July 24, 2106 –– 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Genesis 18:20–32 / Psalm 138 / Colossians 2:12–14 / Luke 11:1-13
Today’s readings focus on prayer. Last Sunday’s Gospel told us the story about Mary choosing to spend time with Jesus instead of helping Martha with the serving.
What do you expect of prayer? Some people approach prayer with the theological sophistication of Huckleberry Finn:
Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing came of it. She told me to pray everyday, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn't so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn't make it work. I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn't make it out no way.
Haven't there been times when you felt that way? You asked God, praying quite sincerely for something, and it didn't happen. So prayer becomes a big mystery, and like Huck Finn, we can't "make it out no way."
The disciples recognized that Jesus was a man of prayer. Jesus once said, when fully trained, the disciple will be like his teacher (Lu 6:40). The disciples must have recognized that if they could follow Jesus in prayer, then they would grow to be like him. Jesus wants his disciples to follow him in prayer. So Jesus gives a story that, at the end, shows a contrast to the way we can easily think of prayer. There are three common misconceptions in this story Jesus gives.
The first is that prayer mainly rises out of desperation. The arrival of the late traveller caused the householder an embarrassing situation. Because the cupboard was bare he could not fulfill the sacred obligations of hospitality. He was desperate, so he went to a friend way past acceptable hours. Jesus is warning that it is easy to view prayer as begging and the last resort in a desperate situation.
That sets the stage for the second misconception about prayer, that prayer is an imposition on God. Certainly the request in Jesus’s story was an imposition on the friend.
In the east no one would knock on a shut door unless the need was imperative. In the morning the door was opened and remained open all day, for there was little privacy; but if the door was shut, that was a definite sign that the householder was not to be disturbed. But the seeking householder was not deterred. He knocked, and kept on knocking (William Barclay).
It was an imposition to go to the friend after bedtime. And sometimes we can feel that it's an imposition to go to God with our needs. We can feel guilty asking him for something, especially if we've allowed God to be distant and only go to him as a last-resort desperation.
Well, the man finally received what he wanted, but he did so on the basis of a third misconception about prayer, that earnest prayer is mostly persistent begging. We must be careful here because there is a legitimate persistency in praying––Jesus does say ask… seek… knock, but prayer is not just begging for something long enough to get it.
So what is prayer? Rather than a desperate last resort, prayer is the natural breath of a human spirit that was created to know God. Prayer is a way of always being in touch with our Father in heaven. Just as we breathe constantly, we are to pray without ceasing (1Thess 5:17). This is being persistent in prayer. We are have a standing invitation to confidently approach the throne of grace (Heb 4:16). We are given repeated assurance for coming to God: Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith (Heb 10:22). Come near to God, and he will come near to you (Ja 4:8). The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer (1Pet 5:12a).
Jesus wants us to know that if an unwilling householder can finally be coerced by a friend's shameless persistence into giving him what he needs, how much more will God, who is a loving Father, supply all his children's needs? If human fathers know how to give their children good things, then how much more does our perfect Father in heaven know to give us good things! (But we must remember that God is the one who defines “good”.)
This brings up one other question about prayer: Why do we ask God for something when he is our perfect Father and already knows what we need? We do not pray because God needs to know. We pray because we need to have that kind of contact with our heavenly Father…. and he loves for his children to come to him. But, God has left the initiative up to us.
Yet our loving Lord has even provided for that initiative. The best gift from God is his Holy Spirit. In the name of Jesus we are invited to believe that the Father gives us his Spirit so that we can both talk to him and know what to talk about. When that happens we are already on our way to being like Jesus–– being able to pray like Jesus prayed because we know the Father through the Spirit he has given us. So as we commit ourselves to have quiet time with God––to be like Mary with Jesus, and like Jesus with the Father––we come just as those first disciples when they said, Lord, teach us to pray…. If we ask that and mean it, we will be a praying people. We will become more and more like our Lord, and we will make a difference in our world.