Will not God vindicate His elect,
Who cry to Him day and night?
I tell you He will vindicate them speedily.
Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes,
Will He find faith on earth?
God will always govern the world of men and nature through His sovereign providence, causing the sun to shine on the just and the unjust, directing the fate of the sparrow, sustaining by His will natural structures with their glorious reliability, but Christians are also assured that Our Father in heaven hears us, each of us, when we pray rightly (James 4:3). Every Christian will have been taught that there is more to prayer than petition. There is the great model given us by Our Lord, which teaches us to praise, giving God glory, and to ask forgiveness, but Jesus encourages His followers to pray for our needs and desires, assuring us that God always hears us and that if we pray in His Spirit He will grant those requests (I John 3:22). Our Lord says “Ask,” and the Gospel reading tells us to do so persistently (Matthew 7:11).
The story from Luke is a dramatic example of this teaching, for in it Jesus gives us the example of the unjust judge, who fears neither God nor man, but who finally grants the widow’s request because she is persistent, returning again and again to disturb the judge’s peace with her requests. We are given this image to encourage the belief that God will see and hear those who cry out to Him; that He will secure their rights and give them what they should have.
The story of the unjust judge ends with a question; Jesus asks: When the Son of man comes, will He find faith on earth? There is a shift in key, because the previous text refers to our individual requests, and to the supposition of faith that always accompanies them. Jesus transposes the question of the believing faith that moves mountains into a cosmic context. It is all very well to seek in faith the answer to our prayers, but in the end will anyone be praying; will there be any faith on earth? There is in the question the unavoidable, shocking implication that in the end the apostolic mission may fail in a historical sense. Of course that mission succeeded long ago; the kingdom of heaven is populated with martyrs, holy angels, and saints. We know that when He returns the dead in Christ will rise to meet Him. But will there be among the inhabitants of earth the living who will go out with them to meet the Lord in the air?
Jesus’ question remains before every people in every age. Will this be the time when, should Jesus now return, He would find on earth no one who believes in Him? We might reply that surely there will always be those who believe although their number be small, the faithful few. But Christ’s question presupposes that other possibility; there is no certainty that there will always be faith in Jesus because faith depends upon the persistent prayers that effect the formation of the will by hunger and thirst for righteousness and for its Author. And that fervent desire might fail. The world might be populated by a people whose eyes cannot be lifted above the horizon of comfort and self-interest. Saint Paul is vehement in Romans against those who do not listen to the voice of conscience and do not see the witness in the world to the existence and glory of God (1:18–23, 2:12–15). But they did not.
It is possible to imagine a world from which faith has faded. Suppose there were a people whose wise men taught them that nothing above the realm of sensation was knowable, that every claim to truth that transcends the obvious and incontestable, from patriotism to the Nicaean Creed, is mere opinion and God a superstition. And suppose those same wise men spoke and wrote as though the entire human tradition rooted in the past was a texture of error. And suppose further that this people were enmeshed in a world of sensate pleasure, so enchanted by the intriguing progress of technology that their thoughts could not be lifted above the horizon of the immediate. There might come a day when the human race had lost interest in the nobility of goodness or in the meaning of history or in the future or indeed in their own lives. To the degree that this might be the case, and the shadow of this world certainly lies before us, faith would be driven from the world.
With such a world looming, the persistence of the Church in faith is humankind’s hope. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus asked another question. He told those listening that they were the salt of the earth, and then asked, If the saltiness, the savor, has gone out of the world, by what shall it be salted? This short question has been Englished in many different ways, but may certainly refer to the responsibility of the Church for elevating the world above the flat, tasteless, blind ordinariness into which a world without God drifts, lifting the eye of every heart toward Christ our life and toward Our Father in heaven, giving that very gift of faith that dispels the grey indeterminacy of evil and paints life in the bright colors of a sure and certain hope.
As the Church existing in such a world the first Christian responsibility is not to be seduced by its false reasonableness and its demonic confusions of generosity of spirit with toleration, of equity with equality, and of charity with habitually prescinding from moral discrimination.