THE SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C


Genesis 18:20-32

Colossians 2:12-14

Luke 11:1-13

He asked me if I prayed.  What an odd question, I thought.  I’m a seminarian, aren’t I, preparing to be a priest.  So I said, Of course, I pray. But my confessor persisted and asked: How?

I never forgot that evening of spiritual direction.  The how question threw me.  I stammered and finally came up with the rosary and some other prayers that I had memorized and now said frequently.  It became clear that my answer was not satisfactory.  That sounds like sitting down with a friend and the only conversation you have is from someone else’s prepared text.  Would you do that? I realized then that I didn’t know the first thing about prayer, that when I prayed I always used someone else’s words, even the Hail, Mary, but never spoke from the heart.  That’s what my confessor told me I ought to try.  Speak from your heart!

It is many years later as I write this to you.  And over those years I have struggled with the art of praying, if you will, and have come to the conclusion that praying is much more about being silent than it is about saying words.  When you are in the presence of someone you love, someone who has been a part of your life for some time, a test of the solidity of the relationship is whether or not you are comfortable with silence.  Does one of you have to be talking all the time?  Or, can you just be in each other’s company knowing that you are with someone you love and someone who loves you in return?

Do you pray?  If the answer is yes, then my next question is the same one that was asked me: How? Think about that for a few moments before you continue with this.  Think about that as you listen to this Sunday’s first reading and the gospel.

Could you imagine yourself in a conversation with God similar to the one Abraham has with God in the first reading?  Don’t miss the gravity contained in the first sentence.  Something terrible has been going on in Sodom, a sin that results in cries to God of outrage.  Sodom’s sin is serious.  We probably would use the term mortal sin for what was going on there.  God is moved by the cries and comes down from heaven to see what is happening there.  You mustn’t lose sight of that as you read or hear what follows.

This scene takes up right after the dinner that Abraham had prepared for the three visitors.  Two of the three are walking toward Sodom, when God stays behind to engage in conversation with Abraham.  Obviously Abraham is comfortable talking with God.  He asks God if it is God’s intention to annihilate Sodom and all its inhabitants, guilty and innocent alike.  If God did that wouldn’t people change their opinion about God, seeing God then as vengeful and forbidding?  Abraham puts it before God that surely God would spare the city for the sake of fifty innocent people.  God agrees that the city would be spared for the sake of the fifty if there were fifty innocent.  Abraham lowers the number, time after time, and each time God agrees that the city would be spared for that number, too.  Finally, Abraham asks if God would spare the city if there were only ten innocent people there.  And once again, God says that the city would be spared even for the sake of the ten.

Abraham persisted in prayer.  That’s what the conversation with God was, after all, intercessory prayer.  God responded favorably to Abraham’s pleas for Sodom.  That is where the reading ends.  If you go to Genesis and read what follows you will find out that there mustn’t have been even 10 innocent ones because Sodom is destroyed.  Knowing that doesn’t seem necessary for the theme of perseverance in prayer we are going to hear again in the gospel.

Jesus is a man of prayer.  Often he went off by himself to spend long periods of time in prayer.  On occasion he spent the whole night in prayer.  Prayer usually preceded major turning points in his public ministry.  There must have been something fascinating about the sight of Jesus caught up in the prayer moment because, after watching him, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray.

Jesus responds by teaching them the themes that should be a part of their prayer, what they should have in mind whenever they pray.  In Luke’s Gospel, the themes emerge as a modified Lord’s Prayer.  In reality, Jesus is telling the disciples what should be part of every prayer they pray.  It is clear that Jesus wants the disciples to remember to whom it is that they are praying.  When you pray, say: Father. This is the relationship that Jesus wants the disciples to remember that they have with God.  Father speaks volumes about God’s attitude toward the one who prayers.

I remember a holy man telling me once about Baptism.  We were standing near a Baptismal Font.  For a moment we were mesmerized by the sound of the water cascading into the pool.  Neither of us wanted to break the spell.  After a few minutes had passed, he said to me: Beautiful, isn’t it?  Imagine the centuries the font has been a symbol of hope and new beginning for our church, both a womb and a tomb.  Do you know what I believe?  When the newly baptized emerges from the font where s/he has died to sin and put on the new life in Christ, God loves that one with the same love God has for Christ.  In fact, I wonder if God can tell them apart. Every time I am near a font I remember that conversation.  And being one of the baptized, I try to believe what he said.  That’s what Jesus meant when he said: When you pray, say, Father. We should go before God with the confidence that a child has in his/her father.  Can you really believe that God loves you that much?  If you can, why are you afraid? That is how our conversation at the font ended.  And when I am afraid, I still wonder why.

Jesus came as the full revelation of God, to bring God’s love and mercy to all.  His desire was that all people would hear him and believe, and, in hearing and believing, accept the relationship with God.  We ought to stand in awe before God.  God is a god of majesty, wonder, and power, the creator of the universe, the God who created humankind in God’s image and likeness. And God is the one who asked us to let God be our God.  Hallowed be (God’s) name. Jesus wants all who hear him to accept the reign of God in their lives.  That’s what we pray for when we say: Your kingdom come. May all people come to know God and live as God’s people.  That is God’s Kingdom, God’s reign begun here on Earth.

Give us each day our daily bread. That means that we are supposed to pray for what we need each day to survive.  There is nothing here about excess.  There is nothing here about praying to win the Lotto, or a football game, for that matter.  God is the one from whom all blessings flow.  When we sit to table and prepare to break bread, as we gaze at the bounty before us, we should see evidence of God’s bountiful love for us.  It’s not a bad idea to pray before the meal begins and give thanks, not only for the meal, but for the grace that brought together those with whom you are eating, making them family and friends.  All is blessing.  Our prayer ought to include all those who live in poverty and lack even the essentials.  We ought to pray that our awareness of God’s bountiful love will inspire those with plenty to share with those without.  There is no reason why anyone should die of famine.  The sad thing is, it is the desire for profit that gets in the way.

Forgive us our sins for we forgive everyone in debt to us. It amazes me that people do not struggle with this theme of prayer.  There are times when I hope that God will be more generous in forgiving me than I am in coming to forgiveness.  I think of people who have exhibited extraordinary grace in forgiving.  Parents who have forgiven their children’s killers.  People who have forgiven those who have defrauded them of their savings.  Survivors who forgave those who held them in captivity in prison camps and killed their families and friends in the gas chambers.  Each time I read a story like that I wonder: Could I have done that? And when I struggle to find the way to forgive I pray that the Lord sees my struggle and will grant me the grace to be able to do it – someday.  I also believe that some things God expects of us can only happen with grace.  That is why Jesus bathed us in the Spirit.

And do not subject us to the final test. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus, during the final moments of his agony on the cross, will be our supreme example of the application of this theme of prayer.  Hanging on that gibbet, his life’s blood draining from him, and threatened by the darkness enveloping him, Jesus cries out: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Jesus leaps into the chasm that is that darkness confident that the Father will rescue him and raise him up.  He triumphed in the final test.  Each one of us will have a final moment.  We will be suspended between time and eternity.  If only our final breath can be like Jesus’ and, confident that we are God’s beloved, in our dying moment, take that final leap of faith.

The little parable that Jesus tells following his outline of prayer doesn’t need much comment.  It is pretty obvious that Jesus wants us to understand that if a friend can beseech a friend for a favor at an inconvenient hour and, persevering, have that favor granted for friendship’s sake, how much more will God, who loves us as God loves Christ, out do even our best friends in generosity if we persevere in prayer.  But wait a minute.  Again, it is clear that this generosity is not about things.  How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask God? This is about praying for the gift of faith, the grace to believe what our prayer should be about.  Jesus is telling us that whether we are experiencing times of powerful temptation to go against God’s will for us, or whether we are in that final moment we spoke of above, God’s love will embrace us, strengthen us, and, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit’s influence, we will be strengthened to be faithful and trust in God’s mercy to the very end – if we pray for it.

A final note: We could come to the wrong conclusion on the basis of the final paragraph of this pericope.  Jesus says that everyone who asks, receives, and the one who seeks, finds. The same is true for those who knock.  This is true when we are praying for those things that should be constant themes of our prayer.  Our challenge is to trust that God, who knows our needs better than we do, will provide what is necessary for our salvation.  And God knows that even before we ask for it.

Maybe that is why silence becomes such an important part of prayer.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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