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To Whom Do We Pray?

Whenever you see a person doing something exceptionally well, your first impulse is to inquire as to that one's secret. You might find yourself saying, "Teach me how you do that so effectively." That's exactly what we see happening in the Gospel story that was just read for us. Jesus had been praying one day, and his disciples saw the powerful impact that this kind of experience had on Jesus. Therefore, they said, "Would you teach us how to do what you're doing? We want that same energy exchange in our lives." And in response to their request, Jesus did two things. First of all, he gave them an actual model that they could begin to emulate directly. He said, "When you pray, here is how to do it," and what follows is a shortened form of what is usually called The Lord's Prayer. This is simply a basic outline of the kind of concerns that make up authentic prayer. This is just like a piano teacher giving a set of scales to a beginning pupil and saying, "If you will follow this directly, it will increase your capacity to become a musician." And I would suggest that one of the finest ways to deepen one's capacity for prayer is to take the famous words of the prayer that our Lord gave us and make those words our own. In other words, we can begin to learn to pray by letting the Master Teacher direct us into how this should be done.

However, Jesus realized that there was a deeper issue involved than just having an actual model to follow. How do you really understand that mystery to whom your prayerful words are addressed? And to get at this seminal dimension, Jesus invited his disciples to use their imagination. He says, "Think of yourself asleep one night and there's a knock on your door and you go and find a friend, or perhaps even a kinsperson, who is on a journey who is asking that they could spend the rest of the night in your house." This is the kind of experience that could have happened to anyone of the disciples, because in that day and in that part of the world, the heat was so great that people would not begin a walking journey until late in the afternoon and many times would continue on into the first part of the night. You also need to realize that in those days there were so few public accommodations that the only way peasants could have a place to sleep was to go to some kinsperson or friend and ask for hospitality. And so Jesus says, you suddenly find yourself with an unexpected guest and rather than to send this person to bed without any kind of food, you go to your cupboard; and, lo and behold, you discovered you've used up all the food that you have because remember peasants in that day lived pretty much hour-to-hour and hand-to-mouth. However, instead of denying the custom of hospitality, Jesus says you excuse yourself and go next door and knock on your neighbor's and say in hushed tones, "Could you lend me three loaves? I have an unexpected guest, and I have nothing to set before him." And the response that you're likely to get is probably going to be negative. The sleepy voice inside the neighbor's house said, "I can't get up and give you anything. Didn't you see the door was already closed? Don't you realize my children are here around me asleep? If I get up to get you some food, I'll wake up everybody. I simply cannot, cannot, answer your request."

Let me remind you that back in that day, a peasant's cottage was little more than a one-room enclosure. Jesus says even though this one is very negative in his initial response, if you continue to knock and continue to plead your case, not because your friend wants to help you but because of your sheer persistence, finally-the children probably having been waked up already-he will get up and find you some bread and hand it out the door, and say, "Please take it, anything, to restore some peace in my house."

As I have reflected on this story, it has raised genuine questions in my mind about what Jesus was really suggesting as to the essence of prayer. Is persistence the highest virtue? Is Jesus suggesting that God really is indifferent and that we have to wear down the Holy until finally out of exasperation, God gives us what we're requesting even though this is not part of his heart of hearts? Frankly, for years I had trouble understanding how this particular story that Jesus constructed gave insight into how we Christians are supposed to pray. And then many years ago, a biblical scholar gave me a whole new way of understanding this image of the reluctant neighbor. He pointed out that in the Greek language from which our Scriptures are translated, there is a tiny conjunction pronounced kai. It can be translated either and or but considering the context. For example, if it's linking together two things that are similar, then it can be translated and. For example, it began to rain, and I opened an umbrella. However, if this conjunction is connecting things that are in contrast to each other, it is appropriate to translate it as but. I was going to see a friend, but that one did not show up. And then he suggested that the whole hinge of meaning in this passage lies in translating the conjunction after the story of the neighbor with a but instead of an and. And then it dawned on me that this image of an indifferent, reluctant neighbor is not the true image of God that Jesus came to embody. It rather represents the kind of fearfulness that the serpent in the Book of Genesis injected into the human consciousness. Centuries before, the serpent had suggested that God was really not for humanity but, actually, was against the human species, that God had no interest whatsoever in the fulfillment of the human race, but that God actually had nothing but indifference and sometimes even contempt for our particular species. And that suspicion of God's character is at the root of all human sinfulness. And it was to correct this mistaken assumption that the whole biblical story has begun to unfold. Someone has suggested that both the Old and New Testament(s) are God's answer to a bad reputation. And once I realized that this story of the reluctant neighbor was not the image of the one to whom we pray, but that the essence of it lies in what follows after having described the indifference of the one next door. Jesus said, "But I say to you, 'Ask and it will be given. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.'" And then Jesus gives us the true image that ought to shape our understanding of God; that is, one of a caring, loving parent, who when a child asks for something honestly, the response is not indifference or reluctance but the spirit of one who cares deeply for the welfare of the child and gives not only what the child may want but gives that which in the eyes of the heavenly parent is the absolute best for the child.

Jesus says if your child asks you for a fish, will you give him a snake? If your child asks for a piece of bread, would you give him a stone, and then Jesus climaxes this teaching on the true nature of God by saying, "If you who are evil know how to give good things to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give you the Holy Spirit in response to your request?"

I think it's important to realize that this does not suggest God will always give us exactly what we ask for, because many times we're not wise enough to understand our needfulness appropriately. By saying God will give the Holy Spirit in response to our requests, what is really being suggested is that the wisdom and goodness of our heavenly parent is going to shape that which God gives us in answer to our prayers.

There's a wonderful part of St. Augustine's Confession where he talks about how his mother, Monica, a profound Christian, had so wanted to bless him with a Christian vision; but as a young man, he had followed the example of his profligate father. He was living a life of great sensuality. He seemed to have no interest whatsoever in the things that were dear to his mother's heart. He was a very gifted, young scholar. He was raised in North Africa, and he realized that Italy held artistic promises that North Africa did not possess, and so he resolved to go to Italy that he might study more fully his chosen discipline of rhetoric. Monica, his mother, felt if he ever left her side, he would never come to a Christian conversion. And so one night she was praying earnestly in a chapel on the coast of North Africa that Augustine not leave her when, in fact, he was boarding a ship and setting across the Mediterranean to Italy. He went to Milan, which was the cultural capital at that time of Italy; and once he got there he was told that if he wanted to hear rhetoric in its finest form, he ought to go down to the cathedral every Sunday because Bishop Ambrose was recognized as the greatest practitioner of rhetoric in all of Italy at that time. The person said you don't have to listen to what he says, but how he says it is absolutely masterful. Well, as it turned out, the young pagan began to do that, and lo and behold, through Ambrose's rhetoric, the wonder of the Gospel began to break in on the consciousness of young Augustine. It was through his human weakness that God eventually brought Augustine to a profound conversion, which led to his becoming one of the great shapers of our Western Christian position. The interesting thing is that Monica had no idea that of all the people in the world Ambrose was better equipped to bear witness to her son than she herself. And years later as Augustine looked back on that experience, he said of that night when she was praying so earnestly that he not leave her side, God denied her the form of her request that God might eventually give her the substance of it.

The whole point of this story is to invite us to trust, to believe that at the bottom of the river of reality there is nothing but unambiguous goodness. God is light and in God is no darkness at all and, therefore, when we pray, we make our requests known unto a wisdom and goodness greater than our own and then trust that the way God will respond is not like the indifference of that neighbor next door; but the response will come from the heart of a heavenly parent who loves us better than we love ourselves and knows in the profoundness sense what is best for us.

I invite you as you pray to trust the goodness of the One who hears your prayer.

O God, increase in us an awareness of your goodness, please. Amen.