Pray Like Abraham and Jesus
Reflections on forthcoming Mass readings. Note: More guides are available under “Resources.”
Sunday, July 25, is the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Liturgical Year C, Cycle II).
Pope Benedict XVI decided not to take his typical vacation in the Italian Alps this summer. Instead, he is spending all of his vacation time at Castel Gandolfo, the summer papal residence. He’s nearly 83 and wants to spend his free time resting and reading.
This is the first time since 2005 that he has skipped the Alps before moving to Castel Gandolfo for the remainder of the summer — and sometimes until October.
Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138: 1-3, 6-8; Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13
We sometimes think of God in an almost bureaucratic way. When we request something from a government agency, we put our papers in order and wait to hear back. If it comes, it comes slowly. If it is denied, the appeals process is even slower.
When we pray, we can put in our requests to God in the same way. We figure an answer will come — eventually. When it does, it can sometimes seem mysterious, as if the providential process delivers it by a chain of causality.
Today’s readings remind us that God is a person, not a benign agent of causality.
In the first reading, Abraham faces God with a respectful concern about what will happen to Sodom. “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” he asks.
But God would spare the town for the sake of 50, 45, 40, 30, 20 … or even just 10 innocent people.
Surely, this is a lesson about God’s mercy — and the crucial importance of being innocent. But it’s also a lesson in prayer. Abraham may be respectful, but he’s also insistent and persistent. He doesn’t just demand — he cajoles and repeats.
In the Gospel, Jesus gives the apostles the same lesson about prayer. One of his disciples says, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
The first thing Christ does is teach them the Our Father, which asks for the gift of daily bread, forgiveness and an innocent life — in other words, addressing the same issues Abraham raised.
But Jesus’ lesson doesn’t stop with the Lord’s Prayer. He also teaches them to treat God like a person.
He compares prayer to trying to wake up a reluctant friend at night to get what you need. This is like Abraham: asking God over and over for the same thing.
The priest who married us gave us the same counsel on prayer. “When you are angry, make your prayer angry,” he said. “When you are disappointed, tell God you are disappointed.”
God isn’t a bureaucracy that may or may not give you what you want, eventually, in a way that’s not transparent. He’s a person who wants to be in a relationship with you. Interpersonal relationships require honesty.
Jesus realizes this might sound a little unrealistic. There are plenty of times we knock and the door seems to not be opened unto us, we ask and seem not to receive, we seek and don’t seem to find.
Jesus explains that too.
“What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?” he asks. “Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
When we pray, “Lord, please give me this job, give my children that opportunity, give my brother that spiritual gift,” the Lord knows what we’re asking: “Give me the career I need. Give my children the lesson that will make them stronger. Lead my brother to you.”
God is not a literalist who will give us the job we wanted that would derail us, the opportunity we wanted that would be a disaster for our kids, or short-circuit the freedom and love which alone can save our brother.
Like a good father, he will hand us what we need.
Tom and April Hoopes write
from Atchison, Kansas.