Commentary on the Readings
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 28, 2019 – Year C
Prayer: A Struggle With God
Whatever their religion, the believers in God pray. Even Christians pray. They pray for the sick, for those without a job, for a son who got into bad company, for families with discord. They ask God for rain, blessing for the crops, and protection from misfortune. Today, this type of prayer is derided by some; it leaves others indifferent and raises many questions even in the believers. Why pray if God already knows what we need and is always willing to give us every good?
Even in the face of the most heartfelt pleas, he is often silent. He lets the events take their seemingly absurd course. Everything proceeds as if he does not exist. His inexplicable silence makes one cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:2).
The dialogue with him also assumes dramatic tones, is turned into discussion, in open dispute. Jeremiah turns him an almost blasphemous accusation: “Why do you deceive me and why does my spring suddenly dry up?” (Jer 15:18). “You are like the seasonal water. They were but melted ice, running from under the snow. But summer comes and the river dries under the blazing sun, no water is left … . The caravans of Sheba look for them, in vain they expected, they are frustrated on arriving there (Job 6:15-20).
We would like a complacent God, who guarantees our dreams. He, instead, tries to free us from our illusions, to rescue us from misery, pettiness, vain desires, and involve us in his plans. Prayer is thus a struggle with the Lord, as sustained by Jacob, for a whole night, at the river Jabbok (Gen 32:23-33). Who surrenders to God comes out a winner.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
”Our Father knows what we need.”
Abraham is not only a model of faith and hospitality—as we saw last Sunday—but also of prayer. One day—the story narrates—the Lord reveals his decision to go to Sodom to verify the rumors that have come on the wickedness of its inhabitants.
In that city, Abraham has a nephew and worries about what might happen. He addresses the Lord and begins to intercede so that Sodom be spared for the sake of the righteous who are in it. He speaks to the Lord as a friend; his prayer is not a succession of formulas memorized or read on a book, not a nursery rhyme uttered casually; it is a spontaneous and sincere dialogue.
The scene is described with the typical flowery language of the Orientals. It seems to witness to the meeting between two merchants of the old city of Jerusalem. Abraham pulls on the price, first, he lowers it from fifty to forty-five. Since the Lord is willing to make a deal, he dares to lower it not by fives but by tens.
In fact, the theological message of the passage is very deep: it wants to emphasize the generosity of God, the infinite mercy that man gradually discovers through prayer. One wonders why Abraham has stopped at ten.
Jeremiah and Ezekiel dare go lower it even more. They perceive by intuition that God would forgive his people if he met even a single righteous person: “Go through the streets of Jerusalem: observe carefully and take note … even if one man who acts justly and seeks the truth, that I may forgive this city” (Jer 5:1; Ezk 22:30). Today we have found that only righteous one and we are sure of God’s forgiveness.
If in the archives of a judge a document that proves our transgressions of the laws are kept, we would not live peaceful and quiet. One day this document may be disclosed and could cause our condemnation.
Paul says that book in which all our “debts” were marked are filed in heaven. There were so many. What did God do? He took the document and tore it up; he nailed it on the cross. We no longer need to fear (v. 14). In baptism our old life, our sins were destroyed and now, risen with Christ, we lead a completely new life.
No evangelist insists so much on the subject of prayer as Luke. He remembers that Jesus prayed seven times. He was praying—he says—at baptism (Lk 3:21); “He withdrew to the wilderness to pray” during his public life (Lk 5:16); he prayed when he chose the disciples (Lk 6:12), and before asking them to say something about his identity (Lk 9:18). He was praying at the time of the Transfiguration (Lk 9:28-29) and when he taught the Our Father (Lk 11:1). He prayed especially in the most dramatic moment of his life, in Gethsemane (Lk 22:41-46).
In addition to these records, Luke also reports five prayers of Jesus. Of these I want to recall the two moving prayers, uttered on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34) and—his last words before he died—”Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).
It is enough to show that the whole life of Jesus was marked by prayer. The lucidity of his choices, his psychological balance, his sweetness combined with firmness can be explained by his perfect relationship with the Father, a relationship established through prayer.
He did not pray to ask favors, to get a discount on the difficulties of life. He did not ask God to change his plans, but to make him know what was his will, in order to make it his own and fulfill it.
Today’s passage is a catechesis on prayer. It starts by presenting the circumstance in which Jesus taught the Our Father (v.1). Then it shows the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 2-4) followed by a parable (vv. 5-8). It ends with the words with which Jesus assures the efficacy of prayer (vv. 9-13). Let’s examine each of these parts.
In ancient times religious movements were characterized not only by the truth they believed and the ethical standards they were observing but also by a prayer in which their faith and proposal of life are synthesized. The Baptist too had taught it to his disciples.
One day the apostles approach Jesus and ask him to compose one for them (v. 1). Responding to this demand he teaches them the Our Father.
Here—many Christians exclaim—is the most beautiful of all the prayers! Better than the Hail Mary, the Salve Regina, and the Requiem Aeternam, because it was spoken by Jesus.
This affirmation comes from the presupposition that the Our Father is a formula of prayer to add to others. That is not so.
The Our Father is not to be juxtaposed with the other prayers, but to the Apostles’ Creed because, like the Creed, it is a complete compendium of faith and of Christian life. In the early Church, the catechumens directly learned it from the mouth of the bishop. It was the surprise, the gift he gave to them who had applied and were accepted to be Christians. He consigned it to the catechumens eight days before their baptism, and these, during the celebration of the Easter Vigil, gave it back, that is, they recited it for the first time together with their communities. For this, it would be nice to recite it sometime at the baptismal font.
Father (v. 2).
Tell me how you pray and I will tell in which God you believe. The atheist does not pray because he has no one to converse with. He believes it is alienating to seek from another those solutions that one can find by himself. Believers pray, but the methods are different, because to each religious belief there corresponds a different image of God. For some, God is only a blind force, impersonal, sometimes beneficial, at other times evil, unpredictable, maybe whimsical. For others, he is an anonymous interlocutor, and for others still, he is a “supreme being,” a severe judge, an “absolute owner” of all things, and who can be approached only by those accompanied by an angel or someone holy that acts as a mediator.
For Christians, God is the Father, by whom they have been thought of and loved “before being formed in secret, woven in the depths of the earth” (Ps 109:15). When they turn to him—standing (not kneeling)—they call him Father (v. 2). They appeal to him directly and with confidence; they do not feel any need of protection or recommendations, entering into his house because the door is always open. If like the prodigal son, sometimes they turn away from him, they know they can come back and be well received.
“Hallowed be thy name” (v. 2).
It is the first greeting that emerges on the lips of a Christian when he turns to the Father. It reveals the irrepressible desire to see realized the dream of God. The passive form of the expression is equivalent—in biblical language—to sanctify, O God, your name. Not us, but he has to manifest the holiness of his name. How?
Down through the centuries—the Bible says—Israel has profaned the name of his God, not because she was swearing, but because, with her infidelity, she prevented him to express his love and to accomplish his salvation (Ex 36:20). The name of God is not “hallowed” or glorified when many applaud him, when the number of those who participate in solemn liturgies and ceremonies in the temples increases, but when his salvation reaches man. A poor who obtains justice, a heart freed from hatred, a sinner who becomes happy, a family that has rebuilt understanding and peace “sanctify the name of God,” because they are proof that his word performs wonders.
In the Our Father, the Christian hopes that God will soon bring to fruition the promise made through the mouth of Ezekiel: “I will make known the holiness of my great Name, profaned among the nations … . For I will gather you from all the nations and bring you back to your own land … . I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I shall remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh … . You will live in the land I gave to your ancestors; you shall be my people and I will be your God” (Ezk 36:23-28).
When he asks: ‘hallowed be your name,’ the disciple declares to the Father his willingness to get involved, to collaborate with him because this promise of good will come true. He does not know “neither the day nor the hour” (Mk 13:32), but he is certain that his prayer will be heard.
“Thy kingdom come” (v. 2).
The experience of the monarchy in Israel was disappointing, as evidenced by the dramatic denunciations of the prophets: “Your rulers are tyrants, partners of thieves. They love a bribe and look around for gifts. No one protects the orphan or listens to the claim of the widow” (Is 1:23). The people feel the need of a new kingdom in which the thoughts of God guide the destinies of the country, not greed, the frenzies of power, and selfish interests.
The wait for the day when the Lord will personally hand the fate of his people and become king starts. The Psalmist sings the wonder of that kingdom: “Justice will flower in his days, and peace abound till the moon be no more. May grain abound throughout the land, waving and rustling as in Lebanon, may cities teem with people, as fields with grass” (Ps 72:7,16). Even the prophets dream of that day: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who herald peace and happiness, who proclaim salvation and announce to Zion: ’Your God is king.’” (Is 52:7).
The waiting, at the time of Jesus, is feverish. In the third of the eighteen Blessings, devout Israelites ask God: “From your place, oh our king, shine and reign over us because we are waiting for your reign in Zion.” The hopes raised by the prophecies also generate illusions, false expectations, misunderstandings from which insane riots take a start ending in bloodshed.
The Kingdom which is the center of the preaching of Jesus is “not of this world.” In the New Testament, the “reign of God” is mentioned one hundred twenty times and ninety times on the mouth of Jesus. He says: “But if I cast out demons by the finger God would not this mean that the Kingdom of God has come upon you?” (Lk 11:20) and he proclaims: “Kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21). The time of waiting is over, however, the Christian continues to beg its coming because the Kingdom of God is just beginning. It must develop and grow in every person as a seed of goodness, of love, of reconciliation, of peace. Prayer makes him avoid tragic misunderstandings, helps him to discern between the kingdoms of this world (by which he is always flattered and seduced) and the Kingdom of God.
“Give us each day our daily bread” (v. 3).
Among the Oriental people where every family had its own oven, the bread was much more than just food to consume. It evoked feelings, emotions, relations of friendship that we now ignore. It was a reminder of the generosity and sharing with the poor. Bread could not be eaten alone (Job 31:17), it was always to be shared with the hungry (Is 58:7).
The bread was holy; it could not be thrown in the garbage. It was not cut with the knife but gently broken. Only man’s hands were worthy to touch it because it had something sacred: man’s work and God’s blessing that had given to his people a fertile land and had sent in his time rain and dew.
It is the toil of the farmer who gives us the bread. So what do we ask of God: that he works instead of us? Does it make sense to ask him what we are able to procure for ourselves? Don’t we run the risk of falling back into alienation and obscurantism?
We examine every detail of the question: we ask our bread. Manna is never said to be ours: it fell from the sky, it was a unique gift from God (Ne 9:20). Bread instead is both a gift of God and fruit of man’s sweat, of man’s toil and sacrifice, for this people can rightly say ours.
The bread blessed by God is the one produced “together” with the brothers, the one obtained from the earth that God has destined for all and not just for some, that which does not contain the tears of the exploited poor.
Reciting the Lord’s Prayer means constantly checking oneself because one cannot pray in a sincere and genuine way if thinking only of his own bread, forgetting the poor, and neglecting social justice.
Who does not work, who lives off of others cannot ask God for our daily bread. To ask for the daily bread means refusing to hoard food for the next day, while the brothers and sisters lack today’s necessity; it means freeing one’s heart from the greed of possession and anguish of tomorrow. It amounts to saying: “Help me, Father, to be content with the necessary, to be free from the bondage of goods and give me the strength to share with the poor.”
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive” (v. 4).
We can say any prayer (Hail Mary, the Angelus, the Requiem Aeternam) with hatred in our hearts, but not the Lord’s Prayer.
The Christian cannot hope to be heard by God if he does not cultivate feelings of love for the brother and sister. It is not enough to forget the injury received, something more is asked for. The Christian cannot open up to the Father’s love if he refuses to be reconciled with the brother and sister.
“And lead us not into temptation” (v. 4).
The temptation from which we ask to be saved does not refer to asking ourselves to be saved from small weaknesses, miseries and daily fragility (which are also not included), but the abandonment of the “logic of the Gospel” to adhere to the “logic of this world.” Tribulation or persecution can make us stumble and go into crisis; the worries of life and the deceitfulness of goods can choke the seed of the Word of God. The Christian does not ask to be kept safe from these “temptations,” but from giving into the temptations of this world, not to be touched by the idea of abandoning the Master.
After having presented the model of Christian prayer, Jesus tells the parable of a man who, with great insistence, went to ask a friend to give him three loaves (vv. 5-8). This story intends to teach that prayer gets results only if it is prolonged. Not because God wants to be asked for a long time before granting something, but because man is slow to assimilate God’s thoughts and feelings.
Our prayers seem attempts to persuade God to change his plan. We would like him to comply with our ideas, that he would correct the “mistakes” committed. If we talk with him at length, we eventually understand his love and accept his designs.
Prayer does not change God; it opens our minds, changes our hearts. This inner transformation cannot be realized—except by improbable miracles—in a few moments. It is hard to give up our way of reading the events. We find it hard to accept the light of God. We are blind, we are not able (or do not like) to see. The ways of God are not always easy and pleasant; they require conversions, efforts, renouncements, sacrifices. To reach the interior adherence to the will of the Lord, to get to see with our own eyes the events of our lives we must pray … for a long time.
And so we come to the last part of today’s Gospel (vv. 9-13). Christian prayer is always answered—Jesus says—but our experience does not seem to confirm this statement.
The theme of the insistence in prayer is resumed through three images: to ask, to seek, and to knock. Prayer always produces prodigious and unexpected results. But we do not cultivate false hopes. Outside of ourselves, the reality will remain the same as before (the disease continues, the grievance will remain, the wounds of betrayal will be painful), but inside everything will be different. If the mind and heart are no longer the same, though the look with which we contemplate our situation, the world and the brothers become different, purer, more “divine,” the prayer got its result; it has been heard.
Having recovered serenity and inner peace, even the moral and psychological wounds will quickly heal and also organic diseases—why not?—may heal more easily.
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.