Sunday, July 25, 2010

Reflection on the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Prayer and Hearts formed by Priority, Persistence, and Partnership with God Are Always Answered

In Jesus' teaching on prayer in today's Gospel, three critical elements can be derived that are insightful for prayer and human life. When Jesus is asked by his disciples to teach them how to pray, he begins with the Our Father. The version of the Our Father handed on to us by Luke is a trimmed down version which cuts right to the chase: "Father, hallowed by your name, your Kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test." In this prayer one can discern a certain priority: holiness of God, the coming of God's Kingdom, the necessity of the basics of life, forgiveness, and being delivered from the final test (presumably despair, especially in the face of death). Prayer, it would seem, is a matter of priority. Jesus goes on to exhort the disciples to "ask, seek, and knock." From this we can derive that prayer also requires persistence. Finally, Jesus states something quite extraordinary at the end of his teaching: everyone will be given the Spirit who asks for it. At the end of the day, authentic prayer is meant to create a dynamic partnership with God in, through, and with the Spirit.

Prayer and hearts molded in right priority, persistence, and partnership are always answered or responded to by God. We'll get to why this is the case in a moment. First let's mention something about God's responsiveness. Right-smack-dab-in-the-middle of today's Gospel teaching about prayer is an interesting parable about a neighbor who makes an inconvenient visit at midnight looking for bread. At the end of the parable Jesus tells his hearers that the owner of the house will respond to this request if nothing more than because of the persistence of the neighbor. At first glance, therefore, the lesson seems to be persistence. However, according to scripture scholar William Barclay, the lesson is not persistence nor that one must bang on the doors of heaven to get God to respond! Barclay states that the lesson here is about how responsive God is to our prayer, especially when it issues from right priority, persistence, and partnership.

Barclay notes that to "get the point" of the parable, one must understand some basics about the layout of the ancient Palestinian house. The bolt that secured the door was very large and difficult to put in place. The sleeping area was also not too terribly large and the family often slept together for warmth. Hence, to wake up a neighbor in the middle of the night and request something meant disturbing the entire family. The point of the parable is that if the owner of the house will eventually be worn down and go to such lengths to deliver three loaves of bread, how much more will God go to great lengths to respond to our prayer and deliver the Holy Spirit to those who request it.

Finally, why does God always respond to hearts and prayers formed in right priority, persistence, and partnership? Very simply because such hearts and prayers do not look for intervention from above, but movement from within. In other words, when our hearts are filled with the Spirit, our prayer goes from requests that require a simple "yes" or "no" answer to prayer that aims for nothing more than to know God's supportive presence and that longs only for unity and communion with God and others.