Pastor Column, Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: July 28, 2019
Msgr. Joseph Tracy, St. Stanislaus Parish
Today’s first reading and Gospel are about persistence in prayer – responding to God’s invitation to keep on asking for His help. We are all called to prayer, one of the four “pillars” described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as vital to our spiritual lives. Luke tells us in the Gospel: For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Sounds really good, does it not? Unfortunately we have all had experiences when it was not that easy, when prayer seemed a burden, a waste of time, an ineffective way to solve a problem or difficulty.
If we really listen to the readings this Sunday, the deeper call is to be persistent even when we experience road blocks in our prayer. It is a divine invitation that we receive to keep on asking for help. Abraham showed almost brazen persistence in negotiating with God over the fate of the doomed cities. His objective in bargaining was compassion however, not to irritate Him or prove himself the better arbiter. As he discovers, God’s compassion is limitless. He gives you and me a model of prayer as dogged persistence and playful exchange with God. Only close friends can carry on such wrangling.
Perhaps more importantly, this story belies the theological question of divine retribution. Simply put, is the God of Abraham a God of vengeance who uses fire and brimstone to ensure obedience? That certainly is not the God Abraham knew from his past. And there on the road to Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham gets an answer, as well as a powerful insight into the ways of God. He begs God to show divine mercy rather than the severity of pagan gods. Sure enough: each time Abraham asks, God relents.
The style of prayer addressed in the Gospel is more nuanced in Luke than in Genesis. Typical of the first century, other teachers in Palestine would give their followers distinctive prayers and practices to signify their discipleship. In the Jesus prayer, He was letting His disciples in on His spirituality, his intimate relationship to God. For that reason, the Our Father has always held a unique place of honor for Christians. He invites those who follow Him to enter deeply into His own relationship with the Father. Imagine if we truly prayed this prayer with efficacy! We would be participating in the relationship between the Father and the Son. The words express adoration, obedience, a desire for the bread that sustains and leads to perfection. And we ask for forgiveness, and promise to share it with others.
Once Jesus gives them the words for prayer, He offers how to live a prayerful life. Our Lord boils it down to four simple practices: asking, seeking, finding, and receiving. Jesus is not saying we need to wake God up, but that there is something transformative about continually turning to God. Sometimes the longer and harder we seek and knock, the better the chance that we will come to recognize what God is offering us.