Sunday, 24 July 2016

Week 17 Sunday (Year C)

Readings: Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13

Prayer is very simple: it means asking somebody for something. The basis on which a person prays varies with the relationship between the one who prays and the one to whom he prays. If the relationship is a business or professional one then some freedom might be possible in asking for things, but within strict limits. We see something like this in the first reading today in which Abraham bargains with God. It is a business or professional relationship but in an oriental context and so a greater degree of freedom is possible. In fact, as people who have visited bazaars in those parts of the world will know, a certain amount of bargaining is expected. Part of the character of a sale in the streets of Jerusalem, for example, is to enter the person's shop, refuse to buy for the first price offered, perhaps have some tea, and then bargain the seller down a bit so that each party feels they have gained something in the process.

This is just a rough analogy for Abraham bargaining with God. The stakes are high: the destiny of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham appeals to the justice of God: 'should not the judge of all the world act with justice'? Of course, we might say, and it seems that God is prepared to be bargained down even to one just person, but the bargaining stops at ten and that is the agreement on which Abraham and God part.

The gospel reading gives us three related teachings about prayer. The first is the Our Father in Luke's version, shorter than Matthew's, and given in response to a request from the disciples, 'teach us to pray'. Presumably they had prayed before but now, having seen Jesus at prayer, they want to do it like him. The prayer he teaches them, according to some scholars, is simply a brilliant summary of the prayers of Israel. All the different intentions expressed in the psalms - petition, thanksgiving, praise, lament - are listed in the phrases of the Our Father. It is as if Jesus is saying 'pray to God on the basis of the relationship long established between God and yourselves, the covenant God made and renewed with your fathers'.

The second teaching shifts the emphasis to friendship: perhaps this is the best relationship on which to base the practice of prayer. It seems clear that friends will give each other what they need but there may be limits to their generosity or the request may come in a way that is unreasonable as here. But then persistence should be enough to get you beyond those limits and your friend will be irritated or shamed into giving you what you want, if only to get a bit of peace from your nagging.

The third teaching about prayer brings us home, we might say, at least as far as a Christian understanding of prayer is concerned. We are to think of God as 'Father'. Reflect then on that relationship, the child asking his or her father for something, and then see what limit there might be to prayer on that basis. The father is not going to deceive the child or give her something harmful. It is the first word of the prayer Jesus teaches his disciples, 'Father'. It is not the 'Abba' of Mark, Romans and Galatians but close enough, evoking a relationship of trust and intimacy.

And now all limits are obliterated (the term is from Colossians 2, the second reading). The Father is now ready to give gifts beyond anything the children are likely to request: 'if you who are wicked 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'. How would we know what we were asking for if we were to ask for the Holy Spirit? We need the same Spirit, Paul tells us, if we are to begin to understand the gifts God has given us.

So we are into a radically new relationship, not one restricted by standards of justice, but one in which mercy and grace anticipate both the requirements of justice and the limits of our asking. Even when you were dead, he brought you to life, Paul says in the second reading, obliterating the bond against us by nailing it to the cross.

So we are receivers before ever we are petitioners. We have our needs, and desires, and hopes; our concerns, and sadnesses, and disappointments; and we are encouraged to speak with God about all of this. But God's gifts have preceded all of it, have come before our praying. We spend our lives seeking to understand the gifts we have received. The eyes of faith reveal to us that we live in a world where there are no limits to mercy and goodness; where everyone who asks receives, everyone who seeks finds, everyone who knocks has the door opened to him. The Father is always ready to give us the Holy Spirit, a gift which anticipates our asking since it is only in the strength of the same Spirit that we can call God 'Father' or call Jesus 'Lord'.

Prayer is very simple: it means asking somebody for something. The basis on which a person prays varies with the relationship between the one who prays and the one to whom he prays. Adopted as the sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, recipients of the Spirit that enables us to say 'Abba, Father', why would we ever hesitate to pray? Why draw back from asking, seeking, knocking? Why doubt that the heavenly Father is only waiting to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

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