Saturday, July 23, 2016

Learning to Endure

The mass readings for Sunday (7/24), the seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, present us with a teaching about prayer, more specifically intercessory prayer.

In the first reading Abraham negotiates with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. As God contemplates destroying the cities for their rampant sins, Abraham pleads with God to spare them for the sake of a righteous few. In the back and forth conversation Abraham starts with asking for mercy if merely fifty righteous could be found, gradually lowing the number down to ten.

There are some who look at this passage and see a vengeful God ready to smote while kind Abraham has to argue with him to save the cities. It’s the same kind of situation when we see Moses pleading for mercy on behalf of Israel before the Lord. So what’s the deal? Why does God make Abraham and Moses plead for mercy? Isn’t God merciful? It is difficult for many to read these stories and understand what God is doing, especially when the focus is placed on God’s wrath.

The Gospel reading from Luke presents us with Jesus’ teaching on prayer and provides the interpretive key to understanding the reading from Genesis. The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Keep in mind that as good Jews they likely followed to religious commands to pray, and pray daily. The Jews had specific guidelines for prayer. So why ask Jesus to teach them? I would argue that it was because they watched Jesus pray, they took note of his prayer life and realized there was something different about it from their own experiences.

In response, Jesus first gives them the prayer we know as the Our Father. It is a prayer unto itself and a model of prayer. He then tells the parable of the man asking his neighbor for bread in the middle of the night. This man seemingly pesters his neighbor until the neighbor agrees to just be left alone. Jesus even says as much, “I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.”

So what does this have to do with Abraham? Is Jesus saying if we just pester God enough he’ll give us what we ask for just to shut us up because we’re bothering him?

Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock—in the Greek these verbs are more like keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking. He assures us that God is a loving, caring Father who knows our needs and will not deceive us or withhold from us. How does this fit with the story of Abraham and the parable Jesus told about the persistent neighbor?

God always has our ultimate greatest end in mind, he is always most concerned about forming his children so that we can be fully restored to his image and likeness. The point of the conversation with Abraham (or similar conversations with Moses) isn’t that these men somehow managed to change God’s mind, but that through their perseverance in prayer their own hearts are changed. In pleading for mercy on behalf of others the hearts of Abraham and Moses are moved to mercy themselves. They become less self-centered, self-focused and become truly concerned for others. When we keep pressing on in intercessory prayer, the longer and harder we press in the more our hearts are transformed. God knows our needs and he will “work all things together for the good of those who love him” but that good is always the highest and perfect good. We never see the big picture, we never truly know all of the facts, but Jesus calls us to keep seeking after God and his kingdom. He wants us to be transformed while resting in the knowledge that God always cares for us.

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