Jesus invited his disciples to pray continually and never lose heart. There is no watering down the challenge that this invitation presents to our lives. All too easily we relegate prayer to the time that is left over when we have concluded the business of the day. Realistically this will often mean that, after the demands of work and family, prayer scarcely gets a mention. We can even absolve ourselves with the presumption that our work for others is God’s work, and therefore our work is our prayer.
The Scriptures today invite an honest consideration of the place given to prayer in our lives. The Book of Exodus describes the wandering tribes of Israel under attack from the Amalekites. As the events unfolded there were two activities in perfect balance. The fighting men took to the field under the command of Joshua. Moses climbed the hill, extending the staff of God over the developing engagement.
In what seemed to border almost on the magical, the forces of Israel prevailed so long as the arms of Moses remained extended over the battle. When the staff of God was lowered, the battle began to turn against Israel.
Primitive though this image might appear, it has always been understood, in both Jewish and Christian piety, as an invitation both to prayer and to action. Moses’s prayer for Israel needed men in the field if it were to succeed. Joshua, and those who fought with him, could only overcome so long as the arms of Moses remained extended in prayer. Prayer and action work together and are intimately linked.
The story, though primitive, invites us to examine our lives. Without a background of prayer we tend to be consumed by the things that must be done. The dangers are all too obvious. We can become overwhelmed in our own world, tempted to feel that we stand alone in the struggle to survive in a complex world. Only in prayer, the staff of Moses reaching over our lives, do we begin to realise that we are not alone, that the Lord watches over us. In the words of the responsorial psalm: “The Lord is your guard and your shade, at your right hand he stands.” Such prayer, far from detracting from the many things that must be done, gives a proper perspective to our lives. A loving God does not stand at a distance from our struggles. He longs to reveal himself in the unfolding of our lives. Prayer breaks through the tyranny of what must be done. It allows God, rather than our work, to be our salvation and the measure of our lives.
The Gospel, with its parable of the unjust judge broken down by the persistent widow, is a further exhortation to prayer. We should not allow the details of the parable to distract us from its main point, an invitation to prayer. Prayer without ceasing is to be understood as a state of mind rather than the literal description of an activity. A prayerful spirit is always open to God and habitually understands itself as dependent upon his grace. It lives in the confident expectation that God’s kingdom is to be realised in every moment of our lives.
At the conclusion of the parable about the need to pray continually Jesus posed a challenging question. “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?” Expressed in other words: does an attitude of prayer lay our lives before God in the confident expectation that he is present?