The Prayers of the Saints
When Moses and God met on Mt. Sinai the fate of the whole world hung on a line.
If you remember the story, the Lord had just rescued the Israelites from slavery, led them through the red sea, and promised a kingdom. After everything, however, they rejected God and turned to a golden calf. They were far from repentant, and they hadn’t a clue how to pull themselves out of their mess. Everything rested on one man, Moses, and on this meeting between him and God.
God begins: “How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me…I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
Moses replies: “I pray, let the power of my Lord be great, just as You have spoken, saying, ‘The Lord is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression’…Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy.”
God responds: “I have pardoned, according to your word.”
What has happened here? God, The Arbiter of Justice, declares the doom of a nation. Moses, who is called ‘the most meek man on earth,’ challenges God. Then, even more shocking, God answers back to Moses, “Thy will be done,” and the people are saved.
We see here one of the first examples of a man interceding for others. When Moses climbed up the mountain he bore on His shoulders the nation of Israel, and He pleaded on their behalf. Again, the Israelites weren’t repentant, but Moses was, and in God’s eyes, this was good enough to save them all.
There’s another story in the II Book of Maccabees, where we see a similar instance of men interceding for others. The Jews had fought a great battle against their enemies, and were victorious. But after this battle, when the victors went to gather their dead, they found a number of superstitious charms and idols around the necks of some of the slain Jews. Their leader, Judas, was grieved about this and he worried for their souls. So what did they do? The bible tells us, “[Judas] sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead.” The scripture continues, “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins” (II Maccabeus 12: 43-46).
Here we see a man who not only prays for unrepentant sinners, he prays for sinners who have already gone to the grave. There’s nothing ambiguous here. The scripture commends Judas and urges us likewise to pray for the departed. Once again, God accepts the prayers of one man for the salvation of many.
Finally, we can turn to our gospel reading today, and discover the same message.
Jesus Christ sets out to the city of Capernaum, where He preaches to a great crowd of people. Then, the crowd parts and a group approaches him, “carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed.” The details aren’t written out and we can only imagine the scene, but you can picture four or five men, bearing on their shoulders something like a cot, and stretched out on that cot is a sick man, unable to move in any way. The gospel accounts, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven…Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.’ The crippled man was healed. He arose, and walked home.
What stands out in this passage is the fact that the paralytic never said a word. It doesn’t mention whether he had any faith at all. Perhaps he wasn’t even aware of Jesus Christ. Maybe. Maybe not. What we do know is that Jesus “saw their faith,” and that was enough to save the cripple. They bore the man’s sickness on their own shoulders, like Moses bearing the Israelites in his ascent up Mt. Sinai, and Judas offering sacrifices on behalf of his dead soldiers. Each brought to God a man, or many men, begging the Lord to have mercy on them. God doesn’t reply, “Oh, mind your own business. You might have faith, but he’s got to pull up his own boots straps.” Rather God values the faith of His servants so much that he heals others through it.
The Israelites in the shadow of Mt. Sinai were oblivious to their sin. They waited in the valley like this cripple, unconscious, paralyzed, ignorant of the weight of their own deeds.
The Jews slain in the battle with idols around their necks were already in Sheol when Judas Maccabeus prayed on their behalf. They never moved a muscle to repent. They couldn’t, for their bodies were slain. So then it remained up to the living to pray on their behalf, and the prayers of the living redeemed the sins of the dead.
This morning, we’re reminded of the power of prayer. Four, five, six men gathered together and offered to Jesus their petition for another. Jesus heard their prayer, and he healed the man in need.
“Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord…Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:14-16).
St. Ambrose fleshes this out in a homily he once gave on the same scriptures. “Anyone who is sick should seek the help in prayer of others…Let there…be certain helpers of the soul, to raise the soul of man, even lying indifferent in weakness.”
This comes close to home for us this week, after we’ve just celebrated All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day back to back. On Tuesday we remembered the entire host of saints in heaven. They intercede for us, just as Revelation describes them, burning incense before the altar of God on behalf of us on earth. On Wednesday we remembered are brothers and sisters who have departed, and prayed for their souls, listing the names of loved ones one after the other. They too are part of our family and are alive in Christ. The Orthodox Church upholds what the Church has always taught through every century, that our God is the God of the living, and in Him there is no separation. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1), the living or sleeping that are one in Christ, interceding together for one another.
Do you feel weak and word down. Then turn to your brother or sister, or to a saint in heaven and ask for strength. For death cannot stop the power of prayer, and the saints intercede for us just as our own grandparents did in our youth.
And are our children, our loved ones, and our friends paralyzed by secularism or the spirit of our times, then we have to trust God that our prayers count. Like St. Monica begging God to have mercy on her son Augustine, the prayers of a faithful Christian avail much, whether they bear fruits in this life or the next.
And in light of our nation which has turned it’s back on God, we must not give up and stop our prayers. The election is only a couple days ahead, and just about everyone is anxious for the results. We can’t know what will come here and now, but we do know who is our Lord, and must trust that our prayers for one another and for the nation are heard by God. Have courage and pray. The rest belongs to God. So let Him have it.
Moses, Judas Maccabeus, and these men in our gospel story had faith in God and bore the sins of their loved ones on their shoulders. God saw their faith and healed the crippled.
So in this light, pray for one another and ask each for prayers. Have faith and trust in God that the prayers of His saints and ours for one another all work for the salvation of us all.