17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Having already taught the disciples the Our Father, Jesus wants to encourage them to pray with confidence and zeal so he tells a story I think is often misunderstood.  A person comes knocking at the door in the middle of the night to ask for a few loaves to feed a friend who has just arrived on a journey.  The other person is in bed; everyone is asleep and does not want to get up and help.  Hey we have all been there.  But Jesus says that even if friendship does not motivate the person to give up the loaves then the neighbor’s persistence will force him.  In other words, annoyance will win the day.  I think that often gives us a false impression of our relationship with God in prayer.  We think of ourselves as that persistent neighbor and God as the reluctant giver.  We must pester God, wear God down before God delivers what we want.  God, fully knowing our faults and shortcomings, does not want to give us things we don’t deserve, but eventually breaks down, weary of our nagging. 

That is not the point of the story nor could it be further from the truth.  The point of the story is even if we can give good things to one another with our hearts not into it, how much more God will be able to do so.  If we can overcome our reluctance to be generous, than our God, who is looking for every opportunity to share divine goodness with us, who has ears that have patiently waiting to hear us, how much more will that God be able to give us.  Far from a grudging giver, God is anxious to give; hoping to give; ready to hold us in God’s embrace.  

That is why Jesus goes on to say, “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?  Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?”  What kind of father would do that?  A mean Dad.  An evil Dad.  OK, a funny quirky Dad.  But a loving father would always give us what we need and tenderly care for our hearts.  So with utter confidence Jesus proclaims, “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  That should be out attitude to every single prayer we say; an attitude that says God is listening and giving us good things.

But we all have a different experience sometimes.  We have asked and not been given; sought and not found; knock and had to door held tightly shut.  If this were true, how could harm ever come to a member of our parish when I pray for you every day?   Why is there not world peace? Why are the Mets not leading the National League East by eight games?  Our prayers are confused with our wish lists just as we confuse our wants and our needs. We are only human and there are times when what we think we want is not what we need at all, and God is able to recognize it.  Sometimes indeed we do ask for the scorpion and not the egg.  Perhaps when we are in heaven, we will see arrayed around us all the prayers we have ever uttered and I bet we will be grateful about 30% of the time that we did not get what we wanted. 

But there are those other times.  Times of heartbreak and loss.  Of utter despair and pain.  There are times when there is no doubt that what we are praying for could not be more right.  Why are we not given these needs?  Well, God does not retract the gift of free will when we were given the gift of prayer.  I can only turn to the last line of the Gospel for comfort, to make sense of it all.

Jesus says, “If you then, who are wicked, [because of all our sins] know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”  What never fails to be given is the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit that tells us we are never alone, that we can persevere, and that we are stronger than we would ever be without the presence of God.  The Father answers all our prayers by giving us the very same spirit that dwelt in his Son.

Let me tell you about Friday – a not all together unusual day.  I had a funeral for a 24 year old young man.  After a few minutes to collect myself, I traveled to the Hudson Valley and visited friends of 20 years from California whom I only see once a year and then I came back for our Confirmation retreat.  And in that disparate day, all I wanted was the presence of the Holy Spirit so that we would know that we belong together and that our God is the one who has given us that bond.

And the Holy Spirit does not disappoint.  The Holy Spirit brought our young people closer to knowing themselves through knowing God.  The Holy Spirit filled the gaps of time and distance to make me as close as ever with my friends and the Holy Spirit gave unimaginable strength and beauty to a family so they could bear an unbearable cross.  And I thanked the Holy Spirit for the words I could share with our Confirmandi, for the words that were not needed to catch up with my friends and for expressing those things that could not be said to that family.

When Jesus promises that the result of our prayer is that we are given the Holy Spirit, he is giving us what we need.  He is giving us the wisdom and courage to live our faith, the lightness of our laughter with friends and the journeying with broken hearts that steadies wobbled knees and points to the miracle of a new day.  We are given the very love of God.  And our prayers are truly answered by divine love.