Forty-third in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13
One of the more famous rules of Saint Benedict, the founder of western monasticism (and without whom Europe may not exist), is ora et labora – pray and work. And that’s the sense in which I like to contemplate today’s readings. They are a wonderful, and necessary, reminder to us about what faith and prayer really are. Too often in these days of unrest, when hue and cry is raised over #PrayForMunich, #PrayForTurkey, #PrayForNice, #PrayForOrlando, etc. as copping-out instead taking real action against the horrors involved, it’s good to take a step back and reflect on what it is we’re actually doing when we pray. Reliance on faith can easily be treated as a retreat and prayer as lip service, even by those doing the praying! In order for any prayer to be effective, it must be a real work – and that a work of love.
The First reading and the Gospel reading provide great examples of persistent prayer. Before God rained down destruction upon Sodom – one of the most inhospitable cities of the plains – Abraham prays to God to spare the city on behalf of any just and innocent person there. He begs first for 50 persons, then 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, and finally 10 – and each time God listens and assures him that if He finds that number of innocents there, He will spare the whole place on their behalf. The Gospel passage from Luke conveys a similar lesson. As Jesus is teaching His disciples to pray, He gives the example of a man knocking on his friend’s door in the middle of the night, in order to borrow food to give to his guests. And as much as the man’s first request is denied, due to the lateness of the hour, Jesus tells His disciples: “[I]f he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.”
One of my favorite aspects of both these stories is that neither involves the Jewish Law. In the story of Sodom, the Law had not yet been given (and would not for another 500 years or so). And in Jesus’ parable, the only real principle involved is friendship (which, apparently, can take the night off!). Yet both stories involve a shared concept of justice and social order, as well as the virtue of perseverance. “[A]sk and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you,” therefore, becomes a bedrock foundation for relationship with God and Man that is independent of any particulars of the Jewish or Christian order. It is one of those things written upon the heart by God already; it simply has to be carried out. As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, the Law given at Sinai is a reminder of what our forefathers called the “Laws of Nature.” It repeats to us in very particular forms things we already know to do by virtue of our humanity, so that we continue to do them even when we don’t feel like it. After all, the surest way to get nothing out of something is to stop doing it.
It is Saint Paul, in our Second Reading, who introduces the place of the Law into this discussion of persistent faith and constant prayer. He speaks to the Colossians of being “dead in transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh.” While anyone can be righteous or not in respect to the Law of Nature, it was the Law of Sinai that revealed to us that transgressing this Law involves truly cosmic consequences. It was always more than simply ritual words or circumcision or sacrifices of this many animals on a certain day in a certain order; it was about the idea of balance. Transgression of this Law of Nature, however insignificant it may seem, causes an imbalance in Nature – what Paul calls, in his Jewish tradition, “the bond against us, with its legal claims.” The prescriptions, mandates and instructions set forth in that Law were the means of mercy, the ways in which the faithful could ask God to restore balance. And so what Paul offers through his proclamation of the Gospel becomes even more spectacular and mind-boggling. Christ’s fulfillment of the Law achieved balance, once and for all time. That is what he means when he says we “were also raised with him through faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead;” the cosmic death resulting from our transgressions of not simply Mosaic Law but the Natural Law has been countered and reversed by the God-Man Himself, just as we asked Him to do.
So the next time we see people praying for peace in the wake of tragedy, or are prevailed upon to do so with them, try not to think of it as doing nothing. Granted, some bowed in prayer may be less sincere than others, but we can make sure our own prayers are sincere and our faith is true. God is faithful, no matter the creed. We are all His children, no matter how far we stray. And if we know how to do good by each other, how much more will He do for us? Seek out His dwelling, knock on His door, and ask – and don’t stop until you get an answer.
“Evil may have its hour, but God will have His day.” – Venerable Fulton Sheen