The Essential Secret to a Vital Christian Life, 17th Sunday (C), July 24, 2016

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Church of the Holy Family, Manhattan
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
July 24, 2016
Gen 18:20-32, Ps 138, Col 2:12-14, Lk 11:1-13

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following text guided today’s homily: 

The disciples’ startling request

Last Sunday the Church had us focus on Jesus’ praising Mary of Bethany for choosing “the better part,” “the one thing necessary in life,” in sitting at his feet allowing herself to be nourished by him instead of getting anxious and worried, as Martha did, about many of the less important details of hospitality. Today the Church seeks to reinforce that lesson with regard to how each of us prioritizes similar time being fed by God in prayer.

There’s a startling aspect to the request Jesus’ disciple in the Gospel, “Lord, teach us to pray.” On its face, it seems like a straightforward-enough petition, but when one understands well the context in which it would have been asked, it would be similar to Derek Jeter’s asking someone to teach him how to catch a pop fly. The Jewish disciples of Jesus already should have been experts on prayer. The whole of what we call today the Old Testament was one long instruction on how to pray. We see Abraham praying in the first reading. Several times we see Moses climb Mount Sinai or enter the Tent with the Ark of the Covenant to converse with God. The 150 psalms were prayers the Jews sung over and over, with inspired words put on their lips to praise and thank God, to beg forgiveness, to ask for specific things for themselves or for others. We see Samson praying before the Philistines, the Prophet Elijah praying on Mt. Carmel in a showdown versus the priests of Ba’al, Queen Esther praying to save the life of her fellow Jews in Babylon. The books of the prophets all contain explicit examples of prayer. The wisdom literature shares the fruit of much prayer and is the source of deep contemplation on the mysteries of God. The history of the Jews and the whole Hebrew Bible was a school of prayer. Yet Jesus’ disciples, fully educated in that school, knew that there was something different about Jesus’ prayer that they hadn’t picked up from the rabbis in the synagogues or the levitical priests in the Temple. His example of prayer — going off to the desert, heading up on a mountain, stealing a corner in a garden, often spending all night — enticed them to ask him to teach them his secret. Implicitly they knew that the type of prayer to which God was calling them was more than merely making some time for God, more than merely reflecting on the Torah or putting the sacred words of the Psalms on their lips. So they turned to Jesus to ask him to teach them this special art, and Jesus didn’t let them down. And today we are here to learn from the same Master.

The difference between a vital Christianity or one at risk

One cannot exaggerate the importance of prayer in a life that’s truly and fully Christian. St. John Paul II, in his 2001 Pastoral Plan for the Church in the new millennium, said, “Prayer cannot be taken for granted. We have to learn to pray: as it were learning this art ever anew from the lips of the Divine Master himself, like the first disciples: ‘Lord, teach us to pray!’” He went on to emphasize what happens if we don’t learn that art. “It would be wrong to think,” he said, “that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life. Especially in the face of the many trials to which today’s world subjects faith, they would be not only mediocre Christians but ‘Christians at risk.’ They would run the insidious risk of seeing their faith progressively undermined, and would perhaps end up succumbing to the allure of ‘substitutes,’ accepting alternative religious proposals and even indulging in far-fetched superstitions,” something we see when Catholics drift away from the faith because they were often not finding God, not entering into intimate existential dialogue with Him, through the practice of their faith. So St. John Paul said, “It is therefore essential that education in prayer should become in some way a key-point” of everything the Church does, because “Learning this Trinitarian shape of Christian prayer and living it fully, above all in the liturgy … but also in personal experience, is the secret of a truly vital Christianity” (NMI 32-34). For our faith to be truly alive, we must learn from Christ how to pray to the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. Basically our spiritual life will be worth what our prayer is worth.

As we turn to Jesus today and humbly ask him to teach us how to pray well, we see that he teaches us in four ways.

Jesus’ example of prayer

The first is by his own contagious example of prayer. In today’s Gospel, we read that “Jesus was praying in a certain place.” Jesus was constantly praying and it was this personal example of prayer that precipitated the disciples’ question for him to teach them. Jesus by his own witness showed how important prayer is. If Jesus, who is God, prayed so much, then he is instructing us by example the priority that prayer must have in the life of each of us who is not God. Sometimes people will say, “But I’m too busy to find the time to pray.” Jesus was far busier than any of us. The crowds were constantly following him, bringing their sick and lame, hunting him down in houses and as soon as he got off of boats. Despite all of the pressing work of preaching and healing, Jesus was always stealing away time to pray. In this, as in all things, he teaches by example and then says, no matter how busy we are, “Come, follow me!”

Jesus’ own prayers

The second way Jesus educates us in the Trinitarian shape of Christian prayer is through his own prayers recorded in Sacred Scripture, which manifested a quantum leap over the way of prayer faithful Jews would have been taught in Old Testament times. Jesus revealed that prayer was to be filial, the prayer of beloved son or a daughter, to a Father who loves his child with great affection. In the Old Testament mentality, God was regarded as so awesome, transcendent and distant that the great intimacy and loving reciprocity that God desires to have with us was not always apparent. Jesus came to reveal the Father’s face and to help us to turn to him as a beloved child. We see this in the prayers of Jesus that are recorded in the Gospel. Every one features an intimate, confident, loving address to his Father. “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven of earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will!” (Mt 11:25-26), he says on one occasion. “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me” (Jn 11:41), he says on another. There are many other examples: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you” (Jn 17:1). “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). We also see that Jesus’ prayer to the Father was never a mere conversation for the sake of a conversation. It wasn’t just “wasting time with God.” His prayer always had a purpose: to help him to embody ever more the Father’s will and conform himself to it. Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, not my will, but yours, be done” (Lk 22:42). His whole life was a prayer to do the Father’s will perfectly. “I have come down from heaven,” he said elsewhere, summarizing his mission, “not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 6:38). By the example of his own prayer, Jesus came to reveal to us the true purpose of our prayer and our life. Prayer is to seek the Father’s will, to come to know it (“for he who seeks, finds”), to come to embrace it and love it, and to love it so much that we burn to do it. Our prayer is meant to help us know God our Father better, to love him more deeply as a beloved child, and to grow to love him so much that His will becomes our will.

What Jesus reveals about the virtuous dispositions of one who prays well

The third way Jesus responded to the petition “Lord, teach us how to pray” was by instructing the disciples and us the different virtues and characteristics of someone who prays well. Two of those essential attributes he reveals to us in today’s Gospel.

He first taught us explicitly (as he did by his example above) that to pray well, we have to pray as a beloved Son. “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Just like a child trusts that his earthly parents will not give her something poisonous when she asks for something good, so we’re called to trust in our Heavenly Father that he will give us something even better. Jesus says he will give the Holy Spirit — he will give Himself — to those who ask him, with all the Spirit’s gifts. And the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians, will reinforce the filial aspect of our prayer: Because we are children, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”(Gal 4:6).

Jesus likewise teaches us to pray with perseverance, as Abraham did in the first reading. Jesus uses the analogy of a next-door neighbor’s banging on the door at night to borrow three loaves of bread to extend hospitality to a late-arriving guest. The point of the analogy was that if a friend would eventually get out of bed and give what was requested not because of goodness but simply to get the neighbor off his back, how much more readily will the Father in Heaven who is good give what is requested by those children whom he loves. Jesus tells us to keep knocking on the door, to keep asking, to keep seeking, because the Father will open the door. If he loves us so much, we might ask, why doesn’t he open the door and respond to our prayers immediately? As many of the great saints have taught us, and Pope Francis has repeated, the reason is to purify our desires from asking for something we might not need, to build up gratitude to God who responds lest we become spiritual spoiled brats, and most importantly so that we might learn the virtue of perseverance through our prayer so that we might persevere in faith through life.

But praying as a beloved child and praying with perseverance are just two of the various attributes Jesus imparts to us. In the other parts of the Gospel, he tells us much more about the proper dispositions of the one who prays well. As we’ll see, in these Jesus was contrasting how God wants us to pray from the way many of his day — most particularly those who had a reputation for being devout — were actually praying.

  • Jesus taught us that prayer requires first a true conversion of heart, a reconciliation with God and others. It involves forgiving and being forgiven by others. Jesus tells us that if we come to pray but recognize that our brother has something against us, to leave what we were going to offer to God in prayer and go first to reconcile with our brother and then come to pray” (Mt 5:23). This was a huge change from the ancient Jewish notion that thought that we should love our friends and hate our enemies. Jesus told us to pray well, we must pray for our enemies and do good to those who persecute us, because this is what pleases the Father and makes us more like him (Mt 5:44-45).
  • Closely allied with this conversion and reconciliation with others is what Jesus taught us about praying with the humility that comes from knowing that we are sinners called to conversion. He told us the beautiful Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican who went up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee — who was outwardly very religious — prayed, thanking God that he was not like other people, thieves, adulterers, or even like the tax collector beside him. The tax collector — one of the most notorious professions in the ancient world because it was riddled with corruption and extortion — prayed, simply, beating his breast and looking toward the ground, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus said that it was only the latter prayer that was heard (Lk 18:10-14). This was a huge advance over the mentality of the time, which thought that self-righteous prayer, “thanking God for one’s own individual greatness” actually pleased God.
  • Jesus taught us to pray for the Father alone and not to gain the attention of others. “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:4-5).
  • The Lord taught us to pray simply and directly knowing that our Father is listening and not to imitate others who simply multiply words: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:7-8).
  • Jesus taught us to pray, not for a laundry list of requests and needs, but for the most important thing of all, that we might do the Father’s will by striving to do his kingdom. “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:31-33). This leads to the last of the dispositions and the most striking of all the innovations Jesus taught.
  • Jesus taught us to pray in his name. “Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete (Jn 16:23-24).” Jesus is giving us his name to “drop” in our requests to the Father, so that we might go to Him, like so many of us do in the world in other circumstances, and say, “Jesus sent me!” But the key to this most striking request is to ask in Jesus’ name. There are many things we couldn’t honestly ask in Jesus’s name, because Jesus himself would never ask for them. Certain things he would never ask for because they are evil, other things because they are too banal. Praying in Jesus’ name, asking for the things that Jesus himself would ask for, is the simplest shortcut to having the proper dispositions to pray.

The Lord’s prayer

The fourth and final way Jesus taught us how to pray was in teaching us the Our Father, as he does in the Gospel. In teaching us this prayer we call his prayer, the Lord’s prayer, Jesus was doing far more than merely teaching us a “magic formula” and spiritual “open sesame!” for us to rigidly follow. Rather he was teaching us about the types of things we should desire and the sequence of things we should desire and pray for. We see that Jesus didn’t mean principally to teach us a ritualistic formula by the fact that the words of the Our Father we have in today’s Gospel from St. Luke are different and briefer than the words found in St. Matthew’s Gospel, which is the version of the Our Father we’re accustomed to pray. This is because when Jesus taught the Our Father, his intention was to teach us more than words, but the proper longings and the proper order of longings that should constitute our prayer. He helped us to focus on God, on hallowing his name rather than making a name for ourselves, on his kingdom coming rather than building one for ourselves, on his will being done rather than our pretending we’re God and doing our own thing. This shows us that prayer is not fundamentally about changing God’s plans, but changing our own to align themselves to what God has ordered for our and others’ eternal good and happiness. After we have that order set, then he teaches us to ask for things for ourselves and others that we really need. Notice he doesn’t instruct us to ask for a Red Corvette, or a svelte figure, or a beach house in Palm Beach. He essentializes our needs. First we ask him to give us each day our daily bread, what we need to survive, knowing that he will not forget about our needs tomorrow. We ask him to forgive us our sins as we forgive others, because we’re always in need of his mercy, and he wants to sculpt us to be merciful like him by giving us not just the opportunity but the command to be merciful to others like he is to us. And then Jesus has us pray that we not fall when tempted — because we will face temptations just like Jesus did, but we know that we will not face temptations alone, that he will be there to strengthen us — and that the Father will deliver us from the evil one with his Fatherly protection in this world and forever. Those seven things — first God’s holy name, kingdom and will, and then what we need to survive, forgiveness, strengthen in temptation and deliverance from sin, evil and the devil — are things Jesus teaches about which we should be regularly be conversing with God in the lifeblood of Christian life we call prayer.

Praying well the greatest prayer of all

“Lord, teach us to pray.” Today we come with that request and Jesus once teaches us. He wants us not to be mediocre Christians but saints. We wants us not to have a shallow prayer and spiritual life but a deep one, capable of filling our entire life. We wants us not only to be become good students in the school of prayer we call the Church, but his teaching assistants, as we pass on to others the open secret of a truly vital Christianity. And now we turn to the culmination of Christian prayer, which St. John Paul II said we need to learn to pray “above all,” the Mass. We know that Jesus’ greatest prayer was the one he said from the Upper Room and the Cross as he was preparing to save us, the prayer into which we enter live in time whenever we celebrate the liturgy. It’s here at Mass that we enter into his own filial petition to the Father. It’s here that we pray with perseverance, in his name, having reconciled with him and others. It’s here that we seek the glorification of his name, the coming of his kingdom, the doing of his will, as we do this in his memory. It’s here that he gives us something far greater than our daily material bread: the true Living Bread come down from heaven that gives life to the world. It’s here that he strengthens us for the text, fortifies us to forgive, and bolsters us against the wiles of the evil one. And so let us turn as beloved sons and daughters with Jesus to God the Father and ask him, with all the dispositions about praying well that Jesus revealed, to send the Holy Spirit to teach us how to pray this Mass together with Jesus so that our whole life may turn into a continual extension of this prayer, and we may be his missionaries helping the whole world to learn the art and enter deeply into the most important thing a human being can ever do.

 

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 GN 18:20-32

In those days, the LORD said:
“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great,
and their sin so grave,
that I must go down and see whether or not their actions
fully correspond to the cry against them that comes to me.
I mean to find out.”While Abraham’s visitors walked on farther toward Sodom,
the LORD remained standing before Abraham.
Then Abraham drew nearer and said:
“Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?
Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city;
would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it
for the sake of the fifty innocent people within it?
Far be it from you to do such a thing,
to make the innocent die with the guilty
so that the innocent and the guilty would be treated alike!
Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?”
The LORD replied,
“If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom,
I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Abraham spoke up again:
“See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord,
though I am but dust and ashes!
What if there are five less than fifty innocent people?
Will you destroy the whole city because of those five?”
He answered, “I will not destroy it, if I find forty-five there.”
But Abraham persisted, saying “What if only forty are found there?”
He replied, “I will forbear doing it for the sake of the forty.”
Then Abraham said, “Let not my Lord grow impatient if I go on.
What if only thirty are found there?”
He replied, “I will forbear doing it if I can find but thirty there.”
Still Abraham went on,
“Since I have thus dared to speak to my Lord,
what if there are no more than twenty?”
The LORD answered,
“I will not destroy it, for the sake of the twenty.”
But he still persisted:
“Please, let not my Lord grow angry if I speak up this last time.
What if there are at least ten there?”
He replied, “For the sake of those ten, I will not destroy it.”

Responsorial Psalm PS 138:1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8

R. (3a) Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.
I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with all my heart,
for you have heard the words of my mouth;
in the presence of the angels I will sing your praise;
I will worship at your holy temple
and give thanks to your name.
R. Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.
Because of your kindness and your truth;
for you have made great above all things
your name and your promise.
When I called you answered me;
you built up strength within me.
R. Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.
The LORD is exalted, yet the lowly he sees,
and the proud he knows from afar.
Though I walk amid distress, you preserve me;
against the anger of my enemies you raise your hand.
R. Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.
Your right hand saves me.
The LORD will complete what he has done for me;
your kindness, O LORD, endures forever;
forsake not the work of your hands.
R. Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.

Reading 2 COL 2:12-14

Brothers and sisters:
You were buried with him in baptism,
in which you were also raised with him
through faith in the power of God,
who raised him from the dead.
And even when you were dead
in transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh,
he brought you to life along with him,
having forgiven us all our transgressions;
obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims,
which was opposed to us,
he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross.

Alleluia ROM 8:15BC

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
You have received a Spirit of adoption,
through which we cry, “Abba, Father.”
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

GospelLK 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished,
one of his disciples said to him,
“Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.”
He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be 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.”And he said to them,
“Suppose one of you has a friend
to whom he goes at midnight and says,
‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread,
for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey
and I have nothing to offer him,’
and he says in reply from within,
‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked
and my children and I are already in bed.
I cannot get up to give you anything.’
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.”And I tell you, ask and you will receive;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives;
and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
What father among you would hand his son a snake
when he asks for a fish?
Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?
If 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?”

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