Today’s Liturgy of the Word gives us a welcome look at the urgent need for persistent prayer. In our readings today we see God’s openness to our prayers, we hear a model for our prayers, and we receive some instruction on what prayer should be like. But above all, the point that we must not miss today, is that in the life of the disciple, prayer is to be constant, persistent, and as much a part of our life as breathing.
This first reading has always intrigued me, ever since I can remember hearing it as a child. God intends to destroy the city of Sodom because of its pervasive wickedness. Abraham, newly in relationship with God, stands up for the innocent of the city, largely because that was where his nephew, Lot, had taken up residence. In what seems to be a case of cosmic “Let’s Make a Deal,” Abraham pleads with God to spare the city if just fifty innocent people could be found there. God agrees and Abraham persists. Eventually God agrees to spare the city if just ten people could be found in the city of Sodom.
Now we don’t know how many people were living in Sodom, but it was certainly a great many more than fifty. But God agrees to spare the city if just ten just people could be found, a number that was probably some fraction of one percent of the population. Now, we know the rest of the story without even having heard it today, don’t we? Sodom is eventually destroyed for its wickedness, along with the city of Gomorrah. So let’s think about that for a minute. Not even ten good people were found in that area, so great and widespread was their wickedness!
Now the Old Testament has a number of stories like this where a great many people are destroyed in their wickedness. From this we should not draw the hasty conclusion that we worship a wrathful God. Instead, we worship a God who is just and merciful, not punishing the great many innocent for the wickedness of but a few. It is important, I think, to know that Abraham’s prayer does not really change his unchangeable God. Instead, God always intended to spare the city if there were just people in it, it’s just that there weren’t any just people in it!
What I love about this first reading is Abraham’s line, “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes!” Here he prefigures the kind of prayer Jesus has in mind for us, who also are but dust and ashes. The prayer Jesus teaches us is amazingly familiar, in the sense of being close to God. Our God is not a distant potentate who has set the world in motion and then stepped back to observe events as they unfold. No, instead our God can be called “Abba, Father” and we can approach God as we would a loving parent. Because of this, we can pray, “Father, hallowed be your name…”
So far we have learned that prayer never changes our unchangeable God. God always intends the best for us, and it is he himself who puts the prayer into our hearts in the first place. Secondly, our prayer is not a formal request to a distant deity, but instead a personal plea to God who is like a loving parent. I think we can all relate to all of that. But it is the parable that follows the Lord’s Prayer in today’s Gospel that tells us something we have to learn over and over again: prayer must be persistent. This flies in the face of the notion that prayer is not something that changes our God who always intends the best for us. Why do we have to pray the same thing over and over again if God always intends to give us what is best. Put another way, in fact the words I often hear from parishioners who are heartbroken, “Why doesn’t God answer our prayers?”
Whether you have a sick loved one, or a child who’s gone the wrong way, or a marriage that is troubled, or a job situation that is unhappy, or any one of thousands of other problems, you too may have asked “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” Today we’re hearing that we should be persistent in our prayer and that God will answer the prayers of those he loves, and so you may well be asking yourself, “What good does that do?” These are questions I get all the time, and I can understand them, having asked them a time or two myself. So let me give you my take on it with a parable out of my own life.
When my dad was dying back in May, I was absolutely positive that he was going to be okay. If I had my own way, of course, I would have prayed that he would live another fifty years, but I knew that was selfish. God had made Dad for himself, and I knew that he was going back to be with God. I wanted nothing else for him than that he would be free of pain and happy forever. I was positive that was what was going to happen. The day before he died, he told my aunt, his sister, that he had seem their mom. I knew that the saints had come to take him home. We believe in that, you know: we call it the Communion of Saints. Just before he died, he looked up at the nurse who was attending him and said, “It’s going to be okay.” And of course that was true.
How did he know it was going to be okay? Because Dad was a man of prayer. He went to Mass with my mom every Sunday and many weekdays too. He prayed his rosary and daily prayers every day. He and I used to go every Holy Thursday to pray before the Blessed Sacrament together. His wonderful life was immersed in prayer and he had no regrets. Everything was going to be okay. And because he was a man of prayer, I knew that I could let him go and that God would take care of him. Prayer is like that; it’s contagious. His example of persistent prayer was one that led me to my vocation.
The point is this. Praying persistently doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is going to come out the way we want it to, but it does mean that everything is going to come out the way God intended it, which is so much better than our little plans. If we are people of prayer, if we pray persistently, we will be able to see the blessings in the midst of sorrow and to have confidence when everything seems to be falling apart.
Praying persistently doesn’t mean praying constantly for just one thing. It means praying in all ways, praying in adoration before our beautiful Savior, praying in contrition and repentance for our sinfulness, praying in thanksgiving for our many blessings, praying in supplication for our needs and the needs of all the world. It means praying, above all, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The psalmist today says, “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.” God intends the very best for us, we may be certain of that. And if we are people of persistent prayer, then we will indeed see blessing all around us. My prayer today is that we would all be persistent in prayer, that we would become people of prayer, and that we would never, ever, ever lose heart.