Homily 17th Sunday Year C – Fr Jerry Browne

Fr Jeremiah Browne (National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies)

I love a good bargain. I’m in my element when I’m in a market somewhere and I can wrangle over the price of a particular item, and I won’t give in easily. In today’s first reading, (Genesis 18:20-32) we meet Abraham, whom it seems has a similar fondness for negotiating. He is portrayed as busy bargaining with God over the number of just people needed to save the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction. It is kind of comic to see Abraham bargaining with God for the best deal, particularly when he eventually saves the town not for 50, 45, 40, 30, or 20 just people, but for the bargain price of 10 just people.

Perhaps, for many of us, our approach to prayer is similar to Abraham’s conversation with God. It is about arguing and cajoling and pleading with God to see if we can get what we want. Sometimes we make promises to do this, that, or the other things, if only God will relent, and grant this one request.

The problem with this approach however, comes when our prayers are not answered, at least not how we would like them to be. At times like that, we often end up second guessing ourselves, and God. We begin to imagine that we have done something wrong; or that we haven’t prayed hard enough; or that God isn’t listening to us; or that God is angry with us, or that there is something wrong with us; or maybe that we are not good enough! In situations like that, our prayer can cause more heartache and guilt, than comfort and consolation, so we end up wondering whether it is worth praying or not, or worse still, pulling away from God altogether, because we think that God doesn’t love us.

Our gospel today (Luke 11:1-13) offers another model of prayer. It is significant that it begins by recording that “Jesus was praying in a certain place and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.'” It seems obvious that the disciples had witnessed Jesus at prayer time and again, and that they began to realise how vital and influential it was for his life and his ministry. The more they journeyed with him, and the closer they drew to him, they came to realise that the source of his spiritual power had something to do with his prayer life.

In teaching the disciples how to pray, Jesus helps the disciples, and us, to see that the primary focus of our prayer should be on God rather than on ourselves. To pray is to reach out of ourselves towards God. We express our longing for God’s name to be honoured, for God’s kingdom to come on earth, for God’s will to be done. It is about drawing closer to God, so that we can understand more fully God’s desire for our lives, much like the relationship of a parent and a child.

As such, prayer is about relationship. It is an acknowledgement of our total dependence on God and our willingness to trust that we are part of God’s great plan, even when we don’t always understand how the plan is unfolding.

Within this primary focus, Jesus teaches that there is also a place where we can pray for ourselves, where we express our dependence on God. First our physical dependence “give us this day our daily bread”; then our emotional dependence “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”; and finally our spiritual dependence “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.“

This approach to prayer contrasts vastly with how many of us usually pray. Often our prayer is about what God can do for us, rather than our desire to be in relationship with God.

It’s a bit like the story of the mother who overheard her fifth grade son at prayer just before he got into bed. As he knelt beside his bed in prayer, she overheard him praying over and over again. “Let it be Tokyo! Let it be Tokyo! Please dear God, let it be Tokyo!” When he finished praying, the mom asked, “What did you mean, ‘Let it be Tokyo’?” “Oh,” the boy said with embarrassment, “we had our geography exam today and I was praying that God would make Tokyo the capital of France.”

Prayer is not going to change the capital of France. It is not a magical means by which we get God to do what we want. Rather prayer at its best is an inner openness to God which allows his divine power to be released in us. Ultimately, the power of prayer is not that we succeed in changing God, but that we come to a deeper understanding of how God is present in out life.

This understanding of prayer is beautifully illustrated in the movie ‘Shadowlands’ which tells the story of how CS Lewis is coping with the fact that his wife Joy has been diagnosed with cancer. In one scene, Lewis, who is lecturing at the university of Oxford, is just leaving the college chapel, where he has spent some time in prayer, when he runs into a colleague by the name of Professor Harrington. Harrington ask how Joy is doing, to which Lewis replies that “she is doing okay”. Harrington then says “I know how hard you have been praying, and now God is answering your prayer”. Lewis replies “That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.”

So somehow, prayer is our response to a deep, perhaps unconscious, realisation, that we are totally dependent on God. Perhaps this is why Jesus urges his followers to be persistent in prayer, not so much in listing our needs, because after all, God knows everything. He knows our every need, and desires that we have the fullness of life.

This is evident when Jesus compares the actions of a human parent, who only wants the best for his son, with our Father in Heaven who gives so much more. “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? … How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

God desires only the best for our lives, and doesn’t cause our misfortune, rather he looks for ways to help us through the struggles that we encounter from time to time. This is why Jesus believes that persistence in prayer is worthwhile, precisely because he knows God. He knows that God is not someone who is out of touch, unconcerned, unapproachable, but rather is a God of love and compassion, who desires only the best for our lives and who is there to accompany us when we find ourselves in the midst of a storm.

So this morning, what might the Holy Spirit be asking of you? To open yourself to God’s purpose for your life? To trust that God is at work, even when it seems as if you are alone? To simply place yourself before the Lord, and trust that he will guide your path.

Let us pray for the courage to draw closer to the Lord, to listen to the Lord as he accompanies us on our life journey, and to ask God for the grace that we need to deal with whatever life throws up.


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