24 Jul 2016
“‘And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.’” (Luke 11:9) In the name …
I don’t think I’m divulging anything from out of the confessional when I tell you that I ask the kids who come to me each month if they’ve been saying their daily prayers at home. If they say no, I tell them that church is a special place, that we know Jesus is here. But then I tell them that when they say their prayers they can be with Jesus wherever they are, and they can say them whenever they want. Church is a holy place, but Jesus is in every place. And when we say our prayers, we acknowledge that Jesus is with us always. Prayer, in this sense, is a communion. It’s coming together with Jesus.
And think back to this morning’s Gospel. Jesus was at prayer. We’re told nothing of the place where He is at prayer, but the lack of description may mean it didn’t matter where the place was. Jesus could pray to God anywhere, which is that lesson that God is everywhere. And that Jesus was at prayer was not just a show for our benefit. He wasn’t only setting an example for us to follow. Jesus benefited from prayer. Even for who He was, Jesus felt closer to God when He paused and prayed.
We’re told the disciples were with Jesus when He was at prayer. Later in this same Gospel, in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, before Jesus goes off to pray, He instructs His followers to also pray. Maybe this was their custom. Maybe prayer was a shared practice, each one talking to God in his own way. Each one bringing to God what was most important to them at the moment. Each one of them coming into communion with God in their own unique way.
But for as unique as prayer is, the disciples still wanted to know from their teacher how to pray. Jesus gives us but one prayer, and for as much as we would like to know exactly what He taught them, the precise words have been lost to history. Matthew gives us the prayer that begins with the words “Our Father,” and it is the one we use in church all the time. Luke’s prayer starts with just “Father.” If you’re ever on Jeopardy, remember that both Luke and Matthew share with us the Lord’s Prayer, but only Matthew shares the Our Father.
I may be wrong, but there is the impression given that a lot of people most often pray when they need something. There’s nothing wrong with praying and asking God for some special help. I know I’ve said a prayer or two that things work out well for Holy Name when it comes to that elevator of ours, the one we’ll be talking about after Mass this morning. And I’m praying that our meeting goes well. A friend called me last week and asked me to say a prayer for his son. I’m only too happy to do so, and I think it says a lot for the power of prayer when people ask others to send along a particular request to God when they say their own prayers. But we should keep in mind that when Jesus teaches us to pray, there is only one line that has anything to do with asking God for non-spiritual help. And even that one line is rather reserved. It is: “Give us each day our daily bread.” The prayer is for sustenance and nothing more. When Jesus teaches us to pray, and then when all He asks for is “our daily bread,” that is a profound lesson about the purpose of prayer. We can ask, we should ask, but asking is not the main purpose behind prayer.
And I think that helps to make sense out of the famous verse about the one who asks receives. Luke is writing his Gospel about 45 or more years after the life of Jesus. That’s 45 years of people praying. And even though it seems so long ago, the people in Luke’s church weren’t all that different than the people in churches today. How many of them in Luke’s church, how many people over the 45 years since the time of Jesus, had all of their prayer requests answered? Jesus said ask and you will receive. How many didn’t? The same words are said to us this morning. How many of us have had all of our prayer requests answered?
I’ve heard people dodge the question by saying that sometimes God answers “No,” but Jesus says something that’s pretty hard to get around in that way. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples: “‘Whatever you ask in my name, I will do … If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.’” (14:13-14) So what about the reality of unanswered prayers? First of all, we need to realize that this isn’t a modern day realization. The people in Luke’s and John’s churches faced the same dilemma, but both Evangelists kept this message in their Gospels. Were they keeping something that was blatantly contradicted or is there another message we should be looking for?
I think Luke began to answer this question for his generation and for ours. I can’t go into it here. There’s not enough time, but come to tomorrow evening’s Bible class and I’ll be glad to explain further. But Luke makes a slight change to a shared tradition. The original on his writing desk said: “How much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” (cf. Matt 7:11) Luke changed “good things” to “the Holy Spirit.” What he’s trying to get believers to realize is that prayer requests are not like going to the store with unlimited credit. Prayer as communion means that we come to God seeking God. That’s why Luke changes “good things” to “the Holy Spirit.” In the communion of prayer, we can ask God for favours, but the favours can’t be the reason for prayer. In that spirit of prayer as communion, then all of a sudden ask and receive becomes no more important than seek and find, knock and enter. The person praying is a changed person. Our asking becomes our way of discovering another path toward finding God. And this is the real answer of prayer.
That in this spirit we may seek and find, knock and enter, and also ask and receive, for this let us pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo