24 July 2016
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
“Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” It has such a peaceful, gentle sound to it. And we might picture a few light knocks on the door, or a child asking for something with patience, or someone sitting under a tree pondering a question to find the answer. “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
But, really, in the ancient Greek, it’s more like this: “Demand and beg for something long enough, and you’ll receive it; refuse to take no for an answer, leave no stone unturned, and you’ll what find you’re looking for; bang on the door with your fist and yell at the top of your lungs, and the door will be opened to you.” The vigor of these words gets lost in the translation. But Christ asks us to pray and to live with this vigor and insistence and persistence.
Our prayer isn’t supposed to be lazy, or routine, or unthinking. It should be insistent and intentional. It should even be demanding of God. And this is what Jesus taught the disciples when they said, “Teach us to pray as John taught his disciples to pray.” Remember that John the Baptist is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”
Just think of that prayer Jesus gave us, the Our Father. “Thy kingdom . . . come. Thy will . . . be done . . . Give us our daily bread . . . Forgive us our trespasses . . . Lead us not into temptation . . . Deliver us from evil.” The Our Father is one demand after another. And we don’t end that prayer by saying, “Please.” We just demand those things from God; we beg for them. That’s the prayer of John the Baptist; a prayer that begs and demands—with faith and insistence.
Of course, it’s possible not to pray that way. Does this prayer sound familiar: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be blah, blah blah . . . but deliver us from evil.” You know, sometimes you just go on autopilot; you hear words, you know your lips are moving, but that’s about it. It’s like spending an hour to cut the grass, only to realize when you’re done that you forgot to turn the mower on. It’s kind of silly example. But we do it with our prayers probably more often than we’d like to admit.
“Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Just remember to turn the engine on; remember to put your heart and soul into it, and to be persistent—like John the Baptist.
But “persistence” doesn’t mean being “pushy,” or “irreverent,” or “greedy.” It simply means being a man or woman of real faith. You know, if we say we trust in God, well then let’s put our money where our mouth is; let’s put our mind and our focus where our mouth. If there’s a problem with our prayer, it’s probably not the words we’re saying—it’s probably the spirit with which we’re saying them.
There are many people around who don’t like the Catholic faith because we put so much focus on rituals. The Mass is a ritual. Getting married is a ritual. Being baptized and confirmed, getting anointed, going to confession, getting ordained . . . they’re all rituals. And the problem some people have is that they see rituals as mindless, as empty repetitions, as words and actions that don’t come from the heart of the individuals; and so the rituals, they say, are ineffective, outdated, and meaningless.
Of course, sometimes, that’s true. But, there again, the problem isn’t the ritual; the problem is in how someone approaches ritual. Is it with a mind that’s vigorous in faith; with a heart that’s persistent in seeking to know and love God? Or does someone approach ritual with a mind that wanders and a heart that’s grown tired of the discipline of faith? Rituals shouldn’t be mindless; they shouldn’t be divorced from what’s in our heart.
Instead, our rituals, our prayers depend on us being conscious of what we’re doing. They depend on us meaning every word we say; they depend on a heart and mind that yearn for God. “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Just remember to do it with persistence and vigor. That’s the spirit we need to bring to our rituals; it’s the spirit we need to bring to our prayer—if our prayer is to mean anything.
Just last week saw a great example of this: the story of Martha and Mary. Martha was persistent and vigorous—but not about Jesus who was right in front of her. Mary was also persistent and vigorous of heart and mind—but she showed it by simply sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to his every word. Mary was “asking” and “seeking” and “knocking” at the door; and she did it by being intentional in her focus.
We also see a great example of the “spirit” we need to bring to prayer in the story of Abraham today. Again and again he asked God: “Will you spare the city if there are so many innocent people in it?” And again and again God said yes. But with Abraham, it’s not only the spirit he brings to prayer, it’s also the intention he brings to prayer.
Mary (the sister of Martha) was focused entirely on Jesus. And that’s good; that’s the First and Greatest Commandment. But Abraham’s focus was on the good of other people. Even though the people of Sodom were sinners, Abraham still had hope that there was good in them. And so, he prayed vigorously and persistently to God on their behalf. And that’s good, too; that’s the other half of the Greatest Commandment: love of neighbor.
If our prayer seems to be dry or empty; if the Our Father has a beginning and an end—but no middle—when we say it; if our ritual seems devoid of meaning . . . maybe it’s the spirit and the intention we put behind our prayers.
“Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” In other words: “Demand and beg for something long enough, and you’ll receive it; refuse to take no for an answer, leave no stone unturned, and you’ll what find you’re looking for; bang on the door with your fist and yell at the top of your lungs, and the door will be opened to you.” This is the persistence of spirit that Christ asks us to have with our prayer and in our lives.
And so, are you “asking” or are you “demanding?” Are you “seeking” or are you “leaving no stone unturned?” Are you “knocking” or are you “pounding with your fists” at the door of God’s heart? Jesus gives us the words to say; the Church gives us the rituals we use. But it’s up to us to put the heart and soul into them. If you want more “soul” in your prayer, then put your soul into it.