Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Gen 18: 20-32, Col 2: 12-14, Lk 11: 1-13
Bible translations sometimes convey meanings not intended by the original text. One translation of today’s parable says that when a man persistently knocked on his friend’s door after being told, “Do not bother me..,” the householder got out of bed, opened the door, and “gave him what he was asking for.” I can see it now, a punch right in the kisser.
That’s not what our Lord was thinking when he said that if we persevere in prayer the door will be opened. But what about the problem of unanswered prayers? The prophet Habakkuk cries out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear?” The Psalmist says, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me?“
That some prayers go unanswered seems to be taught by experience. People die in wars, and by abortion. They suffer violence by rape, physical abuse, and character assassination. Many are afflicted by disease. It seems every famine, every plague and every death is a monument that a prayer was not answered.
Yet, Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you.” This is his teaching about the infallible value of prayer. It is always answered, prayer is never wasted, “Ask and you will receive.”
But, could it be that some prayers go unanswered if the one asking is a sinner. You know that’s completely contrary to the teaching of Jesus. The tax collector prayed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner” and went home justified. The sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, heard him say, “Your sins are forgiven.” On Calvary a thief asked to be remembered, and Jesus promised him heaven that day. Even the prayers of sinners are always favorably answered.
When Habakkuk’s cries for help seemed to go unheard, the Lord replied saying, “The vision awaits its time, yet it hastens to the end, it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Hab 2:3). Often the answer takes time. We ask for our daily bread, but it takes time for wheat to grow. We ask for healing, but flesh and bones need time to mend. We ask for patience, but virtues are habits formed by many repetitions. Answers to prayers can take a long time. So, Jesus teaches us to persevere in prayer. “Keep asking and you will receive.”
But why do we need to ask at all? Are we trying to change God’s will, like the man who got out of bed because of his friend’s persistence? No, we pray not to change God’s will, but to fulfill it. There are many gifts God wants to give us because we pray for them, only if we pray for them. When St. Catherine Laboure had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she saw on each of Mary’s fingers precious stones with rays of light that fell upon the earth. But from some of these gems there were no rays of light at all. Asked why, our Lady replied, “[These] are graces for which I am not asked.”1 We don’t change God’s will by asking. We fulfill it. It is God’s will to give because we ask. “Keep knocking and the door will be opened.”
So, when we pray, will the answer always be the one we desire? You know it won’t, because it might be something harmful or less good. God infallibly answers all our prayers. If an illness is not cured, God may give us instead the strength to share in Christ’s work of redemptive suffering and bring healing to the hearts and souls of those we love, which is a greater good than our physical healing. A person whose death is not averted finds instead the better gift of eternal life and happiness. There is no evil that can fall upon us from which God will not bring greater good to those who keep praying. Prayer is infallibly valuable. It is never wasted.
Once the survivor of a shipwreck swam to a small, uninhabited island. He kept praying to be rescued, but no one came. He built a little hut to protect himself. Then one day, after scavenging for food, he came back to find his little hut in flames, the smoke rolling up to the sky. He complained, “Oh, God, how could you let this happen?” But a little later, a ship came and rescue him. He asked. “How did you know I was here?” The captain replied, “I saw your smoke signal.“
It’s easy to be discouraged when things go badly and prayer seems to go unanswered. But don’t lose heart, for when we pray God is at work in our lives, bringing good even out of pain and suffering. Remember, the next time your little hut burns to the ground it just might be the beginning of the answer to your prayers. “Keep asking and you will receive, keep seeking and you will find, keep knocking and it will be opened to you.”
- Omer Englebert, “Catherine Laboure and the Modern Apparitions of Our Lady,” P.J. Kennedy and Sons, New York, 1959, 34-35.
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: 1 Kgs 3:5, 7-12; Rm. 8:28-30; Mt. 13:44-52.
One of the perks of being an old man is that scenes from youth pop into the mind with a vividness and detail that outshines what happened last week or last month. One such flashback from my teenage days was an incident when our gang was dodging traffic on a thoroughfare in Chicago. It was our version of running with the bulls in Pamplona. I was on one side of the street and saw my buddies on the other side. I just ran across the street to join them, and inadvertently ran in front of a car which just barely missed me. I never saw the car or looked in its direction. A friend came up to congratulate me: “I never knew you had it in you.” He saw it as an act of daring and bravado. It was nothing but sheer adolescent stupidity. That’s what was in me. Unfortunately, I had a series of later incidents in life which only confirmed that diagnosis. What we do reveals “what we have in us.”
As we mature, we learn to temper these outbursts of neglect and carelessness. We stick with the safe and predictable, gradually becoming safe and predictable ourselves. What we do shapes and reveals what we have in us. Sometimes a new challenge or change confronts us. We then discover anew what we have in us. A new opportunity calls for imagination and invention. Maybe we meet it with bravery and heroism, as the man recently killed in Oregon for defending two young girls who were being assaulted. Or maybe we stand back, bystanders frozen in self-defense. There was the quiet man who lived upstairs but who suddenly opened fire at a group of unsuspecting people. We didn’t know that he had it in him.
The image of the net pulling up all sorts of fish is really an apt one to describe the mix of self-disclosures that fill up our lives. What was submerged or hidden comes up into the open to be sorted out and discerned. The sea is that large pool of indifference that covers distinctions over until they are brought onto the shore of consciousness and conscience. Some are good and some are bad. What is the basis of this discernment? Is there a higher reality to which we are accountable? Or is there just the contemporary mindset or world-view interprets everything in terms of self-fulfillment and self-satisfaction? The philosopher Charles Taylor describes this mindset:
Everyone has a right to develop their own form of life, grounded on their own sense of what
is really important or of value. People are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek
their own self-fulfillment. What this consists of, each must, in the last instance, determine
for him- or herself. No one else can or should try to dictate its content.
We may not resonate with the word kingdom, but this world-view more than covers its meaning. The world is what we make of it, the rules and laws we think should apply, and the myriad ways we enforce those rules. Kingdom is not medieval politics, nor is it a fantasy world of magic created by Walt Disney. We act and think out of the world views that shape our vision and imagination. That is our kingdom. We need to sit on the shore and examine what is in the net of what we take for granted. We need to ask the question Thomas Merton once posed. If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. (My Argument With the Gestapo).What must I let go of or sell to possess what I really want, a better treasure?
The Kingdom of Heaven is not some ideal order, waiting to descend and smother all competition. It is not like the national debt (currently $19 trillion): immense and real, but not something you can do anything about. It is the image that God has of what is possible and needed in human life. It is not remote, but rather challenges us on our own turf, on the ground we walk on—never realizing that a treasure is hidden there and waiting to be found. But it threatens to supplant the kingdom of predictability and control which has become so embedded in our own worldview. We would like to have both kingdoms, some of each. But seeking to live in the Kingdom of God’s rule means despoiling ourselves of what we already have. It means investing ourselves totally in God’s way of recreating and redeeming a world which is short-sighted, self-serving, and stagnating in its own sense of self-importance.
The Kingdom is at hand, within arm’s reach, available and accessible. What is lacking is our own understanding, perception, and attunement to what God is doing. We have no idea of what is in us. We are offered the possibility of living in the joy of immersing ourselves in the boundless dimensions of God’s rule in the world so that heaven can be known in the ordinary. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The treasure is knowing this union in our hearts. I can best conclude these remarks with a passage from Romano Guardini.
The Kingdom means that the intimacy and preciousness of the things of God are experienced;
that the ineffable bliss of his beauty and sweetness is tasted in the heart and felt to the depths of
one’s being… The kingdom of God means that He, the Father, the Brother, and the Friend is near,
in the depths of the spirit, in the core of the heart; that love rules perceptibly in our goings and
our comings, our dispensing and our receiving; that the whole of existence is transfigured by it,
and that while everything is transmuted into this one thing, the essential character and beauty of
each blossoms forth…. that the creature is in Him, one with Him, and for this very reason is
free to be himself. (The Lord’s Prayer.)
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Gen. 18: 20-32; Col. 2:12-14; Lk 11: 1-13
I noticed title of a column by Ronald Rolheiser in last week’s Witness: “Our Deepest Insecurity.” It caught my eye and attention. So I had to read it to see if he had unearthed an insecurity that I hadn’t yet recognized or labeled. He called it the insecurity of being unwelcome in this world, of living in a world which is indifferent, hostile, unfriendly, unjust, and even evil. Living in this world, we become infected by its toxicity. Our immediate responses are to defend ourselves. We become suspicious, mistrustful, skeptical and negative, living on edge and wary.
There is certainly enough truth in this diagnosis to give us pause. The question of being welcomed touches us at a deep level. Are we being accepted or affirmed? There is a fairly prosaic level of politeness and civility: credit cards welcomed here; thank you/ you are welcome. But there are deeper meanings to welcome in our lives. What does it mean when you are welcomed, or when you distinctly feel unwelcomed? And what does that do to you? The derivation of welcome is Will Come. Your coming is a delight to me, it touches my will to give freely to you. There is a freedom, warmth, openness, spontaneity that can come alive when we sense we are welcomed. The one who welcomes also receives a new invigoration, fresh life. This is well come. Each one gives life to the other. Some people and groups will welcome us; others won’t. We stick with our groups, tribes. Some people will take us just for who we are. Most need to be convinced, impressed, conned. We become performers or producers and don’t expect anything more of others.
The personality we walk around with has been greatly influenced by the way we were welcomed into the world by our parents and family. There was a primal exchange, love which was gratuitous and unconditional. Always imperfect, usually “good enough”, sometimes damaged. But the parents usually see what is special and unique in their child and their love evokes and draws out what is seminal in that little person. But they have to welcome that child into an unreliable world. A world which will be a challenge, at times a threat. The first lessons a child is given are those of learning to trust. Trust in spite of disappointments, failures, lapses, and of the conditions that others put on their being accepted and welcomed. Learning to trust is a life-long process.
When the disciples ask the Lord to teach them to pray, they are asking him to teach them to trust. Prayer is an act of trust. Prayer is an expression of trust, and therefore it becomes an experience of trust. It is welcoming God and his Spirit into our lives. It is being welcomed by God and his Spirit. We enter into a relationship which has its roots in unconditional love. We are changed and transformed by the welcome we receive from God. It gives us the courage and simplicity to welcome God into our life. God welcomes us as we are. And we welcome God as He is. This often means being purged of those images and idols we have set up to protect ourselves from the truth and holiness of God. At the core of the world and our experience in it is this exchange of trust and welcome. Hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. All of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are prayers of trust. Our will has been touched in delight and desire by the coming of the other. In this experience of trust, we discover our real poverty but that is what God loves. We can afford to be shameless. We have nothing to hide. Persistence in prayer emerges from the knowledge that we are at the heart of things, of life, of the cosmos. Persistence is another name for the trust that springs from the knowledge of God that has overtaken our heart, that there is no limit to our trust in Him. Even though he slay me, I will hope in him (Job 13:15). We are bonded to God in a common vision which he reveals to us and within us. We begin to live in that new life to which we were raised with him through faith in the power of God…He brought you to life along with him.
That God’s will might be done on earth as it is in heaven is the task He has entrusted to us. Our prayer and trust in God allows the Spirit to penetrate the constructions of our world. We become a community recreated in the vision of God’s Kingdom, recreated in the trust and openness that are the only power which can overcome the powers of injustice, hostility, and evil that want to define our world. Those who ask for justice, who seek peace, who knock on doors of exclusion and prejudice are those who have welcomed the Spirit into their lives. They have welcomed the Spirit into this unreliable and unwelcoming world. “Don’t pray for something you are not willing to do something about” warns Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. Then, it is not honest. We will have resurrected our own idols with feet, but they do not walk, with eyes, but they do not see. Prayer will transform you. Our prayer brings us to those roots where, even when everything else gets scraped away, we come to the one necessary truth: we have already been raised up with him through faith in the power of God, we have been brought to life along with him.