AIM: To explain prayer of petition and intercession.
Why do we ask God for things in prayer? Are we trying to get God to change his mind? And why ask at all if God already knows our needs before we pray? Which of us has never wondered about questions like these? What better time to consider them than on this Sunday, when two of our readings are about asking God for things in prayer?
In the first reading Abraham bargains with God over the fate of
. Abraham starts by putting God on the
defensive with the accusing question: AWill you sweep away the innocent with
the guilty?@ In the lengthy haggling that
follows, Abraham seems almost to back God against the wall with his
persistence. What seems strange or even shocking to us was entirely normal for
those for whom this story was written. Lengthy haggling in the bazaar was as
much part of their daily experience as waiting at the supermarket checkout line
is for us. Sodom
The gospel mentions Jesus= own prayer, and follows this with his disciples’ request: ALord, teach us to pray...@ Jesus responds with what scholars believe is the earliest form of the Lord=s Prayer. The version we use is longer B the result of expansion and embellishment by the Church in the first Christian generation. The Achanges in the liturgy@ which upset some people today began very early!
The story about the friend coming at midnight which follows Jesus= model prayer B the only one he ever gave us B emphasizes two things: the need for persistence in prayer, and God=s readiness to hear us: AAsk and you will receive, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.@
Our first reading shows Abraham=s persistence. Abraham was out to win. He The story about the friend coming at midnight which follows Jesus= model prayer B the only one he ever gave us B emphasizes two things: the need for persistence in prayer, and God=s readiness to hear us: AAsk and you will receive, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.@
Abraham refused to take No for an answer. When we pray, are we as persistent as Abraham was? We lack persistence (though we probably don=t realize it), if we pray only when we=re in a jam. Those of us who are old enough to remember World War II recall the saying: AThere are no atheists in the foxholes.@ In times of mortal peril, almost anyone will pray. To continue praying when the crisis has passed requires persistence, and faith.
Continuing to pray when God seems to answer only with silence increases our desire and strengthens our faith, as physical exercise strengthens the heart, lungs, and muscles. St. Gregory the Great, who was Pope from 590 to 604, wrote: AAll holy desires grow by delays; and if they fade because of these delays, they were never holy desires.@ Persistence in prayer is undermined by lack of faith. That is why Jesus tells us in Mark=s gospel: AWhatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours@ (Mk 11:24).
To illustrate his teaching about prayer, Jesus reminds us that God is our loving heavenly Father, and we are his children. God is more loving, however, than the even best human father or mother B and wiser. Hence he will not always answer our prayers in the way, or at the time, that we think he should. When God refuses something we pray for, it is always in order to give us something better.
Jesus discovered this when he prayed, the night before his death: AAbba (O Father), you have power to do all things. Take this cup away from me. But let it be as you would have it, not as I@ (Mark 14:36). Jesus= Father responded to that agonized prayer not by taking away the cup of suffering, but by giving his Son strength to drink the cup to the dregs. The Father crowned this gift by raising Jesus from the tomb to a new life beyond death.
That was better than the deliverance Jesus had prayed for in advance. It was possible to see that it was better, however, only in retrospect. At the time, Jesus seems to have thought his prayer had gone unanswered, as we learn from his dying cry on the cross: AMy God, my God, why have you forsaken me?@ (Mark 15:34).
Jesus= experience shows that prayer does not change God. Prayer changes us. Each time we place our needs before God in prayer, we are opening ourselves to the action of God in our lives. This helps explain why Jesus teaches us to pray for our needs, even though God knows them in advance. Whenever we pray we are acknowledging our dependence on God.
God does not need that reminder. We do, however. When the sun shines on us and everything seems to be going well, it is easy to forget our need of God. Such forgetfulness is often the prelude to a humiliating fall. The best insurance against such falls is to keep on placing our needs before God in prayer, in good times and in bad.
The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen told a story about a little girl who prayed, before Christmas, for a hundred dolls. She didn=t get even one. Her unbelieving father, who had taunted both her and her mother for praying at all, couldn=t resist saying on Christmas day: AWell God didn=t answer your prayers, did he?@ To which the child gave the beautiful answer: AOh yes, He did. He said No!@ In my own eighty-ninth year, I am grateful to have lived long enough to be able to thank God for answering some of my prayers, Not yet; and others, No.
Even when we have done our best to explain and understand prayer, however, it remains a mystery: not in the sense that we can understand nothing about prayer, but that what we can understand is partial only. We can no more explain Ahow prayer works@ than we can explain how the human mind works, or the human heart. Even someone as experienced in prayer as the apostle Paul confessed that much about prayer remained a mystery to him. AWe do not know how to pray as we ought,@ he writes in his letter to the Romans. ABut the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in speech. He who searches hearts knows what the Spirit means ...@ (Rom. 8:26f).
Above all, therefore, we need to ask for the gift of God=s Holy Spirit. That prayer will always be answered. Jesus promises us this at the end of today=s gospel: AIf 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?@