29th Sunday of the Year
But when the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?
This question posed by Jesus at the end of today’s Gospel may sound almost like an interruption or sudden shift in his thought, an interesting question but one which, at first glance, may seem to have little or nothing to do with what precedes it in this Gospel passage, the parable of the persistent woman who finally gets justice from a corrupt judge. Moreover, it seems to be a question having more to do with the end of time – whether there will be any faith left on the earth when Christ returns to judge the world. But does this question have anything to do with the parable that Jesus has just presented, which clearly is teaching us about perseverance in prayer here and now, at this point in time?
What exactly is Jesus doing, then, by suddenly introducing at the end of this parable an eschatological issue regarding a possible massive loss of faith at the end of time – does it have any possible relevance to what Jesu has just been trying to teach us about persistence in prayer while seeking justice?
Today’s Gospel reading appears just as we are approaching the end of the Church’s liturgical year, and it’s quite fitting that the Gospels will now be turning to issues connected with the end of time, issues like the final judgment and things like that. However, Jesus was not speaking these words about faith nor was Luke recounting these words with our 20th Century liturgical calendar in mind. Nonetheless, there seems no denying that the final words of today’s Gospel about faithlessness do seem to have a reference to the end of time and the final judgement. For Jesus refers this question about faith on the earth to his second coming – “when the Son of Man comes” – which is clearly a reference to his coming for the final judgement. The question here, then, is will Jesus find faith on the earth when he comes to judge the living and the dead?
But referring this question’s relevance exclusively to the end of time seems jarring and seems to make it incomprehensible why he should place this question right after this particular parable and why the Church today chooses to include this question after this parable, since the Gospel could have ended without it without causing too much notice. So the fact that the Church chose to include this line with the parable certainly suggests that the Church herself sees some relation of this question about faith to the lesson of perseverance in the parable Jesus has presented in this Gospel.
Now this parable clearly has to do with Jesus’ teaching about prayer, and in this case the prayer of petition, and more specifically here a petition for justice. Justice is one of the things people often pray for, especially when they have been wronged, or we see others gravely wronged. And so people pray for God to bring about the justice they can’t get for themselves. This prayer in fact is an important means for avoiding temptations to take the law into our own hands at times, when earthly justice fails, but doing so often leads to further injustice and social lawlessness.
The parable also teaches us about the importance of persevering in our prayers for justice and not giving up, as if we do not firmly believe that God is just and will in the end establish justice in this world. The words “believe” and “in the end” are critical here for understanding this teaching of Jesus. The woman only gets justice from this dishonest judge because she perseveres, she keeps coming to him with her petition, which he sees as threatening an unending “bothering” of himself unless he gives her what she asks for, that is, justice. The point is obvious, and Jesus is very straightforward here in explaining this point. If a dishonest judge gives justice because the woman “bothers” him with constant petitions, he says, “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?
There are two basic points here, then, which teach us the necessity of faith in order to pray properly; first, the firm conviction of faith that God requires us to pray often and without ceasing – to persevere – for great goods like justice, which we hope to receive from Him, and, second, the firm conviction of faith that God is a God of justice who does not allow injustice to triumph forever, the conviction of faith that sooner or later, in this world or in the next, justice will be rendered by God, that God will restore the full order of justice in his creation. We must not underestimate just how important these two truths of faith are for personal holiness and for social harmony and peace in this world.
We must learn that one simply does not pray fruitfully without perseverance, and that one will not persevere in prayer without faith, without that deep faith that God always hears our prayers, and requires us, for our own good, for our own growth in holiness, to persevere in prayer. Often people will pray briefly, but without much faith, when a calamity strikes – recall how filled our churches were right after Sept. 11, 2001. But such prayer is always short lived without a deep faith, because prayer in such times can simply be an emotional response to a tragedy or terrible violence, and no emotionally driven acts, including prayers, persist very long.
Likewise, one will not persevere in prayer for justice unless one has a deep faith in God as a God who hates iniquity and loves justice as well as a firm belief that God always hears the cry of the poor and the victims of injustice in this world and will correct this injustice in his good time, either in this life or the life to come. If we are to persist in prayer in such situations, we must firmly believe that God will in fact restore justice in his own way, either through actually helping people to restore the balance of justice in this world or by punishing the unrepentant perpetrators of injustice in eternity, and by personally compensating the victims of this injustice by a greater reward in His Kingdom.
Nothing in such a faith denies or contradicts the mercy of God, for if doers of injustice repent in this life, God will always show them his mercy by a forgiveness that also entails their doing their best to compensate their victims. And in so far as they cannot fully compensate their victims, as in the case of murder, even mass murder, God will again show his great mercy by producing His own much greater compensation to their victims. But neither will justice be ignored by the extension of God’s mercy. The truth is, it will be more wonderfully assured by God’s mercy. Justice will be perfected by the compensation of mercy, and, if necessary, by the punishment of the unjust who do not repent.
If we believe that God wants us to pray perseveringly for justice in this world, not just for ourselves, but for all mankind, and if we truly believe that God is a God of justice as well as of mercy, and that God will surely restore justice sooner or later, in his own way, by his justice and mercy, then I will surely learn to pray with persistence and trust God, and not resort to violence, just as the woman continued to barrage the unjust judge until she got her justice at last.
So, when Jesus asks whether there will be faith when he returns, he is simply asking first whether there will still be persevering prayer of the kind seen in the parable, and secondly, He is asking us whether we really believe that God will bring justice to those who ask him in this way. This question about faith at the end of time, then, is not at all unrelated to the parable that Jesus has just spoken. For without faith, man will not continue to pray and will not entrust to God the final resolution of unrequited injustices, for some injustices are never in our power to fully rectify in this world. Indeed, there are many, many injustices that only God’s mercy can compensate, and thus restore justice.
When we see people apparently “getting away” with injustices in this world, do we really think that in the end these injustices will not be rectified by God? Faith assures us that all such injustices will surely be rectified by his just punishment for the unrepentant sinner and by his merciful reward for victims who never themselves received real justice in this world. We must entrust such things to God rather than taking matters into our own hands, which we can be sorely tempted to do when the public authority fails us in such matters.
Praying for justice is a true Christian approach to injustice. We must pray and pray, without ceasing to seek for justice. And in the cases where we ourselves do not have the just and peaceful means for attaining justice, because public authority fails, we must entrust the pursuit of justice to God. Public authorities have, by God’s will, the duty to take care of the common good, including the order of justice. Where these institutions fail, we must continue to pray and entrust to God the final restoration of the whole order of justice when Jesus returns in glory.
Such Christian faith not only keeps us praying, but keeps us from taking justice into our own private hands and violating the law of God by our self-appointment as God’s vindicator. That is the terrible and reprehensible error of all brutal revolutionaries and terrorists in this world, an error that we must avoid, and we will surely avoid it, if we pray with perseverance and believe in what we are praying for, that is, for God’s true justice in God’s good time.