Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8
On the surface, the theme of this Sunday’s readings seems to be “It never hurts to ask…and ask, and ask!” In the first reading, we hear an almost painfully long exchange in which Abraham asks if God will spare the city of Sodom if fifty, or even forty-five, or even forty and so on down to a mere ten innocent people can be found there. As Abraham plays the haggler or maybe a nagging child, God patiently offers a steady answer each time: For the sake of the innocent, God will not destroy the city. In the Gospel reading, Luke’s parable tells of a person who calls upon a friend who is already asleep in bed – waking him up to ask for some loaves of bread that are needed to provide hospitality for guests. In case we didn’t get the message about the value of persistence, the author of Luke’s gospel spells it out: “ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
Honestly that message makes me uncomfortable for a number of reasons. First of all, the message here can be easily misconstrued to equate God with some kind of Santa Claus figure. I have had enough unpleasant conversations with atheists who have told me that believing in God is like believing in Santa Claus (which obviously, it is not) to be averse to any God-Santa parallels. But perhaps more significantly this passage always makes me think about the many, many people who ask but do not receive, and of those who seek but do not find. I’m not talking about people who pray that they will win the lottery. I am thinking of people who pray for the return of a missing child who later turns up dead. I am thinking of people who pray that they will find a job that will put food on the table but remain unemployed. I am thinking of children who pray that their parents will stop fighting and just get along, but they never do. In short, my reaction to the phrase “ask and you will receive” is similar to what I think and feel when people tell me “God doesn’t give us any burden we can’t handle.” I cringe a little bit. I don’t really believe it. It doesn’t seem true and it doesn’t describe my experience of God.
And yet, I cannot ignore the fact that in this same Gospel reading, Jesus teaches us to pray by asking God for what we need. We are to pray for God’s Reign to come that all will be made right. We are to pray for our daily bread, for forgiveness, for mercy – that we might not be put to the test. For this reason, I cannot stop trying to figure out how to believe in the words “Ask and it shall be given” and so on. I keep on trying.
One thing that has helped me along is to see that these readings are also very much about the magnitude of God’s mercy and generosity. Despite Abraham’s annoying persistence, God shows mercy to him and promises to spare the guilty for the sake of the innocent. The story ends abruptly, leaving us wondering just how far God would go – would God spare the city for even one innocent person? The structure of the story suggests that God would be even that merciful. The immensity of God’s mercy also comes through in the second reading. By the cross and resurrection of Christ, all of our transgressions have been forgiven. Perhaps what we are meant to ask for and receive is forgiveness and healing? With the persistence of Abraham or the visitor in Luke’s Gospel who shows up looking for loaves of bread in the night, we are meant to stand and ask again and again for God’s mercy. I may have trouble believing that anything that you ask for will be given to you, but I can certainly believe that when we ask for forgiveness and mercy God will grant us our request.
Or maybe Jesus encourages us to ask God for all things in order to remind us that we are creatures. We sometimes need to be reminded of our ultimate dependence upon God. In his book Globalization, Spirituality, and Justice, Daniel Groody writes that there was a persistent tendency among the people of ancient Israel to deny that they needed God. When they were successful, they forgot that it was God who delivered them into the land and sustained them. They deluded themselves into thinking that they had only themselves to thank for their success (“It is my own power and the strength of my own hand that has obtained for me this wealth” – Dt 8:17). This tendency persisted in the time of Jesus and it persists today. Perhaps that is in part what these readings are getting at today. We are called to turn to God and ask for all that we need in order that we might remember that God is the ultimate source of life and all that is good.
I haven’t figured out exactly how all of this comes together. I haven’t figured out how there can be suffering and unanswered prayers co-existing with a promise that “everyone who asks, receives”. But I continue to knock at the door, hoping that it may be opened and I will come to know God more deeply and understand.
Thank you for your homily for XVII Sunday C. I truly appreciate your insightful reflections as well as your wrestling with the texts. For me, it is also a tough set of readings on which to preach or even try to appreciate in their entirety.
As you mentioned, in the first reading from Genesis, Abraham’s bargaining with God seems to lend itself to a way of thinking that we can change the mind of God to conform to our own expectations, hopes, and dreams. Abraham’s exchange with God here is not an isolated experience of bartering. Other biblical pericopes reveal similar dealings with God. Judeo-Christian scriptures confirm these naggings as we read the pleading of the leaders of the people and the prophets. Even in Jesus, we find negotiation talks with God. For instance, in Matthew 26:39-46, Jesus begs God to “let this cup pass by me,” but ultimately entrusts his will to God the Creator.
Christians believe that God who revealed the divine self would only want the good and know the good. So, why then do I and others have to pray to change reality? On a very personal level, why would I or anyone want to be in relationship with a God who is a “player?”
Just in the past day, I was asked to pray and remember at Eucharist a woman moving through a difficult pregnancy and a man tortured with some psychological issues. Advocates of theirs asked that I pray that God “brings” a healthy baby to the woman and her family and for the man freedom from his demons. “God would want only the good and, in turn, make it (the good as they understood it) happen, wouldn’t He (sic)?” One of them asked.
These days I have been thinking also of the controversial blogger Thomas Peters over at http://www.catholicvote.org/author/thomas-peters/ who recently sustained a traumatic brain injury. His family and friends have started a blog and “prayer chain,” if you will to “storm heaven” through the intercession of particular saints and beati http://tpetersrecovery.blogspot.com/. They recognize it is going to be a long road to recovery, but they are committed to walking with Thomas. Where was God to prevent Thomas from having this accident? Thomas did not misuse his freedom and engage any horseplay; it was as some would say a “freak unforeseen accident.” Did God not approve of Thomas’ work at http://www.nationformarriage.org/ and “smite” him down to use a biblical term? Some of his detractors have suggested this on their blogs!
What then does prayer “do” exactly? I have to admit when I pray early in the morning or at the evening hour w/ my local community here at http://www.stjohns.edu/about/general/programs/murrayhouse, I can become distracted and merely mouth the words of the psalms and prayers. Sometimes, in these moments, I recall the purpose of prayer and that brings some a bit of consolation to why I am praying. I learned early on from http://www.brentwoodcsj.org/ at http://www.saintjanefrances.org/ that there are four purposes of prayer: praise, thanksgiving, penance, and petition. The first three are clear to me. Asking God to act in a certain way, bargaining, negotiating, or nagging, is not all that obvious.
I remember when I lived in Brentwood, NY with some of the same Josephites who taught me in grammar school. My community and I would worship with them each morning at 6:30 in their magnificent Motherhouse chapel http://cdm16373.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15281coll24/id/78/rec/40. One morning the presider invited the congregation for any personal petitions during the period of the Eucharist allotted for the Universal Prayers of the Church. Unfortunately, one bidding prayer had my classmates and me rolling with laughter and fraught with embarrassment in the pew. The congregant asked Almighty God to change the “liberal mind” of the late Sister George Aquin O’Connor, CSJ http://www.sjcny.edu/AboutUs/History-of-St-Josephs-College/356. O’Connor had recently made public a plan to expand St. Joseph College’s Long Island campus which obviously did not sit well with this one member of her religious community.
This divisive type of bidding prayer is not an isolated one, but repeated over and over in some ecclesial communities. In a deeply divided community, the time of the Prayers of the Faithful can become a bully pulpit for multiple agendae further splitting a community. When presiding at a Eucharist recently, I “opened” up the Universal Prayer to the Assembly. One person prayed that politicians retrench their efforts towards the http://www.hhs.gov/healthcare/rights/index.html while another person followed up by praying for a global community where true freedom of expression bolstered by “God-given” human rights, including access to universal healthcare, would be realized. Most everyone caught the dichotomy. Unfortunately, not much was made of it and dismissed it all too easily with the helpless phrase “it is what it is.”
It isn’t “what it is,” but unfortunately I was merely a guest presider and only could suggest to the pastor and some parish leadership that they consider use this experience as a teaching moment. The construction of these prayers could lead to a deeper appreciation of who God is and how does the human community relate to God more authentically, if you will.
Jettisoning prayers of petition is not being faithful to our Judeo-Christian tradition. As you reference, in Luke 11:1-13, Jesus encourages his followers to make requests unceasingly. Similar biblical stories promote persistence in prayer. The Lord ’s Prayer from this Sunday’s gospel reading and the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8 come to mind as examples. Why though does it have to be this way? Can’t God already anticipate my needs and grant them without me having to ask? A relationship with a God, understood in this way, can be awfully frustrating.
I say “understood in this way” because I believe this is a very limited appreciation of what can be a very dynamic relationship with God. Such a relationship can be, in fact, “Santa Claus” like, as you suggest. No one really cares to know much more about Santa Claus only that the horizontally challenged jolly fellow in a red suit provides for one’s needs once a year when he can. Similarly, I would suggest, as long as I am living a good life, things are moving smoothly, and the people around me are well, God is good. That would be the best case scenario because I know sometimes I can take more credit for that which God has accomplished in and through me than I deserve. At the same time, when I cry out to God for assistance, I expect God to be on call waiting for me to give God a new assignment – to heal, to bolster, to transform, etc.
This kind of relationship is awfully one-sided. If God does not come through, God is a bitter angry removed being, at best, who has little regard for God’s people and creation. This type of behavior sounds awfully immature to me.
I don’t like bargaining. I am not good at it and it smacks of manipulative consumerism. I want to know the truth and not play games. Abraham, I believe, wanted to know the truth of God. What we understand as “bargaining” may, in fact, be a sincere inquiry to go deeper into a relationship with God to understand the divine heart. It might be compared to a couple or friends that have to ask some hard sensitive questions about the other. The task is never easy and only further complicated when others are involved as were the people of Sodom and Gomorrah in Abraham’s life.
Seeking to know and love God is a formidable task. Insight into God’s providence is never totally clear, but I suggest we can get glimpses, in fact, by “bargaining” with God. However, I have to know who it is though with whom I am negotiating. Abraham stands as an example as one who is not afraid to risk knowing the totality of who God is. To use an image from our technological world, I have to stop “uploading” my understanding of God and telling God who God is or should be for me and work on downloading, “drinking from the wellspring,” God’s wisdom. In doing so, I might come to have a better appreciation of who and what God is as well as who we are and whose we are.
Spending quality time with God is a challenge. Engaging loved ones is any intimate time is difficult these days. Our lives are occupied with increasing legitimate responsibilities and we can be distracted increasingly by playing with our technology. We make time, though, for things that matter, no less people that matter. All the bargaining, nagging, and negotiating can wear us down, so we might want to prioritize our lives and develop more deeply our relationship with God to understand God’s plan – God’s kingdom and God’s will – more fully. As last Sunday’s gospel taught us, “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Thanks again, Chris, for prompting me to consider your thoughts on these readings.
Perhaps the point of the Sodom/Gomorrah story is not how far God would go, but how far Abraham, or I, would go ?
Mother Teresa of Calcutta said that prayer enlarges the human heart until God fully enters us.
If we keep knocking, we will receive. And not only the spiritual gifts but also Social Justice, but we’ll have to all be prepared to work hard for it and put our bodies on the line for it. Prayer will help us us get there and open ourselves up to the power of God’s grace to achieve it.
Thanks, Chris, for these open-ended and honest reflections. I struggle with the same issues and I know many people who simply cannot engage in prayers of petition because they can’t answer the questions you raise. No, God doesn’t give everyone only what they can handle or what they need. If prayer is only about us instead of God, it seems kind of silly to hope for prayers to be answered. I agree with Patrick that the point of other kinds of prayer is more obvious. Like you, I continue to pray for my own needs and for the needs of others. It seems important to name our concerns, even though we know God already knows. But what am I really doing? I’m not sure.
Thank you so much for your comments, Patrick, Chris, and Julie! I am very grateful to all three of you for helping me wrestle with these difficult readings.
Patrick — I was particularly struck by your interpretation of Abraham’s dialogue with God as an effort to know God more deeply rather than to bargain. I think that’s a very good insight and probably closer to the truth than the image of trying to talk God down to sparing the city for the sake of one person.