This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 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?”
Our family here in Minnesota — by which I mean my son’s in-laws, who generously “adopted” us years ago — have a beautiful tradition at holiday gatherings of singing grace. The entire family knows it, and it didn’t take us (too) long to catch up. They are all talented singers too, and harmonize the final “Amen.” In some ways, other offerings of grace at mealtime seem almost inadequate … but yet, we persist.
Today’s readings focus on both prayer and persistence. For those who do not understand prayer or reject the need for it, persistence seems almost a contradiction. You’ve asked God for something once, the argument goes, so why would you have to ask again? This misses the true need for prayer, and its work upon us.
Fortunately, the Scriptures are replete with examples of persistence, and show why it matters. In today’s first reading from Genesis 18, Abraham enters into a dialogue with the Lord that might be best described as a haggling session. The Lord tells Abraham that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah have become so despicable, so riddled with sin and controlled by it, and its victims offering so many prayers for justice, that there is no choice but to destroy both.
At this point, Abraham asks for another kind of justice — the kind that prevents the innocent from suffering for the guilty. Abraham starts off asking to save both cities if 50 innocents can be found, and the Lord tells him that he’d spare the entire city for the sake of 50. By the end of the conversation, Abraham appears to have talked the Lord down to 10, with God patiently agreeing to Abraham’s terms all along the way.
What does this tell us? First, Abraham did not fear to persist in his prayer with the Lord. For most of us, just winning the point on the first round would be enough! Yet Abraham, with his heart open to those innocents who would have to deal with God’s wrath, persists in his prayer.
At the same time, remember this: the reason the Lord spoke to Abraham in the first place was because of the persistent prayers of the victims of the notorious cities. “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great,” He tells Abraham, “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.”
Nor would this be the only example of the Lord responding to persistent prayer. In Exodus, the Israelites prayed for centuries for their bondage in Egypt to end; in Exodus 2:24-25, we read: “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” The Lord tells Moses on Horeb (Ex 3:7), “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.”
Did the persistent prayer change the will of God? No, of course not. But the exchange with Abraham shows the value of prayer in general and what we can find out of persistence. At first blush, the exchange in Genesis might seem like a particularly sharp exchange on Let’s Make a Deal, but a closer read shows something much different. Abraham isn’t haggling with God over terms, but struggling to come closer in comprehension to God’s will. He’s not negotiating, but attempting to grasp the meaning and terms of the Lord’s mercy and justice. His persistence in prayer forms Abraham to become closer to God, and strengthens him against sin.
And so, in understanding this, we come to today’s Gospel. Jesus wants us to understand the love that the Father has for us, and reaffirms persistence in prayer with a parable of, well, dreadful inconvenience. In fact, if one pays attention to the details, the premise seems ridiculous enough that it almost forms a reductio ad absurdum. Even in an itinerant society, the idea that one would knock on a neighbor’s door for three loaves of bread because company just arrived seems a little ludicrous. So too must some of our prayers seem to the Father, but note what Jesus says will happen anyway: “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.”
The Father will give us what we need from persistent prayer. That won’t be a Porsche, or the winning numbers to the big Powerball jackpot (and haven’t we all tried that one?), but the understanding of the Lord and a heart built for the Holy Spirit. We cannot bend the will of the Lord, but we can form ourselves to it through prayer to prepare for the love of Christ. Through prayer, we learn what to value, and to orient ourselves to the Word and to live everlasting than the travails of this world.
This is why Jesus, in the first part of the reading, reminds us that we truly only need three things each day: our daily bread, forgiveness of sin and debt, and the hope of avoiding being put to the ultimate test so as to remain true to the Father. All else, in the long run, are Porsches and Powerballs, which mean nothing in eternity.
“How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” That’s not a Let’s Make a Deal haggle either, but the gift that the Father wants us to have. He’s knocking, and all we need to do is open the door to Him.
The front page image is “Jesus Sends Forth Apostles,” Duccio di Buoninsegna, late 13th-early 14th century.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.