‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’
Be careful what you pray for!
This Sunday’s readings offer lessons on prayer. The Gospel passage opens with Jesus at prayer – a familiar scene in Luke – and with an intriguing request from the disciples: ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ Why do they ask this? Presumably well tutored already in those prayersrecited in the synagogue and Temple, the disciples do not need to learn more. They speak of John and his disciples, but perhaps this is really about Jesus and them as His disciples. Do they hope to learn to become more like Jesus, to approach their God as Jesus does? Whatever their motivation, Jesus responds positively. The disciples do not learn specific words for reciting by rote.Instead, Jesus teaches them about relationship with God. He offers guidance on how to pray and what to pray for, on the importance of perseverance, and on the effectiveness of prayer.
In today’s first reading, Abraham demonstrates the effectiveness of persistence with God. The LORD has not spoken explicitly of destroying anyone yet Abraham, seemingly expecting this, aims to prevent it from happening in Sodom and Gomorrah. Reminding the LORD who God is, he repeatedly presses the LORD to spare the people: ‘Do not think of doing such a thing: to kill the just with the sinner, treating just and sinner alike. Do not think of it! Will the judge of the whole earth not administer justice?’ Ultimately, Abraham’s perseverance is rewarded and the people are unharmed.
What Jesus teaches the disciples is interesting in terms of how we might pray and how we might live as followers of Jesus today. Most Christians pray these words often, many at least once daily. What do they demand of us? Jesusbegins with an invitation to recognise God as ‘Father’ and to form a personal relationship with God who is Father of all. To pray ‘may your name be held holy’ is to commit to living well, to doing nothing that detracts from what keeps God’s name holy. Our lives must be such that they point to God and in a wholesome manner. Praying ‘your kingdom come’ is also challenging. How do we discover God’s will? Having done so, how do we do work to bring about God’s kingdom? The kingdom we pray for does not mean an easy life and yet it is simple. It starts with relationship with God and asks everything of us, as it did of Jesus and, later, of the disciples.
Only after God has been addressed is Jesus’ way of praying concerned with earthly realities. Asking that God ‘give us each day our daily bread’ recognises both that we can rely on, and trust in, God’s providential care and that we are not in charge of our own destiny. Consequently, we need not worry about or amass material things. To pray ‘forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us’ is audacious. Without putting conditions of God’s forgiveness, Jesus’ words have us asserting boldly that forgiving our brothers and sisters is already our way of being. If it is not, then praying this to God may give us pause until we amend our relationships with others. Praying ‘do not put us to the test’ looks to the eschaton. It is to trust that God will always help us to remain faithful when we meet with the difficult challenges expected in the end times.
Continuing with a parable, Jesus illustrates the need to keep on praying. Oftentimes, we can feel prayer is in vain. Experience teaches us that God does not always answer, at least not at once or not in the way we expect, and sometimes, it seems, not at all. Yet Jesus’ teaching offers hope, suggesting that God will in fact answer, that persistence will pay off, and that we must keep asking. WhileJesus is emphatic that our asking, searching, and knocking ‘will’ meet with a response, repeating that this is ‘always’ so for all those who ask, search, or knock, it is important to note what follows. Jesus teaches the disciples that God knows infinitely better than humans how to respond. A child asking for food will not receive a stone, snake or scorpion. Parents do not meet a child’s request with something useless or dangerous. By the same token, if my nephew asks for something I know not to be for his good, I will say no. His wish is unanswered but that does not mean it is unheard or that he is not loved both in his asking and my refusing.
So it is with God.Jesus does not promise that God will grant us all that we ask. Rather, Jesus asserts that ‘the heavenly Father’ will ‘give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ Perhaps these words offer some explanation, indeed reassurance, when our prayers seemingly go unanswered. It may be that we sought what was not for our good and that God’s answer, when it comes, will be. Today’s Psalm could not be clearer: ‘On the day I called, you answered me, O Lord.’
Encouraged by today’s readings, may we call on the Lord continually, confident that God our Father will answer. In line with the adage, “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it,” one might well caution, “Be careful what you pray for!”To pray in the manner that Jesus teaches will ask much of us and may cost us everything. May we persist in such prayer so that our lives might offer to others a glimpse of God’s kingdom and of God’s love.
This past week, I have been inspired by stories of people who have done just this – participants in the Catholic Day of Action for Immigrant Children. On 18th July, seventy Catholics, mostly religious sisters, brothers and priests, were arrested in the Senate Offices in Washington for protesting policies that involve detention of immigrant children at the US–Mexico border. In America Magazine, William Critchley-Menor SJ writes of an “80-something Dominican sister … who spoke not with anger or sorrow but with gratitude saying ‘it does give you some small sense of how Jesus was treated, humiliated … in every age, God sends us opportunities to live the Gospel and to grow in holiness’.”
As that sister says, God gives us many opportunities to make God’s name holy and to strive for the coming of God’s kingdom. Let us seek for and seize these opportunities. Jesus teaches us to pray for this, and our world needs us to do this: to live as disciples who have been taught ‘how to pray’ in deeds as much as in words.
Sr Eileen O’Connell OP