Seventeenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Matthew Jarvis asks how God answers our prayers, and how we answer him.
Does God answer prayers? The Psalmist seems to think so: ‘On the day I called, you answered me, O Lord.’ A wise person once said that God always answers prayers; it’s just that the answer sometimes is No!
In today’s gospel, God answers at least one simple request: the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, and he answers them, giving them the great gift of the Lord’s Prayer. In the first reading, too, Abraham gets an answer from God, or several answers, in response to his bold negotiating for the salvation of Sodom and Gomorrah.
But what about when God seems to answer ‘No’ to what seems to me to be a perfectly legimitate, holy and faithful request? Did I lack faith? Or is God calling me to a deeper and more courageous faith, trusting that he really wants the best for me? Actually, the exchange between God and Abraham might trouble us further, on two points: God seems ignorant, and God seems to change his mind. Neither would be good news!
First, the Lord says he will go down and investigate the cry that has come up to him, as if hitherto ignorant (Gen 18:21; cf. Ex 3:7,9; Ps 101:20-21). Thankfully, the Biblical story is clear that God does know precisely what he is doing. In the previous verses (Gen 18:17-19), God says he will reveal to Abraham his plans, both for the well-deserved destruction of the city and for the completely undeserved blessings that he will bestow on Abraham and his posterity. Thus God wishes to instruct Abraham in the ways of righteousness and justice (v. 19).
Secondly, God progressively agrees to Abraham’s pleading, from the starting bid of 50 righteous men for the preservation of Sodom and Gomorrah, then 45, 40, 30, 20, 10… Is God that stingy? He is, after all, ‘the judge of the whole earth’ who is expected to enact justice. Abraham presupposes God’s perfect justice when he argues in terms that the Just One would agree with: ‘Are you really going to destroy the just man with the sinner?’ So, did God change his plans, or did he always intend to save the city for the sake of the righteous within, no matter how few they may be?
In fact, God is far more generous than that. Interestingly, Abraham doesn’t push his luck, and refrains from demanding the logical conclusion: what if there were just one righetous person? The story expects us to give the answer: God would not destroy the city for the sake of one righteous person in it.
We have the benefit of hindsight, or rather the benefit of the Holy Spirit, of whom Christ speaks in the gospel (Lk 11:13), the Spirit given in our baptism, which St Paul describes as a dying and rising with Christ (Col 2:12). By this Spirit, we know that there is one truly righteous person in history, Jesus Christ, the source of all human righteousness in the sight of God. For the sake of Jesus, the whole world is saved and we are given another chance to live: the record of our debts has been nailed to his cross, and consigned to utter oblivion (Col 2:13-14). He shows by his own example how to forgive the debts of others, as he taught us to pray.
That is the utterly indescribable goodness of God, ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2:9). Abraham’s bargaining might seem almost absurd in the light of the gospel. Of course God wants to save the city, as also the frustrated prophet Jonah complains (Jon 4:2). And yet it was important that Abraham spoke up. Abraham is a role-model for us, like the persistent man who pesters his friend for something important. Abraham asked, and he received. He prayed, and was answered (with a Yes!).
This does not mean that prayer happens on our own initiative or by our own power. God is the source of all goodness, the one who inspires prayer in us. Perhaps, then, we could reverse the terms of the gospel and learn to see God as the one who is knocking, gently but persistently, at our door (cf. Rev 3:20), and not for his own benefit, but for ours. We are reluctant, yet God continues to seek our friendship. In the end, God’s prayers (like ours) are always answered: but are we giving him a Yes or a No?
Image: detail from Pro Defunctis by Lawrence Lew OP