Just a Thought
With the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches us that in order to fulfil the Law and have a share in eternal life, we must make ourselves neighbour to whomever we meet that is in need.
The example of Mary, who, one day with her sister Martha received the Lord into their home, reminds us that nothing, no care, no deed of service, should ever detract from listening to the Word. Such listening is our foremost duty, for it is what makes the disciple. The sequence ends this Sunday, with a teaching on prayer, yet another activity of the disciple that, because of its limitless efficacy, the fruit of the gift of the Spirit, belongs to the order of action.
In the First reading, taken from the Book of Genesis, we find a well-known narrative concerning Abraham, and his intercession with God to spare Sodom. Abraham advances with humble assurance and begins to argue with the Lord, appealing to his justice and forgiveness, and through this ‘bargaining of mercy’ Abraham inaugurates the ministry of intercession, which will be taken up by the prophets and by Christ himself who ‘is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them.’ Abrahams intercession though, on behalf of Sodom prevails through persistence — ‘Perhaps there are fifty just men there .. will you not spare the place for the sake of the fifty? — For the sake of the fifty God replied I will spare the place. Perhaps there will be only forty-five……. Perhaps there will only be forty………. I will not destroy the place even if there are ten just men there.’ The question is the weight the just can have in the balance of judgement. Can their justice compensate for the sin of the whole society or move God to pardon? Abraham thinks ‘yes’. Later Jeremiah will show God ready to pardon Jerusalem if he finds only one just person in it ‘who lives uprightly and seeks to be faithful.’ It is quite right to say of Abrahams intercession, ‘He prays with all the strength of the universal benediction that will be received’
The Christian assembly gathered around Christ the Saviour and King of the universe, sings in thanksgiving for the benediction in which it shares. In the Spirit that has been given freely, it proclaims its assurance of being heard by the Father when it prays that the work of salvation may be extended to the ends of the earth. ‘Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me!’
In today’s Gospel Jesus teaches us to pray properly. We see the apostles observe Jesus in awe, as he often spends hour upon hour in conversation with his Father, and they long to be able to pray as he prays. Our Lord will show us thatour filial relationship with God is particularly expressed in prayer, its efficacy is based on it. One can almost imagine, after the lesson of Martha and Mary, Jesus leaving the house and continuing on his journey in the company of his most intimate disciples. After a time, he must have stopped in order to commune with his Father, to pray and the sight of him praying caused the disciples to remark one to another: ‘How he prays’ They wondered why he had not taught them to pray as John had taught his disciples. ‘They must ask him!’
Luke as we know, says more than any other evangelist about the prayer of Jesus. He sometimes gives us the very words. But he also mentions that Jesus was accustomed to spend the night in solitude, in prayer. How could the disciples not have been impressed by their Master’s private moments with the Father? Certainly they must have discussed the matter amongst themselves. Why would it be surprising, then, that they would have eventually said to Jesus: ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ The apostles no doubt expected Jesus to teach them a long prayer, at any rate as long as the ~Jewish daily prayer with its eighteen benedictions. ‘There is no need to use many words’ implied Jesus, ‘Our Father is well aware of our necessities, even before we ask for them.’ Therefore, a short form of words is enough to give glory to God and beseech him for such help as all need. And what should we say to this Father if not first of all that he might fulfil his plan for which he sent his Son, to which the disciples find themselves associated, and to which they will continue his mission, spreading the kingdom? Jesus said to them: ‘Say this when you pray:
Father, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come; give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us. And do not put us to the test.’
What more can Jesus say? Here we are being taught by God himself; what to ask for and how to ask for it, how to give praise to the Father. ‘Hallowed be thy name, your kingdom come.’ Did Jesus ever say anything other than this to his Father when he came to him in prayer? Wasn’t he ever sustained throughout his life and ministry, even in agony and on the cross, by anything other than the will to obey the Father, to glorify his name, to bring about his kingdom. This is also what Christian must seek throughout their whole life and ask for first in prayer.
This faithfulness of Christian prayer to the prayer of Jesus himself is expressed — though we don’t always realise it — in the formula for the conclusion of liturgical prayers: ‘Through Jesus Christ, your ~son, our Lord.’ This is more than merely an appeal to the one who ‘lives forever to make intercession’ for us. It is an invocation [epiclesis- calling down] of the name of Jesus that makes our prayer his prayer, that makes our intercession, his intercession. The request ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ is a prayer of the poor, which fits Luke’s Gospel very well. It refers to both the bread that feeds the body and its material needs and the bread of heaven that nourishes the soul. A prayer not of idle vagabonds, but of the poor, who while performing the task allotted to them by the Father, know that their whole life depends on his generosity. It is also a prayer of the community in a Church where the ideal is to hold everything in common in such a way that none need to be poor. A prayer that implicitly refers to the sharing that God has allowed us in the bread of the Word and the Eucharist. The obstacle both to our hope for the kingdom and our sharing of the bread, is sin. May God forgive it in us, since his Son gave his life for the remission of sins, since we have received the proclamation of ‘repent….. (ask) for the forgiveness of your sins.’ How could we dare to ask the Father for that which we will not grant to each other, since all are his children? Jesus has told us; ‘Be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in turn be measured out to you.’ (Luke 6:36-38). We are speaking of unbounded forgiveness, with no exclusions, since, in line with the parable of the Good Samaritan, we must be a neighbour even to those who would do us wrong. Once again we see Luke’s radicalism.
In the last petition, we beg the Father that he will not submit us to temptation, if despite his grace we are not able come through with our faithfulness unscathed. This is not God testing us. It is asking God to protect us. To intervene. This temptation is the kind of trial which could lead us to betrayal. Such is Luke’s vision of the ‘Our Father,’ noticeably shorter than the one we find in Matthew (Matt 6:13-19) The latter is more familiar to us because of its traditional use in the liturgy; we all know it by heart. This diversity between the traditions should not be surprising, nor cause us concern, Jesus did not teach his disciples a formula to pray word for word, as if it were a catechism, even if his words were very quickly engraved in Christian memory.
In order that the ‘Our Father’ may be said in community, it is important to focus on only one formulation, whether it is said in Latin or the modern vernacular translation. But we must remember, all prayer is a conversation with God; we talk to him, and if we let him [by listening] he talks to us. The richness of the petitions of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ opens up for us, an infinite field for prayer. Like the faith and hope from which it springs, the object of prayer is always, in one way or another, the sanctification of the Name, the coming of the kingdom, the gift of daily bread, the forgiveness of sins, and the avoidance of temptation that may overcome us. But what is its use in the concrete and unexpected situations in life? Jesus anticipates this question with the help of two particularly transparent parables. The friend who is awakened in the middle of the night, and who at first ignores the appeal for help, ends by getting up and giving what was asked for. This parable is reminiscent of Abraham persistence in the first reading, when appealing to God for the inhabitants of Sodom: ‘I tell you, if the man does not get up and give it to him for friendship’s sake, persistence will be enough to make him get up and give his friend all he wants.’ God of course hears all our prayers, yet for reasons known to him alone, we sometimes have to persist in our prayer before he answers. Perhaps we are asking for the wrong thing — perhaps we are not ready to receive what we are asking for — God knows best.
As the Lord says, ‘No father gives his son a serpent if he asks for a fish, or a scorpion if he asks for an egg.’How then, could God not come to the aid of those who invoke him confidently and with perseverance, for he is a Father of boundless generosity, and he is close to us. In Matthew’s Gospel we hear Jesus concluding with: ‘How much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him!’ Luke on the other hand puts it another way, he writes that God will not be remiss in giving the Holy Spirit to those who pray without ceasing. Let us not be mistaken or confused though, this gift that Luke speaks about, this gift of the ‘spiritual’ order, assured in prayer, seemingly disconnected from the realities of life, gives to us life itself, spiritual life, and all the gifts and fruits of the Spirit are poured down upon us: ‘A good measure packed together and shaken down… overflowing, poured into our lap.’ It’s not a vast stretch of the imagination then, to realise that what Matthew speaks about will also be given, perhaps more so, by the Father to those who possess his Spirit, the very Spirit that Luke speaks about.
To pray then, is to act, to search, so that we may find, and not be inactive. It opens doors, when we knock, helping to bring about whatever one hopes to see happen. To ask, that we may receive God’s many gifts. And to say to our Father:
‘For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever.’