“Lord, teach us to pray”

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17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: July 25, 2010
Gen 18:20-32; Ps 138:1-3, 6-8; Col 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13

Near the end of our Gospel reading today, we hear one of Jesus’ famous sayings: “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

And it may be very easy to hear that and to translate it in our mind as, “Ask for what you want and you will get what you ask for.” And if we hear that, it seems to me that there are at least three responses that we might have within ourselves, or that those around us, those we know, family or friends, might have.

  • One response might be, “Boy, I can get anything I ask for? Tell me how that works!”
  • The second response might be to say, “You know, I consider myself a spiritual person. I’m not just looking for possessions; I’m looking for a deeper meaning, a deeper connection with the Creator of the universe. Is there anything in this for me?”
  • And the third might be to say, “You know, I’ve asked for what I want—indeed, for what I need—and it doesn’t seem to have come. Should I believe that what Jesus says is true?”

Now, in order to answer all three of these possible reactions, we need to go deeper. Because, of course, the way I rephrased Jesus’ words was not what he said; they are a misunderstanding.

And so we need to go back to the beginning of this Gospel passage. And indeed it is helpful if we go back just before it—if we go back to last week’s Gospel passage, which comes immediately before. There, at the end of Luke chapter 10, you remember, it was the story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha in Bethany. And you remember that Martha was very busy doing things for Jesus; while Mary, we read, sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Now, picture that for a moment. Jesus in the position of the teacher, seated; Mary at his feet, probably some other people with her, all listening to him. That close personal connection, that close attention, face to face, as it were; Mary listening to every word he said. Martha came and told him to tell Mary to go and help Martha in her tasks. And the Lord said, “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Now, this posture and this attitude, that we see Mary in, in that passage, with regard to our Lord—in the very next verse we see in a different way. For we read: Jesus was praying in a certain place. And it’s a posture that’s very similar. Except that now it’s our Lord Jesus with his Heavenly Father. Now, the disciples observe this, as they observe him praying many times. So many times through the Gospels we find out that Jesus went away at night or Jesus withdrew a ways, and when they went looking for him they found him praying. Now, visibly, they don’t see both him and the Father. But they see him in a listening, attentive, sort of interpersonal-communication posture, and they know what is on the other side of that. They know that there is something very interpersonal going on. And it is no surprise that they should see that, time and time again, and say, “I want that”—much as the spiritual person today, if they recognize Jesus in that posture of prayer, would say, “I want that!” And they would say, as this disciple said, when he had finished praying, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Now the first thing that we need to realize, when Jesus says, “ask, seek, and knock,” is that—while these things sound like very active things that we are doing, and they are—what we need to realize is that, before we ask, seek, and knock, God has been asking, seeking, and knocking on our door for a long time. And that, even if it seems like our prayer is our initiative, it actually isn’t. God is the one who takes initiative; God has been taking initiative for a long time. And when we ask, seek, and knock, we are actually responding to him. In the Book of Revelation [3:20], Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, then I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.”

And so it is worth asking: if God has been asking, seeking, and knocking, what is he asking for? What is he seeking? What is he looking for when he knocks? And also to ask ourselves: have we given him what he has asked for? We might say: have we answered God’s prayer to us?

And so Jesus’ answer to his disciple is: “When you pray, say: Father…”

And in this way, he begins a very similar prayer to the one that he teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapter 6—one that is very like this prayer but a little longer, a little more elaborate. And yet the structure is very much the same. It starts with the word “Father.” And in that prayer, which we pray at Mass and in the rosary and at other times—in that prayer we find that there are 7 petitions; in this one, 5. And they break into, what seems to be, 2 groups: in the one we normally pray, we find 3 petitions having to do with God, and 4 having to do with us. In the prayer today, one of each of those is dropped out, so we have instead 2 and 3.

And Jesus starts this prayer, “Father.” And by starting it this way he is defining, introducing us into, that one-on-one connection that the disciples have observed. Now, if Jesus were simply a human being, and were simply saying, “Hey, I’ve had this insight that we can speak to God as to a father, and this is a good way to pray”—that would be revolutionary enough. But what Jesus is doing here is far more than that. For the fact is that, if it was simply a matter of a human being addressing God as “father”—that would be impossible, crazy. There is a difference, such a gap, a gulf, between us as creature—even creatures made in the Image of God—and God, the infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-holy Creator. And so no human being could say, “Hey, I’ve had this great insight.”

But Jesus is no mere human being. He is the Son of God. He has this eternal relationship with God the Father. And, as we hear from St. Paul in the second reading, through his Incarnation, through his cross, through his resurrection, through the sacramental grace that flows from that, through the baptism by which he brings us into it—he makes it possible for us to address God as “Father,” because he brings us into his relationship. He changes us; he changes our relationship with God; he opens this possibility. And so he makes it possible for his disciples then, and for us, his disciples at a longer distance, to address God as Father.

And the first thing in this first section—these 2 petitions here, the 3 in the other version of the prayer—is that he is addressing what God wants. As he says, first of all, “Hallowed be your name.” “May your name be hallowed, be held holy. May you, your being, your character, everything that you are, be recognized as what you are: holy, good, loving; and very different from what we encounter, day to day, in this world.” In other words: “May you be known.” And that’s the first thing that God wants is to be known. And so we may ask: Do we know God? How well do we know him? Do others around us know him? Jesus knew him; and this is one of the first things that he taught us to pray for: that God may be known.

The second petition is: “Your kingdom come”—which is a relationship between subject and king, in which, as the next petition says, in the other version of the prayer, “your will be done.” The subjects of a king want to know what the king’s will is, and want to do the king’s will. Their lives—their individual lives, their collective lives—are shaped according to the shape that the king gives them. And so the second that Jesus is saying that God wants is for his will, his goodness, to be known; how that goodness takes shape in our lives; how he wants us to live, how he wants us not to live. And there too we can ask: Do we know how he wants us to live? Are we doing it? Are we living according to his will? Are we living lives characterized by him as our king?

At that point we then progress into the second part of the prayer. And it certainly seems, as we start seeing “us” and “we” and “our,” that these are things that we are asking for ourselves. But here too, as we consider each phrase, we find that it is not quite as simple as that.

This first phrase, “Give us each day our daily bread”: here we are, asking for what we need. But, even by using “each day” and “daily,” our Lord reminds us that this is not like a weekly grocery shopping trip, where we go and we get what we need once a week, maybe even once a month, and we store it up and don’t go back again until a week has passed. No, each day, daily, we are asking for what we need for that day. And what we need for that day is both what we need physically—symbolized especially by bread, the food that we need—and also what we need spiritually. As our Lord said [John 6:35], “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” And as, at every Mass, he gives himself to us under the appearance of bread. It is all those kinds of bread, as it were, that we are asking for in this prayer.

And then, as we go on to the remaining petitions, we find that there is a certain symmetry to them. Especially if we take the form of the 7 petitions, we find that they fit together as past, present, and future. “Forgive us our sins,” those wrong things that we have done in the past. “Deliver us from evil,” right now, in the present. “Lead us not into temptation,” in the future. A moment before, we had asked for what we need; and now all of these are asking for protection against different things that harm us. But they are things that are seen in the light of what God has revealed. It is not simply from our own earthly perspective that we speak of what harms us; but from his perspective, as we recognize that he has revealed to us that there are certain things in our lives—sin, evil, and other things—that we might not initially recognize as harmful, but that he knows are harmful. And so we are asking, in light of his revelation to us, that he protect us from what he knows to be truly harmful.

And this begins to lead into the answer, and the perspective that we should take, to the question: when Jesus says, “ask, seek, and knock,” what is it that he is inviting us to do? He gives us the example of asking whether a father would give good things to his son and would not play some mean trick: if the son asks for a fish, that the father would give him a snake; if the son asks for an egg, that the father would give him a scorpion. Well, how much more will the Father in heaven give good gifts? Now, what he doesn’t say, but what we can very easily move to, is: what if it were a case of the son asking the father for something that is bad for him, not knowing? St. Augustine considered just this possibility. He said [Sermon 80]: Consider…

All day long, the child—your child—cries his eyes out so that you will give him a knife to play with. You wisely refuse his plea and pay no attention to his wailing. When the child demands to ride your horse—now, we might want to say, to drive your car—you won’t let him. The child doesn’t know how to ride—how to drive—and may get injured or even killed as a result. You deny him small things so as to preserve more important things. You want the child to grow up safely and to possess all his own goods without danger.

Surely it is clear that, if we ask for things that are harmful for us, even though we obviously don’t realize that they are, our Lord will not give us those harmful things. But, beyond that, beyond things that in a sort of absolute way are harmful, there may be things that are not the best, in the good that our Lord wants for us.

Padre Pio, that Capuchin priest who has recently been declared a saint, would speak of the image of a child who is sitting at the foot of his mother watching the mother do embroidery. And the mother works along; and the child can only see the underside of the embroidery hoop that the mother is working on. And all the child sees is crazy loops of thread, and colors everywhere. It doesn’t make any sense; it seems pretty nuts. But the mother knows what she is doing; and what the mother sees is something completely different. Every so often the mother might turn that hoop around so the child can see—the truth of the embroidery that the mother is up to. And Padre Pio’s point to us is that our lives, in the care of our Heavenly Father, are much like that; that we don’t always see what it is that our Lord is doing; but that from time to time he may turn that embroidery loop and give us a clue. It won’t happen all the time; but it will happen sometimes; and one day, when we are in his presence, surely he will show us the whole picture, and then we will know what it is that he was doing.

And so it is that, when we consider our Lord’s words to us, the first question is to make sure that we are asking for what we need; for it is too easy to forget to ask. Secondly, to follow his lesson of persistence: to make sure that we are asking persistently. And third, to have confidence of the Father; so that, even if we don’t seem to be getting what we ask for, that we can know, with great confidence, that what he is giving to us is what we truly need, is an answer to our prayer, even if it is not the answer that we initially sought.

There is another time in the Gospels when we encounter Mary and Martha. And that is in the Gospel of John [chapter 11], when they send word to Jesus: “the one you love is ill,” asking him to come and heal him—making that request to him. He was delayed in coming—indeed, he seemingly allowed himself to be delayed—so that, before he arrived, Lazarus had died and had even been in the tomb for a few days. Martha, that busy one, rebuked him saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary, the one who had sat at his feet, would not even come out to meet him initially. And then, when she was called for, she simply fell at his feet, and similarly said just that one thing: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” To Mary and Martha, all they saw was a denied request; all that they saw was the bottom of the embroidery hoop, with all its crazy colors and loops. But Jesus had something else for them. For he intended, and did carry out, the great and glorious favor of raising Lazarus from the dead. He could have come and healed him; but he wanted to give them a special favor, because he loved them all so much.

And once that happened, once they saw the top of that embroidery hoop, it’s not much of a surprise that, in the next pages of the Gospel [John 12:3], we again see Mary of Bethany anointing his feet with perfume, as she now realizes, in love and gratitude, that, when you ask, God will give you what you ask for, or he will give you something better.

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Published in: on July 25, 2010 at 9:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

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