SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – Gen 1:20-32 Col 2:12-14 Lk 11:1-13
Can Prayer Change Sin City?
Bargaining Our Petitions with God; How to Pray; Perseverance in Prayer; Prayer: to Change God, or Ourselves?
All of Jesus’ thought, words, and actions were directed to God. That is what prayer is. His was a life of prayer.
In today’s Gospel, the disciples saw how Jesus’ prayer illuminated his countenance. And they were aware that religious groups were marked by their own prayer customs and forms. The Pharisees, the Essences, the disciples of John all had their own prayers which distinguished them from other groups. The disciples, too, wanted an “Identification Prayer”, a distinctive badge that would bind them together and be an expression of their chief beliefs. (Lk 11:1). So they timidly asked Jesus to teach them to pray in the same way as he did.
Jesus answered by giving them a prayer which, in its simplicity, contrasts sharply with many of the very fulsome formulations used in Jewish and Greco-Roman prayers of his day, not to mention some of today’s equivalents. Despite its brevity, Tertullian called the Lord’s Prayer “truly a summary of the whole Gospel”. In it we ask, not only for all the things we can rightly desire, but also in the sequence that they should be desired (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2763, citing St Thomas Aquinas).
Jesus didn’t intend what he gave to be the only prayer. Because a vital part of our prayer – but not the only part – is supplication, that is what the Lord’s Prayer demonstrates most. The Lord’s Prayer also deals with prayer’s other major elements: adoration, contribution, and thanksgiving (“ACTS”).
The Lord’s Prayer in the early Church was spoken with great reverence and awe. Clement of Alexandria said that our prayers often move in a circle around our own small “I”, our own needs and troubles and desires. Jesus teaches us to ask also for the great things- for God’s almighty glory and kingdom, and that God’s great gifts and the endless mercy of God may be granted us. That doesn’t mean that we may not bring our small personal needs before God, but they mustn’t govern our prayer.
St Luke’s version and St Mathew’s, though slightly different from each other, both put God, His glory, and the reverence due Him first, then – and only then – ourselves and our needs. The very first word in Luke, “Father”, transports us at once into a new era. Though we may take the privilege of calling God “Father” for granted, the early Christians were thrilled that they were allowed to use the word.
He with Whom Jesus wants us to speak in prayer is less the Creator of the universe, the Lord of heaven and earth, than Abba, a diminutive of endearment that was used by adults as well as children for their own fathers – the word that could express most adequately the most intimate, most personal relationship anyone could think of.
Some people find difficulty with the word “Father” as the name for God. Some say to address God as “Father” seems no longer to have any experiential basis in their lives. Pity! For others, it is too male-chauvinist. But the Fatherhood of God in the Jewish Scriptures contains also something of what the word “Mother” signifies to us – tenderness, mercy, care, and love. In the Gospels we find the word “Father” for God on the lips of Jesus 170 times.
The first “you” petition – “Hallowed be Your name” – isn’t to be understand primarily in its causative sense – to recognize as holy (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2807). The second “you” petition – “Your kingdom come” – is intimately connected with the first. To do God’s will means in practice to let His kingdom, that is already present, rule our life. The petition means, “Lord, let nothing except the presence of Your kingdom rule and determine all my actions.” This is difficult. Jesus literally sweat blood over it.
Taken together, the words mean that whatever we believe the kingdom of heaven to be like, we work to achieve here and now. Is heaven a place of unity for God’s people? Then we should strive for unity here. Is heaven a place of peace? Then we should attempt to make peace here. Is heaven a place where justice reigns? Then here and now we should seek to right all injustices. Is heaven a place where all are welcome? Then we strive that none are strangers to us now.
In the first of the “we” petitions, we ask that God give us each day our daily bread (v. 3). Food and meals aren’t just a means for staying alive – at least not for Orientals. For them every table fellowship is a demonstration of brotherhood. Jesus’ eating and sitting at table with sinners and outcasts was correctly understood by his opponents. Because Jesus ate with sinners, he was also receiving them.
Because we are asking here for material needs, this petition is circumscribed with caution. The request is to give us – thus mindful of the needs of others as well as ourselves. We are to come daily, as children to their parents, like the Israelites with the manna in the wilderness, and like the birds in the sky. And it is our bread we ask for: bread we have earned. Finally, there are nuances of the Eucharistic bread as well. That is one reason why we place the Lord’s Prayer in the Mass.
Jesus advises us to pray next that God forgive us our sins (v. 4). The great gift of the age of Jesus is forgiveness – a time when human beings live in the presence of God with the knowledge that God has forgiven them and created new communion with them. The magnitude of God’s forgiveness makes it ridiculous for us not to forgive one another our petty offences. If we don’t forgive one another we are demonstrating, in effect, that we have not really accepted the great forgiveness of God’s love offered to us. Our forgiveness of one another, therefore, becomes the sign of how far we have accepted God’s great gift of forgiveness that is offered to us.
But the phrase “as we forgive” shouldn’t be taken as a comparison that God would forgive us in the measure that we forgive. It is daunting to realize that God’s outpouring of mercy can’t penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we can’t love the God we can’t see if we don’t love the brother or sister we do see. This petition is so important that it is the only one to which the Lord returns and which he develops explicitly in the Sermon on the Mount (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2840-41).
The prayer concludes with a petition that God prevent our being subjected to a final onslaught of the Devil. Whereas God tempts no one, no one can obtain the kingdom of God who hasn’t passes through testing. We must also discern between being tempted and consenting to temptation.
Then Jesus told a parable to signify that our petitions are always heard. In the Holy Land, travelers often moved by night to avoid the daytime heat of the sun. The friend to whom one such traveler came (v. 5) was indeed hard – pressed. On the one hand, he was out of food; bead was baked at home and was made only for a day’s needs lest it go stale. On the other hand, the duty of hospitality was serious and sacred (v. 6).
No one would knock on a shut door (v. 7) unless the need was really urgent. Doors were wide open during the day, to offer hospitality. To remove the large bar to open the closed door at night was noisy, and would disturb the whole house. Understandably, the householder initially refused. But his visitor was shamelessly persistent, and that persistence got him what he needed (v. 8). Because our relationship with God is between parent and child, we have a claim to keep on asking, seeking, find, and have the door opened.
Jesus isn’t guaranteeing that the exact object of every prayer will be granted as asked – but only that God will hear our prayer and give us what is best for us. That, after all, is the way it was with him. His condemnation as a sinner, his unjust trail, and his cruel death show that not every prayer is answered as asked. But instead of rescue he received resurrection, which is better. As parents give their children good things (v. 11f.), how much more do we have the right to expect that our heavenly Father will give us all good things (v. 13)?
Today’s First Reading is a lovely (and humorous) account that shows that even Abraham, about eighteen centuries before Christ, had the perseverance in prayer about which Jesus spoke. In the picturesque language of this part of Genesis, the Lord God said, “I must go down” (v. 21) to earth and be involved in human history.
The discussion between the Lord and Abraham concerned God’s threatened destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Whereas Israelite tradition was unanimous in ascribing wickedness to these two towns, the tradition about the exact nature of the corruption has varied. According to Isaiah (1:9f; 3:9), it was a lack of social justice. Ezekiel (16:46-51) described it as a disregard for the poor. Jeremiah (23:14) saw it as thorough-going immortality. According to Genesis (19:4ff), the sin was homosexuality.
Like people in an Eastern bazaar, Abraham haggled with God, and the Lord was open to one who approached Him thus. Underlying Abraham’s huckstering were many presuppositions, including the idea that there is more injustice in the destruction of a few innocent people than in the sparing of many guilt ones. Abraham pushed the limit, and God heard his prayer. Abraham couldn’t find ten good people, though, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah under fire and brimstone was complete.
Also giving hope is today’s reading from the letter to the Colossians. It tells us that the Just One, God’s Son Jesus, sufficed for God to pardon the sins of the whole human race. That’s because, when we consider the degree of the evil of an offence, we look to the dignity of the one offended; but when we judge the extent of retribution, we look to the worth of the one acting. So we can approach the heavenly Father with confidence because we have been redeemed by His Son. The sign of that redemption is baptism. The life of the baptized is called new (v. 13) because it is vital, liberated, emancipated. Jesus has removed our bill of indebtedness to God because of the merits of the cross (v. 14). The true Christians are those who live out their baptism by their ongoing relationship with Jesus.
Such an ongoing relationship must have prayer as a major ingredient. Beginning with this Mass, let is always recite the Lord’s Prayer slowly, knowingly, and lovingly. God, in turn, will be even more responsive than we have experienced good persons to be – our parents who gave us daily care and love, friends to whom we can go at midnight if necessary, and loving people who have been good to us. God is like all of these – only more so, as Jesus shows us.