FROM A READING FOR OCT. 16, 29TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
'Will not God grant justice to His chosen ones who cry to Him day and night? Will He delay long in helping them?...' -- Luke 18:1-8

We have to be careful how we interpret Sunday's Exodus (17:8-13) reading.

One of my Catholic grade-school teachers encouraged us to pray with upraised hands, like Moses, if we wanted to make certain God would hear our prayers and grant our requests. I'm afraid that teacher never heard of ancient "fertility cults." The biblical prophets certainly did; they constantly warned their people against employing such religious practices.

One of my Scripture professors once defined fertility cults as simple answers to complicated questions, comparing them to modern TV commercials. Having trouble getting a date? Just change your toothpaste! Is your life boring? You're probably driving the wrong car!

The goal of fertility cults is simple: If you use special words or employ special actions the proper number of times, God is forced to give you whatever you ask. He has no choice. It's akin to holding a piece of kryptonite in front of Superman.

Stay away
That's why biblical Jews were forbidden to do anything that even smacked of fertility cults: to plow a field with a donkey and ox yoked together, wear garments made from two different kinds of material or even boil a kid goat to death in its mother's milk. The prophets were convinced that no one should engage in any rituals which attempted to control God's actions in their lives. The Chosen People were expected to relate to their God, not control God.

Though Scripture scholars can't agree on the meaning of Moses' raised hands in our first reading, they're certain his gestures have nothing to do with controlling God's actions during the battle.

Luke's Jesus enters the fertility cult fray (Luke 18:1-8) by insisting that those who have a proper relationship with God shouldn't have to worry about using gimmicks to have their prayers answered. God isn't a judge who will cave in under pressure.

On the contrary, God is always interested in "securing the rights of His chosen ones." The question doesn't revolve around God's response to our prayers; it's about the frame of mind with which we say those prayers: "When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on Earth?"

Interpreting Scripture
Serious students of Scripture couldn't agree more with the emphasis put on the importance of Scripture in Sunday's II Timothy (3:14-4:2) passage. The author is certain "all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work."

Of course, the author is referring only to the Hebrew Scriptures. (The Christian Scriptures wouldn't be regarded as "inspired" for another 150 years!) And the author is certainly not thinking about using those writings just as a source of "proof texts." The sacred writer obviously wants us to imitate the faith of those who composed them. Their faith is the word we should be "proclaiming, whether convenient or inconvenient."

As a child, I used to worry about my non-Catholic cousins' eternal salvation. They knew nothing about receiving communion on nine straight first Fridays, making novenas to the Blessed Virgin or gaining plenary indulgences. And my mother once received a St. Joseph novena prayer card from a well-meaning friend who warned, "You had better want what you're praying for to St. Joseph. You're going to receive it, whether you want it or not."

Catholics are obviously cornering the kryptonite market.