Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) | Fr Richard Ounsworth says that Jesus teaches us how to pray so that in our praying we can avoid the nonsense of changing God’s mind.
You can’t prove that the Catholic Faith is true. If you could, I suppose it wouldn’t be faith any more. But I would claim that you can and should try to show that it’s not nonsense. If our religious beliefs were nonsense, we would not be able to hold them to be true and continue to claim, as we do, to be rational animals. While much of our Christian doctrine is surprising, even extraordinary, it is an important part of the Dominican tradition that we seek to show the reasonableness of what we believe. That Jesus is God, and at the same time born as man from a virgin’s womb, that he died and yet rose again on the third day to save us from death, all of this is astonishing, mind-blowing even, but not nonsense.
Today’s Gospel appears to say something which, while on the face of it seems perfectly reasonable, is in fact nonsense, namely that if we want to get God to give us something, we just have to annoy him sufficiently. It is tempting to think this is true, to act as though it is true. We’re all inclined to say to ourselves about the religious life, as we do about, say, diet and exercise, or work, that if we just tried a little harder we could make things OK. If I ask enough, beg and plead and prove to God how much I love him, he will give me what I want.
This cannot be so. Not only is what this says about God wrong, it is actually nonsense, because whatever God is like, which we will never know in this life, what we mean by the word ‘God’ entirely excludes the possibility that he is changeable. We can’t work out what God is like, but we can work out that one of the things he isn’t like is a naggable parent or a persuadable boss. Or, for that matter, annoyable.
What, then, is the true and sensible message of today’s Gospel? Firstly, that it is important to ask God for things. Prayer of petition must be at the heart of our Christian lives, both our individual prayer and our common worship. It is, though, understandable if we hesitate. It is truly audacious to pray for things – but all authentic prayer is risky, if only because it does open us up to the temptation to believe that we are controlling God by the force of our rhetoric, when in truth he is eternal and unchanging.
But I think that the real purpose of the story Jesus tells us about the annoying neighbour is precisely to invite us to think about how we picture God and to recognise the foolishness, the nonsense, of some of our ideas about him. The line, ‘If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ acts as a rebuke to our childishness. In particular, the message is not ‘you can’t change God’s mind, so don’t bother trying’, but ‘you can’t annoy God, so don’t be frightened of asking.’ We should indeed ask, as little children ask their parents, in the confidence that they are loved.
This is not a degrading, humiliating childishness, but our greatest dignity. When Christ teaches us how to pray, he does say by telling us to call God ‘Father’, for truly in our brotherhood with Christ we are adopted children of God, sharers in an eternal inheritance. And then, notice, it is after we have prayed for God’s will to be done – and so for our wills to be conformed to his – that we ask for what we want and need.
This is because, in our authentic prayer, we invite God to raise up our small concerns into his love for the world, as we participate in his divine providence. We co-operate in God’s plan of love, and when we share in Christ’s prayer for the world and his Church, we have a foretaste of the share we are to enjoy in his life, just as we go to Mass to receive a foretaste of the eternal banquet.
And the one who brings us this life is Jesus Christ. It is when they see Jesus praying that the disciples are moved to ask that he teach them how to pray. They want to imitate him in his prayer because they want to imitate him in his intimate, joyful attachment to the Father. We read in St John’s Gospel that Philip once said to Jesus ‘show us the Father’, and this is what Christ does when he teaches us to pray: he shows us God as Father, infinitely more loving and compassionate, infinitely more patient, than even the best of human parents.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of Zurbaran’s ‘The Young Virgin Mary in Prayer’, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.