|July 27-28, 2019, Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C|
As little Deborah sat down to eat dinner with her parents she instinctively reached for her fork. "Please hold on," her father replied. "We haven't said grace yet." This exasperated the girl, who was tired and hungry. "Daddy," she said with a sigh, "why can't we just pray once a week? Why do we have to ask for our daily bread every day?" Her older brother, wiser and eager to set her straight, weighed in before the dad could answer. "You don't think we want stale bread, do you?" he said.
Today’s readings focus on prayer. But I suspect that what they are saying about prayer is very different from what most people think they are saying. It is very easy to hear that story of Abraham and God in the first reading, and think it is telling us that we can change even God’s mind by being persistent. And many hear the story from the Gospel about the neighbor trying to borrow the bread the same way: to get God to grant our petitions we need to persist, even to the point of being annoying. As I look at my own prayer life and hear others share something about theirs, the overwhelming type of prayer is one of petition, in most cases a very specific petition: Cure this cancer; help this marriage; let my child make it home safely. There is a definite feeling that “If I can pray hard enough or long enough, with the right words or posture or state of grace, then I can get God to grant my petition”.
I would like to suggest a different way of hearing these stories of prayer.
The story of Abraham questioning God is not really about Abraham haggling with God and getting him to change his mind. In the first place, God does not spare Sodom, does he? The two angels who go ahead to destroy Sodom only find 4 innocents: Lot, his wife, and his two daughters. This exchange is really about Abraham learning that this God who has promised to make him into a great nation is just. This God knows the difference between innocence and sinfulness, and will not harm innocent people even if it means letting the sinful go unpunished for the moment.
If we look closely at the whole Gospel passage we just heard, I think you will see that the last paragraph that talks about “how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” underlies the whole section. Receiving the Holy Spirit does not mean getting some magic power that lets us change the situation we are praying about. It means being able to see the situation more as God does. It means being able to let go of the fear or anxiety or desire to control so that we can see more clearly what God's plan is, and therefore let's us become more effective instruments in bringing about God's plan. Our praying is not to change God, but to change us, to make us more aware of the breaking into our lives of God’s kingdom of love, and justice, and mercy.
And if we look at these readings more closely we can also see that they are not simply about teaching us how to pray so that we know how to pray. There is an aspect of mission involved. God enters into dialogue with Abraham, revealing who God is, because Abraham is to be a great nation who reveals God’s mercy and justice to the whole world. Jesus is the incarnation of God. He reveals in his life the love and care and forgiveness of the Father. For the previous six chapters Luke has been narrating the nature of this kingdom, which breaks down the boundaries between rich and poor, healthy and sick, male and female, saint and sinner. Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray because when he goes back to the Father, these disciples will be the ones who reveal to the world this kingdom of God.
By our Baptism, we are now given the mission to complete what Jesus came to start. Now that he is no longer in this world, we are the ones who must make God visible so that those around us can have a human encounter with Christ, so that the whole world can enter into God’s kingdom. And not just when we die and go to heaven. We sang as our response to these readings: “ Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me." We are called by baptism to be the instruments God uses to answer those who call on the Lord for help, today. We are to help God's kingdom come fully, here and now.
So let us pray in a way that opens our minds to be more like the mind of God. Let us add to our prayers of petition, prayers of praise and thanksgiving, and most importantly, prayers of listening. Let us become attentive to the signs of the kingdom breaking in all around us, even in the midst of such evil and tragedy as the death of Jesus on the cross. Let us pray as Jesus does, with confidence that our Father hears us and is eager to give us what is good for us, protecting us. Then will Our Father's name be hallowed, and then will God's will be done here on earth.