could have prayed for them right there in the camp. But instead he went up to a hilltop so that he would be in full view of everyone – not so much that he could see the battle, but that the people might see him at prayer and be inspired to join their prayers to his. It got to the point that his arms grew so tired that Aaron and Hur had to physically support him so that the battle would continue to go in Israel’s favor – if it’s not obvious that the community needs to pray together, then I don’t know how else to state it.
The example of the widow in the Gospel is also telling. The Mosaic law was quite clear that there were three types of people that you were to never exploit: widows, orphans, and resident aliens. In fact, the law was doubly clear: not only were you to secure the rights of these three classes, but there would be a curse upon you if you did not. So not only do we have a problem with this dishonest judge, but we have to ask, where are her neighbors? Where is the community?
We don’t always necessarily like community, though. Not in a real sense, anyway. We don’t want to be vulnerable around others, and that’s partially what prayer is – an exercise in vulnerability. If people see me praying, what will they think of me? That I don’t have it all together? That I haven’t figured everything out? That I’m not entirely self-reliant but instead, I need God? I mean, think about this: when was the last time you were out at a restaurant and saw people saying grace before they ate? When was the last time you did that? It’s weird, right? It’s weird even for me. (Most Sunday nights, I get together with a couple of my priest buddies and we just kind of decompress from the weekend and grab something to eat, and there’s always people who look at us funny when we pray. This could also be because we’re at Buffalo Wild Wings, but whatever.)
There was a discussion going on Catholic Twitter towards the end of last week that I stayed out of, but was still interesting. A priest that I sort of know from Indianapolis is of the opinion that we don’t necessarily have a shortage of priests (we do, he’s wrong); but that we have too many Sunday Masses (we do, he’s right). Studies show that the average American Catholic church is only a third full for a given Sunday Mass. The unofficial rule in this diocese is that if the Mass is less than half full, you should look at cutting it. But we “need” all these Sunday Masses because we want to be able to go when it’s convenient, or when parking is better, or when we know we won’t have to see so-and-so, or we can get to breakfast easily afterwards…
Jesus expects us to be very bold, demanding, and persistent in our prayer. And that’s why his final question in the gospel is so important. When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? For the last few weeks, faith has been a recurring theme in the Gospel. The more time I spend thinking about faith, the more I become convinced that faith is as much a verb as it is a noun. Which is to say, maybe we don’t necessarily have faith as much as we DO faith. Faith is defined as man’s response to God, and it seems that prayer is the simplest, most direct form that response can take. But it also seems to be something that we need to work at. So the question that Jesus poses is, indeed, a good one:
When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
I don’t know…will He?