October 16, 2016
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Exodus 17:8-13
Soldiers do not welcome battle. No one wants to be on the field in the dreaded contest of two evenly matched armies fighting to the death. Yet battles are not always avoidable. We could dodge and stall and send diplomats, but at some point such efforts fail and the fight begins. Life would be so easy if we had no battles to fight, no enemies to confront. But we find ourselves in the midst of a constant, daily battle—a struggle between darkness and light. Our hearts are the battlefield and we have become participants in the battle, with or without our consent. Both sides are intent on bringing us into their camps. To stand still and avoid the battle is to pick a side. We have to move, to join up with one army or the other.
In this Sunday’s first reading, we find the Israelites at the outset of their long journey from Egypt to the Holy Land. God has just aided them in crossing the Red Sea. He has fended off the Egyptians and even given them manna from the sky and pure water to drink from the Rock of Horeb. Yet a new enemy crops up, the descendants of Amalek, a son of Esau (Jacob’s brother). The Amalekites, though relatives of the Israelites, have no joy in this new people’s presence in their pasturelands. Fearing that the Israelites and their flocks will eat them out of house and home, the Amalekites come on the offensive. A good defense is the best offense, after all. Yet the Amalekites are treacherous cowards, who attack the rear of the Israelite column (Deut 25:18). They mercilessly cut down the stragglers, who can’t keep up with the main Israelite group, likely women, children and the elderly. Their tactic is similar to Julius Caesar’s assault on the Helvetii rear when three quarters of their force had crossed the river Arar and only one quarter was left to fend him off. Caesar won the battle, but no honor.
Moses’ Hands of Faith
The Israelite army turns to battle Amalek in response to their provocation, but this will be no ordinary battle. Moses is the Israelites’ secret weapon. He perches up on a hill overlooking the field of battle. When his hands are raised, the battle goes in the Israelites’ favor, but when his hands are lowered, it goes against them. Now God had used Moses’ uplifted hands to bring down plagues on Egypt and to part the Red Sea, but why does he use them now? God could have granted victory to Israel’s army without any hand gestures. Yet then the soldiers could claim victory for themselves since God’s action would have been in no way visible. By making their success totally dependent on the direction Moses’ arms were pointing, the Lord demonstrates that the battle belongs to him. No man can claim to be the author of victory, only the Lord.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil
We too have enemies that fight for our very souls, enemies the New Testament defines as the world, the flesh and the devil (see Eph 2:1-3). Israel defeated Amalek on that day by God’s power, but the Amalekites would come back again and again to harass Israel down through the years. They reappear in the battles of Gideon, in the life of King Saul, in David’s exploits and even much later in the time of Hezekiah. The point is, this enemy didn’t go away and in fact, after our reading, the Lord declares enmity with them “generation to generation” (Exod 17:16). Just like the Amalekites’ ongoing war with Israel, our enemies have no plans to give up. They will be there to confront us, to challenge us, to tempt us every day for the rest of our lives. We never reach a point on our spiritual journey where all temptation evaporates and serving the Lord becomes a smooth coast. Not only that, but our enemies are treacherous just like the Amalekites or Caesar. They will come after us when we are least expecting. The Israelites had just received the miraculous gifts of manna and water in the desert. After this spiritual mountaintop, Amalek comes to kick them. We should expect no less from the spiritual enemies that confront us.
Fighting the Battle on Our Knees
Yet we have to remember that “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12 RSV). Humans are not the enemy, but dark angels. We cannot win the war on our own. We cannot stand up to temptation by ourselves. We need to fight, yes, but our fighting must be done on the battlefield of our hearts, with total reliance on the Lord’s help. Paul teaches us, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13 RSV). The Lord is with us, clothing us with “armor” to protect us (see Ephesians 6). Moses, the ancient prophet, did not grab his sword and join the fray, but instead sought the Lord on the mountain. His prayer saved the day.
We cannot allow ourselves to be drawn into self-reliance as if our effort, our virtue, our fidelity will win out. Only reliance on God will bring the victory. Indeed, “whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith” (1 John 5:4 RSV). We might not welcome the battle, but now that we have found unavoidably ourselves in it, we might as well arm up by getting on our knees.