Prayer, hope and ministry
The Seventeenth Sunday of The Year: July 24, 2016 (Year C)
What is the key to praying well? What should we pray for? — especially as ministers? What gives us hope that our prayers will be answered?
The Entrance Antiphon gives us hope by reminding us, first of all, that God is and that he is “holy,” different from us. “God is in his holy dwelling.” And God gives us all we need: “a home to the lonely… power and strength to his people.”
The Opening Prayer(s) give us reasons to pray with hope. First they encourage us to see what God is and does: God is holiness, beauty and power. We ask God to “open our eyes” that we might “see your hand at work in the splendor of creation, in the beauty of human life.” “Touched by your hand our world is holy.” We need to remember that when things look dark.
The Opening Prayer(s) both speak about noticing God’s blessings. We “experience the joy of life” and remain aware of being “in your presence” (see last Sunday) if we “cherish the gifts that surround us,” “use wisely the blessings you have given to the world,” and share them with others. This helps us appreciate what God is and strengthens our hope when we pray.
The Responsorial Psalm urges us to remember how often God has answered our prayers. This strengthens hope: “Lord, on the day I called for help you answered me” (Psalm 138).
Genesis 18: 20-32 gives us a theology of human intercession and ministry. Abraham is “bargaining” with God in a way that makes Abraham look more loving and more concerned about the people of Sodom than God is. But the purpose of the story is to show us how merciful God is. At Abraham’s request God is ready to spare a whole city full of sinners if only ten just people can be found in it. If we think for a moment about what the sins of the Sodomites were, we ourselves might not feel as inclined to ask for this as Abraham was!
Another thought that gives pause: the truth is, our country has shown itself willing to bomb into oblivion whole cities, or sections of cities, filled with innocent men, women and children for the sake of destroying one military target. In theory (which, regretfully, sometimes has meant only “for public consumption”), we try to limit “collateral damage,” but in practice our record leaves us much to mourn for.
Closer to home, how often do we still, in our legalistic approach to ministry, “wipe out” the ninety percent good that is in people because of the ten percent that brands them as sinners in our eyes? If God is like the God Abraham bargained with in this story, he is willing to tolerate the ninety percent that might be bad in people for the sake of preserving the ten percent that is good in them. Does this give us something to think about?
We sometimes ask why we should pray for people whom God loves and wants to help more than we do, The answer is that God does not want to save the human race all by himself; he wants to give us a role in our own salvation. And part of our role is to intercede for others in prayer.
If God just blesses people, he is showing them love, and they will be grateful to him. But if he inspires us to pray for people, then his gift to them comes from us as well as from God. Then we are united with God in loving the people he helps. That increases love all around. That is what God prefers.
What to pray for
In Luke 11: 1-13 when the disciples saw Jesus praying, it made them want to learn how. When they asked him to teach them, what he actually taught was a series of priorities — the priorities of his own heart. Right away this tells us that the secret to praying well is not on the level of method but of motive. If our desires are the same as Jesus’ desires, we will be able to pray! In giving us the “Lord’s prayer” Jesus told us what he prayed for so that we might focus our hearts on the same things.
Jesus’ first and greatest desire was that the Father be known and loved: “Father, hallowed be your name!”
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world…. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them (John 17:6, 26).
When we want this more than anything else in this world, we will pray well!
Jesus’ second desire was that the kingdom of God should come, and that the Father’s will should be done on earth as perfectly as in heaven. He began his ministry by announcing, “The reign of God is at hand!” And he instructed his disciples, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Mark 1:15; Matthew 6:33).
Ministers who seek purely to establish the reign of God over their own hearts and to win others to do the same will be able to pray. Christ will be praying in them.
The next petition: “Give us… our daily bread” is misleading in English. The word “daily” is better translated as “future,” and it refers to the bread of heaven, Jesus himself. The Church identifies this bread with Eucharist. Jesus is telling us to set our hearts on him, the joy of the heavenly wedding banquet, and to long for his coming.1
Heaven, the “wedding banquet of the Lamb,” is characterized by total peace, in unity and love, which is the fruit of universal reconciliation. We ask God to “forgive us our offenses” as we will all be forgiving each other in heaven. So these two petitions teach us to focus our desires here and now on what will be the true joy of heaven: union with Jesus and total reconciliation with everyone on earth.
This prayer also teaches us the goal of ministry. It is to bring about on earth now — “this day” — the peace and unity of the wedding feast, with the person of Jesus as the focus and fulfillment of every heart.
The problem is, of course, that these petitions seem impossible to attain! How realistic is it to expect everyone in the world to love and honor the Father? To subordinate every area and activity of human life on earth to the reign and will of God? To forgive and forget all injuries, and accept to be one family with every other person and nation on earth? That is where hope comes in!
Jesus followed this teaching with one on perseverance. Like the man who kept knocking, we are urged by Jesus:
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you…
sooner or later! If not before, then when Jesus comes again at the Parousia!
One thing we know for sure: we believe Jesus when he says the Father will give his children good things and “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”
The sustaining prayer of ministry is the prayer: “Lord, send out your Spirit, and our hearts will be regenerated. And you will renew the face of the earth.” That is what we pray for. And we pray for it with boldness.
In Colossians 2: 12-14 Paul tells us God has already done the impossible for us. He has not just “pardoned” all our sins, but “erased the record that stood against us.” This means our sins no longer exist. They have been “taken away” by the Lamb who was slain. God has annihilated our sinful history by incorporating us through Baptism into the death of Christ. We died in Christ and rose to new life in him with no record of sin. The one who sinned died. We are a “new creation.”
In Baptism you were not only buried with him but also raised to life with him because you believe in the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead (See also 2Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15).
The power of God revealed in the resurrection of Jesus is the power to give “life to the full,” not only to Jesus, who as God is Life itself, but to us. And if God can annihilate sins — reduce them to non-existence — in all who accept to die and rise in Jesus, then he surely has the power to overcome the sins that discourage us in the world. Jesus has already overcome them. “Take courage,” he said before he died. “I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33). All Christian ministry is motivated and sustained by this.
What are the driving desires of your life? Are these what you pray for?
Initiative: Give God’s life:
Say the “Ours Father” daily, trying to make Christ’s priorities your own.
1 See “The Pater Noster As An Eschatological Prayer” in Raymond E. Brown, S.S., New Testament Essays, Bruce Publishing Company, 1965; and General Instruction on the Roman Missal, #81: “in the Lord’s Prayer, daily food is prayed for, which for Christians means preeminently the Eucharistic bread.”