Faith and Prayer, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), October 17, 2004

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in OT, Year C
October 17, 2004
Ex 17:8-13; 2Tim3:14-4:2; Lk 18:1-8

1) Jesus’ final words in today’s Gospel almost seem out of place. After teaching his disciples a parable about the need to pray always and never lose heart, he concludes by asking, ominously, “Yet when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Jesus’ question is not a non sequitur. On the contrary, he is stressing something that was completely obvious to him and should be obvious to all of us: the connection between FAITH and the PERSISTENT PRAYER he was describing in the parable. There are two sides to this connection. First, if one doesn’t believe that God exists, what sense does it make to pray to him? And even if one believes in the existence of a Creator, unless he believes in God’s love and goodness, why would he turn to God in need? But the thrust of Jesus’ question, I think, focuses on other aspect of the connection: If one truly does believe in God and in his goodness and love, then one should be praying “always” without “losing heart.”

2) The very fact that Jesus asked the question indicates that he’s not convinced that He will find faith when He comes again. This is something that we should not miss. There’s some pessimism in Jesus’ question — but a justifiable one, coming from his experience with the religious people of his day. Very few of those with a reputation for being “faithful” among his contemporaries were demonstrating that they could pray faithfully with the persevering insistence of the woman in the parable. When Jesus praised people for faith, they were generally not religious Jews, from whom we might have expected faith, but pagans. He praised the Syro-Phoenician woman, saying, “Great is your faith!,”after she persistently asked him to heal her daughter, not even slowing down when Jesus, to test her, said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mt 15:26-28). After the Roman Centurion told Jesus just to say the word from a distance and his servant would be healed, St. Luke tells us that “Jesus was amazed at his faith and said aloud, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Lk 7:9). To those closest to him, on the other hand, Jesus often mentioned their lack of faith. To Peter, he said, “Why did you doubt, you of little faith?” (Mt 14:31). To the Twelve, who were wondering about having no bread with them in the boat immediately after having witnessed Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fish, said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread?” (Mt 16:8). When nine of the apostles asked him why they couldn’t rebuke a demon from a little boy, the Lord responded, “Because of your little faith” (Mt 17:20). And Jesus used the same expression — “You of little faith” — to ALL of his listeners on Mt. Tabor during the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 6:30).

3) The question for us today is: If Jesus were to come right now, would he find faith here in Hyannis? Would he be satisfied with our faith? Would he praise us, saying, “Great is your faith!,” or state lamentably, “You of little faith”? Jesus describes the criterion for the fidelity he wants to find in us in today’s Gospel, in his teaching us about the NECESSITY to pray always without ever losing heart. The true test of our faith, he says, is in our prayer.

4) If we were to ask Jesus to give us an honest evaluation of how we pray, how often we pray, and how well we pray, what would he say? Would he say, “Great is your prayer!” or “You of little prayer”? One of the most common refrains from American Catholics today is “I don’t have time to pray!” On the one hand, it points to how busy we’ve made ourselves with so many activities, despite devices and appliances from washing machines to cars to computers, all designed originally to save us time. On the other hand, though, it points to a misplaced set of priorities flowing — we have to be honest — from an insufficient faith. If our faith in God were strong, then our choices of how we spend our time, how we make our priorities, would show it. I remember a conversation with a rather combative man in Fall River who was upset because I was clearly hesitating to give him permission to be a godfather even though he told me, unrepentantly, that he was “too busy” to go to Mass on Sundays and to pray each day. I asked him, “Are you too busy to eat?” “No,” he said. “Are you busy to sleep?” “No,” he retorted. Pointing to his Patriots’ sweatshirt, I asked, “Are you too busy to catch the Patriots on television?” (And we all know the day of the week on which the Patriots play…). He replied a third time, “No, Father.” He himself saw the inescapable conclusion: practically-speaking, the Pats, eating, and sleeping were simply higher priorities for him than spending time with God. He believed in God’s existence, but for the most part he was an atheist in his daily actions. If we truly believe in God, that he is the Lord of the Universe and the Lord of our lives, then he should also be the Lord of our time. God gives us 168 hours a week. How many do we “give back” to Him? If the answer is just the one that we give each week in coming to Mass, God clearly deserves more. He gives us 1440 minutes a day. How many do we spend in conversation with that giver? If it’s just a few minutes before we go to bed, he clearly deserves more. Many of us — we have to be candid — spend far more time looking at the television or at a computer screen than we do looking face-to-face with God in prayer. Many of us spend far more time talking to friends on the phone than we do talking to God. Jesus calls us to pray “always,” which means that everything we do — from our work, to our family life, to our hobbies — is meant to be given to God and done in unison with God. Our whole life is meant to be a divine-human “duet.” But in order for us to be able to live the type of life in which we can have the type of recollection making constant conversation with God possible in the ordinary things of the day, we must, at some times of the day, give him our undivided attention in prayer.

5) Not only is prayer an expression of our faith in God and that God is truly worth our time, but prayer is a crucial way by which we grow in faith and stay faithful to God. In the first reading, we witnessed the battle of the Israelites against the Amalekites. Moses was up on the Mountain while Joshua was down on the field leading the troops. The more important combatant, however, was Moses. Whenever his hands were raised, the Israelites dominated; whenever his arms drooped, the Amalekites gained the upper hand. The early Fathers of the Church gave a spiritual interpretation to this historical event. They said we’re all in a battle against various spiritual Amalekites, from the devil, to the types of temptations we face, to the sinful tendencies that come from within. When we have our hands raised in prayer to God, they taught, we will triumph “through Him who strengthens us” (Phil 4:13). But when our hands fall, when we cease to pray, we will be conquered by them. This truth has been apparent to sinners and saints throughout the centuries and is still obvious today. How can anyone deny the witness of those in twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, who say that without God they would be gonners? God gives them, they say, the strength by which they can continue the struggle one day at a time. The great saints have said, “But for the grace of God go I” and saw that they obtained those graces in prayer. But the contrary is also true. When someone abandons prayer, they will start to be overcome by various temptations, whether gradually or quickly. There are so many examples I could point to in order to illustrate this point, but I’ll give just one. In the recent surveys of those priests who have abandoned their missions in Christ’s vineyard, one fact sticks out. In almost all of the cases, those priests had abandoned praying their breviary each day. At their ordination, priests promise to pray it every day, spread over five different times, for their needs and the needs of the whole Church. It’s called the “divine office” — because it is the priest’s job to pray — and the “liturgy of the hours,” because it’s the principle means by which the priest is called to “pray always.” When priests do not pray it, as the surveys have indicated unmistakably, the foundation for their fidelity is weakened. Without taking their difficulties and temptations to Christ in prayer, the priesthood can become too much for them. What happens when priests— so many of whom have received such a great foundation for their spiritual life — abandon prayer can happen to any Christian. Jesus said to Peter, James and John in the Garden, “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41), and they didn’t, and we know what happened afterward: they all ran away and Peter denied even knowing Jesus. The same thing can happen to us when we abandon prayer. That’s why Jesus, in responding to his disciples’ request to teach them to pray, taught them, in the Our Father, to say, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Prayer is the means by which God strengthens us to resist temptation and resist the seductions of the evil one. Prayer, again, is the means by which we stay faithful.

6) Pope John Paul II has reiterated this call to incessant prayer in his beautiful document Mane Nobiscum Domine (“Stay with us, Lord”) for the beginning of the Year of the Eucharist, which began on Sunday and will continue through the end of October 2005. The pope called this year so that the Church as a whole could learn to profit much more from the incredible gift that is Jesus in the Eucharist. There will be time to get into the various aspects of the document in later weeks, but today I would like to focus on what he says concerning prayer to Jesus in the Eucharist. Listen to the Holy Father, whom God chose 26 years ago this weekend (October 16) to be the 263rd successor of St. Peter and his Son’s vicar on earth: “There is a particular need to cultivate a lively awareness of Christ’s real presence, both in the celebration of Mass and in the worship of the Eucharist outside Mass.… The presence of Jesus in the tabernacle must be a kind of magnetic pole attracting an ever greater number of souls enamoured of him, ready to wait patiently to hear his voice and, as it were, to sense the beating of his heart. … During this year Eucharistic adoration outside Mass should become a particular commitment for individual parish … communities. Let us take the time to kneel before Jesus present in the Eucharist, in order to make reparation by our faith and love for the acts of carelessness and neglect, and even the insults which our Savior must endure in many parts of the world. Let us deepen through adoration our personal and communal contemplation, drawing upon aids to prayer inspired by the word of God and the experience of so many mystics, old and new … who in the Eucharist found nourishment on their journey towards perfection.” (MND 18,31).

7) The Holy Father is calling us to act on our faith of Christ, the Son of God made man, in the Eucharist. If we truly believe that Christ is present in the tabernacle, we would make it a priority to come to spend time with him. I say often that if the Holy Father were to announce that next weekend he were coming to our parish, there wouldn’t be a square inch of space left (as right there shouldn’t be). You would probably call your friends and relatives and let them know of your incredible fortune. But someone far greater than the Holy Father is already here. The Holy Father’s BOSS is here — the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, our Creator — and so few people, relatively, come to spend time with him. So few spread this great news that God is here. The Holy Father is calling all of us, on behalf of God, to stop taking this incredible gift for granted. He calls us to make Jesus in the tabernacle the “magnetic pole” of our lives, drawing us here, where Jesus is, waiting for us, ready to give us his full attention. If we truly believe that this is God, and that nothing or no one is more important than God, then we will take advantage of this year of grace and make time for him. St. Francis Xavier is open from 6 am to 4 pm every day for those who want to come to adore the Lord. There is adoration 24 hours a day at the beautiful Our Lady of Life Chapel in Harwich for those who need other times. While we can turn to God anywhere, the Holy Father is calling us to root our whole prayer lives in the “source and summit of the Christian life,” which is the Eucharist. I would ask you, in prayer this week, to ask Jesus how he wants you to live out this Year of the Eucharist.

8 ) Prayer is the summit of the Christian life, by which we prepare ourselves for heaven, when we hope to see God face-to-face. Jesus in his earthly life taught us by his own example of prayer and by so many teachings on prayer how important it is if we wish to remain faithful to him. When he comes again, in just a few minutes, on this altar, he wants to find in us true faith, and the priority for prayer that flows from faith. We can see on the Cross behind the altar that, just like Moses had his hands raised so that the Israelites would receive the victory, so Christ’s hands have been permanently lifted up on the Cross, so that we, his disciples, might achieve victory over infidelity, sin and death. We receive the foretaste of that victory in the Eucharist. May the Lord Jesus, who lifted up those hands for us, help us to lift up our hands and hearts to the Lord in persevering prayer so that we might be able to receive the full fruits of that victory, in this life and face-to-face with him in the next.