29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
29th Sun OrdT 2019: Exod 17.8-1 | Ps 121.1-8 | 2 Tm 3.14-4.1 | Lk 18.1-8
David G. Schultenover, S.J., to St. Benedict the Moor Church, Milwaukee, 10.20.19
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18.8)
Whenever I read from Luke, I like to give the passage context by reminding myself of Luke’s most prominent themes. Essentially, Luke is the Gospel of the Holy Spirit.
It begins with the infancy narrative of John the Baptist, Jesus’ precursor. His elderly mother, Elizabeth, is barren, but his father, Zachary, a priest, chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary to burn incense, has a vision of an angel, who tells him that his wife will bear him a son to be named John, and “he will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb.”
So Luke begins by telling us that the Holy Spirit will initiate the incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus of Nazareth. And New Testament theology tells us that divine act this would also initiate the process of the re-creation of the fallen world.
Here Luke was following the pattern of the Hebrew Bible, which begins with the creation account in Genesis: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and earth,” there was only “darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters [of chaos].” The Hebrew for “a mighty wind” is literally translated “the spirit or breath [ruach] of God.”
Throughout Luke the Holy Spirit shows up thematically. So too in Luke-Acts the Holy Spirit, announced in Acts 1, founds the church in Acts 2 by baptizing its earliest members with tongues of fire and then continues to appear throughout Acts. The Holy Spirit is God in history, God in time as well as in eternity.
This is Luke’s way of drawing out the implications of the very last verse of Matthew’s Gospel, where the risen Jesus appears and says to his disciples: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
And in John’s Last Supper account, Jesus delivers his final discourse—three chapters—teaching his disciples about the Holy Spirit’s role in the life of the believer. And after the resurrection, Jesus appears to his disciples traumatized by his crucifixion and hiding behind locked doors and greets them: “Peace, peace, peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said . . . , ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” This is the moment when hope arrives—when we stop retaining sins and forgive them.
Breath, in Hebrew, is ruach, which, in English, becomes spirit. So Jesus breathes his own ruach, his Spirit, on them and sends them to continue his mission to the world.
Two other prominent theses in Luke are compassion and hospitality. These are closely aligned, as a compassionate person will be hospitable. A key moment for Luke comes when he concludes his version of the beatitudes by changing Matthew’s conclusion to his beatitudes: In Matthew, where Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Luke’s Jesus says, “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate.” So for Luke’s Jesus, to be compassionate is to be perfect.
Scripture scholar Marcus Borg points out that the Aramaic root of compassion is the word used for a mother’s womb. In other words, the Aramaic-speaking Jesus would have said, “Be wombish as your heavenly father is wombish.” And Jesus would have intended the rich connotation arising from the love a mother has for the child of her womb that leads her to give her own life to her infant, and, in birth, to send her baby into the world, to grow in freedom and become in due course another life-giver, God’s co-creator. All this richness is contained in ruach, life-breath, God’s spirit.
And all this, and more, has much to do with Jesus’ parable about praying always. The parable features a widow who is apparently on her own, because in her culture, if she had had a male adult child to look after her, he would have appeared before the judge to plead his mother’s case. In her culture the court was male space. But he wasn’t there, so she pleads on her own, with the wombishness of a mother—meaning she will never give up. And the judge knows this, so he gives in—not doing the right thing by making her life easier but by making his own life easier.
You may well have puzzled over Jesus’ injunction, “Pray always without growing weary.” Really?! How can anyone do this? Especially when so often our prayers seem to go unanswered. Oh, we’ve often been told that God always answers our prayers, just not in the way we want. And my faith tells me this is true.
However, I have come to think a bit differently about prayer since coming to the richness of Luke-Acts and other biblical writings. I now think of “praying always” something like this: All birth is an act of God, originating new life, a new creation. I mean, when you think about life, don’t you wonder where it comes from? I don’t mean in the sense of the natural process of life being passed on by sexual intercourse and subsequent development of the embryo, etcetera. In that process, the parents are instruments of the new life coming to birth and eventually adulthood, where the newly arrived adults repeat the process. I mean the very reality of life itself. Yes, the sperm and ovum are themselves living, but they’re not self-sustaining, and when they unite in the appropriate environment, they produce a new living entity that, given the proper environment, will continue living and soon produce a detectable heartbeat, all of which is enabled by wombishness.
But I suspect that none of us claims the power to originate the very life we live and pass on, as if we gave life to ourselves. Our common sense about the origin of the very reality of life is elevated by the gift of our faith to what we confess in the last section of our Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.”
So there you have it in a nutshell. The Holy Spirit, the Holy Ruach, the Holy Breath is the origin of life. And as long as we breathe, we are praying by the Holy Ruach. Every breath, in and out, is by the Holy Spirit. As Paul tells us in Romans 8.26: “In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit [God’s self] intercedes with inexpressible groanings.”
Every breath, in and out, is the Holy Ruach’s breathing in us. And when we come to breathe our last in this life, we simultaneously breathe our first in that fullness of life for which we were born.
The breath of life is the breath of God. And prayer is the Holy Ruach / Holy Breath / Holy Spirit always breathing within us, thereby enabling us to pray always and not grow weary.
Let us stand and profess the faith we hold in common.