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The 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 28, 2019

     Any of you who have travelled in the Middle East probably  learned something about the fine art of bargaining. Bargaining doesn’t have much place in our rather literal culture. If Macy’s says the suit costs $300, we’re not likely to say, ‘I’ll give you $150!’ Not so in the Middle East where bargaining is woven into the very culture. To buy something there without bargaining or haggling is not only to miss out on a good deal, it’s also to miss out on some drama and even some fun.

     In today’s reading from Genesis, Abraham showed himself to be the quintessential Middle-Eastern bargainer. God, if I may say it, met his match in Abraham! 

     It all had to do with the wickedness and inhospitality of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. God had had enough of it and he told Abraham he intended to do away with them.  Abraham responded by doing what Middle-Easterners do: he bargained with God. He put God on the spot, embarrassed God, even. He reminded God of all the promises he had made, and suggested ever-so-subtly that God, the judge of all the world should never be caught acting unfairly or unjustly!  And so, quite cleverly, Abraham managed to talk God into moderating his destructive designs as long as he, Abraham, could produce some innocent people. In a kind of reverse poker game, he talked God down from finding fifty innocent people to forty to thirty to twenty to ten. I wish I had been half as successful the day I haggled over a rug I wanted to buy in the grand bazaar of Istanbul!

     There’s a lesson here for us, of course, and the lesson is nicely drawn out in the passage from Luke’s gospel where Jesus gives his own lesson in bargaining.  Call it prayer as persistence.

     It all starts out with Jesus’ own prayer.  Luke tells us that Jesus was “praying in a certain place.” It’s undoubtedly something Jesus did all the time, but this time one of his disciples (who had also been a disciple of John the Baptist) took note of it and asked Jesus for some instruction on prayer.  “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.”

     Jesus responded in words quite familiar to us – Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer which, while not as familiar as Matthew’s, is still a wonderful window onto the way that Jesus prayed. Like Abraham who began by giving God his due before presuming to ask for anything, Jesus first puts the focus on God. “Father,” he prays, “hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.” So that’s the first thing: a clear focus on God our loving Father.

     I suppose Jesus could have stopped right there, but he didn’t. Because he was one of us, he knew that we needed some assurance that our prayer could do more than just focus on God - praising God and honoring God’s name - that there was also a place in our prayer for telling God about our needs, our wants, our hopes, our dreams. So he opens that door: “Give us each day our daily bread,” he says; “forgive us our sins and do not subject us to the final test.”

      To encourage that kind of prayer, he tells a little story worthy of a Middle Easterner who knows how to be persistent, how to bargain, how not to take no for an answer. It’s also a story that highlights the importance of Middle Eastern hospitality.  The fellow in Jesus’ little story who wakes his friend at midnight asking to borrow three loaves of bread was not asking a favor for himself but for a friend who had unexpectedly shown up late at night.  There was simply no way he was going to let his friend go to bed hungry and, deep down, he knew that even if friendship didn’t win out, persistence would.  And it did.  

     And that, Jesus says, is what our prayer is to be.  It’s okay to be persistent, it’s okay to be like Abraham, it’s okay to keep pounding on the friend’s door. “Ask and you shall receive,” he says, “seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you.”  We know those words very well and we act on them, but we’re sometimes afraid of overdoing them. I don’t think we need to be. Jesus put no limit on how often we are to ask. He didn’t. He told us to ask and he said that we would receive.

     But what about when we don’t receive what we pray for?  We all wonder about that, don’t we? I know I do. And I don’t claim to have a simple, straightforward answer – certainly not one that will easily satisfy. But I do think it’s important to keep in mind that, when we’re asking God for something, we are not wringing gifts away from a stingy God but going to a God who knows our needs better than we know them ourselves, a God whose very name is love and mercy and generosity.  So, I think that when we don’t receive what we pray for, it’s not because God grudgingly refuses to give it, but because God has something ultimately better in mind for us. It probably doesn’t seem that way at the time and, in fact, it may make sense only over a whole lifetime, but that, of course, is where faith comes in.  That’s where Jesus’ other prayer, “not my will by yours be done” comes in!

     Having said that, I do think that it’s persistence in prayer that the Church wants us to focus on today. God can deal with our persistence. God dealt with Abraham’s persistence and can deal with ours. So, my friends, ask, seek, knock.  And what better time to do that than right here at the Eucharist!

Father Michael G. Ryan
 

 

 

 

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