All Times and Seasons
Fourteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr John O’Connor preaches on Christ’s prayer and ours.
Jesus clearly has a lot to contend with. Disciples of John the Baptist have gone to ask him if he is the one ‘who is to come’, the Messiah. In response, Jesus asserts both his Messiahship and the great value of John the Baptist’s ministry. Jesus’s speech then takes on a critical tone, indicating some of the challenges he has to face: that John the Baptist is dismissed as having a demon, just as Jesus is dismissed as a glutton and a drunkard because he is a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Furthermore, there are cities in which Jesus has performed mighty works, yet, alas, they have not changed their ways: Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.
Then out of the blue comes the great prayer, Matthew 11:25-27, that makes up much of the Gospel passage for this Sunday.
‘Out of the blue’ is a fitting way to put it as it indicates a sudden shift in what Jesus says. It’s also fitting because this passage (especially Matthew 11:27 and its parallel in Luke) is sometimes called ‘the Johannine thunderbolt’. The reason for this is that Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel reading that seem to come out of the blue are more similar in style and content to what is found in the Gospel of John than in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). It thus suggests that the understanding (in terms of emphasis) of who Jesus is that is to be found in John’s Gospel is much closer to the understandings of the other evangelists than a superficial reading of the different Gospels might suggest.
In any case, what is I think is also very striking and relevant to us in what Jesus says is that even though he is facing an increasing degree of opposition and resistance, which would in time lead to his crucifixion, Jesus is in constant intimate dialogue with the Father throughout it all. Indeed, throughout the Gospels we see Jesus again and again dedicating time to prayer, even leaving his disciples and the crowds in order to be alone with his Father.
Sometimes people are drawn to prayer when life is tough. At such times people feel their vulnerability, their need for help. Such increases in prayer can be long lasting. But, it’s not unknown for fervour to cool, either because life continues to be tough and people get worn down or because things get better and the need for God seems less. Some, however, find prayer easier when things are going smoothly, perhaps because they are less agitated and more relaxed, able to be still and raise their hearts and minds to God.
Regardless of our personal tendencies and preferences, Jesus’s sudden burst into deep and intimate prayer surely underlines the great need for an ongoing sustained personal relationship with God no matter what: whether in good times or in not so good times. Prayer can play an important part in this. The tough times help draw our attention to our need for prayer. And prayer in good times can remind us that in God is to be found a peace that passes all understanding.
Jesus’s prayer in today’s Gospel reading is truly extraordinary. With all that he has to contend with, Jesus, as it were, steps back from what he is dealing with in order to speak to his Father. Notice that despite the highly elevated nature of Jesus’s words, he nonetheless brings his situation and the challenges he faces into his prayer. The prayer is elevated but not aloof from or unconcerned with the things of this world.
At least that’s what many commentators on the passage think. After all, Jesus speaks of profound mysteries as ‘hidden’ from ‘the wise and understanding’ but revealed to ‘babes’. Such terms fit with what has immediately preceded this passage in the Gospel of Matthew. That is, people like the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes (not to mention inhabitants of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum) who reject and undermine Jesus are those who consider themselves wise and understanding, but who are in fact by their actions and dispositions deprived of the deepest truths; whereas those looked down upon, are the ‘babes’ to whom the mysteries have in fact been revealed, as manifested by how they respond to Jesus and how Jesus responds back to them.
If I were to draw a practical lesson from this Sunday’s Gospel, it would be how deeply we all need prayer. If life is going well and you are of a strong and confident nature at ease with yourself and the world, you are indeed blessed – but it is all too easy then to fail to realise how deeply we need to raise our hearts and minds to God. If life is tough, I might need to say less in order to convince about the importance of prayer. But, even then, prayer is not just about asking help from God with our difficulties, even though it’s certainly very important to do that. Prayer is also about sharing what we are going through with the God who loves us with a love beyond all telling.
Prayer has many components and can come in different forms. People can choose different methods that suit them: one should pray as one can and not as one cannot. But, regardless of variation, prayer is ultimately about relationship with the One who created us, who sustains us, who knows us better than we know ourselves, who saves us, who loves us, and who is our most tender and dear friend. Friendship is precious, and so prayer is precious. Just as friends are not only for good times or for difficult times, prayer too is for all times and seasons.
Image: detail from a stained glass window from St Dominic’s in Washington DC, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP