Seventeenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Richard Ounsworth preaches on petitionary prayer and the Christian mystery.
Petitionary prayer – asking God for the things we need, or even just for things we want – is a very peculiar activity; after all, surely God already knows what we need, and has already decided whether or not to respond. What arrogance to think that we can change God’s mind! And of course we know that God’s will is eternal and unchanging, for he sees and knows all things before one of them comes to be.
Yet at the heart of our Christian faith lies this very mystery, that we changeable, weak and foolish creatures can enter into a relationship with the eternal and almighty God: a relationship so intimate that it can be called friendship, and we can dare to call God our Father.
Certainly, it remains the case that God’s will is eternal, set firm from the beginning of all ages. So it must be that when we make our petitions to God, it is not God who changes but we ourselves who are changed. As he hearkens to our hopes, needs and desires, God invites us to do nothing less than share in his eternal providence.
So petitionary prayer truly sums up the Christian mystery, the wonderful and unfathomable truth that the Father invites us, his adopted children, to participate in the divine life. This is the powerful reality of the priesthood of all believers, when every member of the body of the Church joins with Christ, its head, in interceding to God for the world and all its people.
We may find it difficult to think of ourselves as the few just men and women saving the rest of humanity from perdition, and so we should, since it is not for us to judge our neighbours. Yet we can, amazingly, liken ourselves to Abraham in today’s first reading, who makes no claim to God about his own merits, but only pleads before the divine judge for mercy to be shown to others. Whenever we read in the newspapers (or on the internet) of the terrible injustices done by our fellow human beings, should not our first response be ‘Father, forgive them; and forgive me, too’?
How appropriate it is, then, that the disciples in today’s Gospel are led to seek guidance from Jesus in how to pray after they have seen Our Lord himself praying. For Jesus not only teaches us to call God our Father, but also shows us, in his ministry and above all in his self-giving death and his glorious resurrection, what it means to be children of God.
Luke’s Jesus is a strikingly prayerful figure, never afraid to make known to his Father his deepest desires: he does not hide from the Father his fear of his coming death, praying so hard for the cup to pass him by that he sweats blood, even as he submits to the will of God.
As in John’s gospel, Jesus’ prayer to the Father does not detract from, but rather reinforces, his unity with the Father. And so it is with us. The unity the Son has by nature with the Father we share by adoption as we follow the example of Christ.
Why, then, are we sometimes loath to make petitionary prayers? Perhaps we see it as the most primitive, the most childlike kind of prayer. And yet we are to be received into the kingdom as little children, vulnerable and needy, or not at all.
Perhaps we fear being importunate, are unwilling to bother God with trivia, embarrassed at the smallness of our needs compared with those of the starving and the oppressed. Jesus’s parable in today’s Gospel of the importunate friend is a strange and puzzling one, no doubt deliberately so.
Whatever the fulness of its meaning, it is surely meant to encourage us not to be afraid of bothering God. Jesus presents us with two images of God, that of the sleepy and irritable friend and that of the loving father. Perhaps he is asking us which of these we imagine God to be. Shall we be wary, afraid of God, or shall we trust in his loving kindness?
Since he has offered us nothing less than a participation in his merciful love towards the world, shall we not invite him to share in the day-to-day minutiae of our lives?