I took up this theme for my homily this week. Prayer is not a task, it is a relationship!
Homily: 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C
When I was still a student studying for my engineering degree, I worked at a small manufacturing plant that makes bumpers for semi-trucks. Whenever I needed to get some maintenance work done I had to submit a “work order” that described what needed to be done and when it needed to be done by. What I quickly found out, however, was that the maintenance crew was overloaded and that my work orders often sat on a pile of other work orders that weren’t getting completed and that the crew worked on whatever the shop-floor supervisor told them was most important for the day. Frustrated by this, I would often forego the whole process completely. If I could just do it myself, I would. If I couldn’t then I would document it and move on to the next thing.
I think, sometimes, we can see prayer kind of like a “maintenance work order” system. We fill out our form and submit it to God and he is supposed to put his crew to work to take care of it for us. When it works, we feel satisfied. God is there for us and we can rely on him. When it doesn’t seem to work, we feel frustrated. God is unreliable and so if we want this to be taken care of we either need to do it ourselves or just accept that we’ve been dealt a bad hand and that there’s nothing we can do about it. Of course there’s more to prayer than just making requests of God, but I think you’d be surprised to find out how many people turn away from God on account of feeling like God had let them down when they felt like they most needed him to respond. In today’s readings, we are given a model of this type prayer that can help us understand it more deeply, which is good; because when we understand it more deeply, we are less likely to become frustrated by its results.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples observe him in prayer and, probably quite innocently, ask him, their teacher, to teach them how to pray. As Jesus often does, however, when he’s given an inch, he takes a mile and he not only teaches them how to pray (i.e. the correct words and manner in which to pray), but he teaches them the pre-conditions for prayer as well.
As presented to us today, prayer in which we ask something from God has three basic characteristics: 1) be humble; 2) ask for a just thing; and 3) be persistent. First: be humble. As Jesus taught his disciples and as Abraham shows us today, our first task is always to recognize who it is we are addressing and what our relationship to him is. Abraham was bold, but before he pushed God on the issue he first acknowledged that God knew better than he and so would submit to his judgments. When we pray as Jesus taught us and say “Our Father…” we too acknowledge our relationship to God: that is, that he has wisdom and authority that is far greater than ours and so deserves our deference to his judgments.
Second: ask for a just thing. Abraham was a righteous man and so he could see the inherent conflict in the notion that God—who purports to be the just judge—would destroy innocent people for the sake of punishing those who are guilty and so he pleads, in a sense, for the lives of the innocent who live there by testing the limits of God’s justice. In the example that Jesus gives, the man, though he comes at midnight, asks for a just thing: some bread to feed his friend that had just arrived from a journey, which, on account of the customs surrounding hospitality in the ancient Jewish culture, was something that he was expected to provide.
Third: be persistent. Abraham rightly saw that if God would withhold his wrath for the lives of fifty innocent men that justice would demand that he do the same if the number were as low as ten; and so he asked again and again, not presuming he knew better than God, but so as to see if God’s idea of justice lined up with his. His persistence produced a commitment from God to spare the city (of, presumably, thousands of people) if even ten innocent persons were found there. In Jesus’ example, the man, because he asks for a just thing, and because his friend is, also (presumably) a righteous person, receives what he asks for even in spite of the inconvenience he has caused his friend. Notice that there was no conflict with what was asked for; because what was asked for was a just thing. Part of being humble, however, means acknowledging that what we are asking for may not necessarily be the just thing. Therefore, we must always be open to being shown that what we’ve asked for is not what is truly needed and so be open to receiving a different response in its place.
Be humble, ask for a just thing, and be persistent. These are the three characteristics of prayers of petition. What is not often acknowledged in this lesson on prayer, however, is the necessary pre-condition for making this type of prayer. Simply stated, this type of prayer requires a pre-existing relationship.
I have a very good friend, named Joe, who I used to work with when I worked as an engineer. We used to car-pool to work together and through that and our work our relationship grew. To this day I am very close with his family and am godfather to his oldest son. Over my years in the seminary, I called on him multiple times, usually when he was not expecting it, to ask for some sort of help. I never had any fear calling on him because I knew that what I was asking for was a good thing and that, because of our friendship, he’d be very willing to offer his help. Even if he was resistant, at first, I knew that I could push on him for it because he could be relied upon to respond if he was able; even if it would be inconvenient for him or his family. I could only do that, however, because I had built a relationship with him first.
The same applies to our prayers of petition. When we’ve spent time with God, building our relationship with him, we become much more apt to turn to him with our needs and also to trust that, even if his response seems to be long-delayed, that he will respond and give us what it is that we need (even if that isn’t exactly what we asked for).
There’s a saying that states that God responds to prayers of petition in one of three ways: “Ok”, “Ok, but not now”, and “Ok, but I have a better idea”. When we build a relationship with God through spending time with him in the sacraments, in private prayer, and in reading the Bible, we become both bold in bringing to God all of our needs and also open to hearing which of these three responses he offers us when we turn to him.
My brothers and sisters, our Good God wants us to turn to him with all of our needs, big and small, because he truly is our Father who loves us dearly. Like any good father, however, he wants even more to be in a close, intimate relationship with us, so that we may learn to trust that, even if he does not appear to respond immediately or in the way we desire, he will nonetheless respond: in the way and at the time that we truly need it. Let us, then, renew our commitment to draw close to him today and to turn to him for all of our needs; for his promise to remain near to us—the sacrifice of his Son—is already here at hand.
Given at All Saints Parish:
– July 28th, 2013 Logansport, IN