17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 28, 2013

You are probably familiar with the story “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The story dates to the second century AD, but was popularized first by the poet Goethe, and more recently by the Disney company. In the story, the main character gains a little knowledge of his teacher’s craft. As it turns out, a little knowledge proves to be dangerous, and chaos ensues.

I thought of that story when I read this Sunday’s Gospel. Both the first reading and the Gospel speak to us about prayer. In the Gospel reading Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray (the Our Father), and then tells them a parable about persevering in prayer. It occurred to me that perseverance in prayer is one of those things that requires more understanding rather than less.

It is necessary for us both to persevere in prayer, and to persevere in striving to understand God’s responses to our prayers. We can perceive our praying, or God’s response, as ineffectual or futile, but only because we have failed to understand God’s will. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, our lives can degenerate into chaos when we satisfy ourselves with a little of Jesus’ teaching, but fail to understand all of Jesus’ teaching.

In the parable a desperate man asked a friend for help. The friend refused to help his neighbor. Jesus said, “I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.” (Luke 11:8) We don’t actually read about the man’s persistence or the friend’s acquiescence.

Parables are not to be read literally. They are metaphors or images rather than allegory or depiction. This parable does not intend to imply that when we pray we should be insistent and demanding because God is often inattentive to our prayers. Rather, the parable describes two different ways that we can understand God’s response to our prayers. There are probably more people who view God as the sleepy, lazy friend in the parable than there are who view God as the friend to gets up in the middle of the night to attend to a neighbor’s need. Jesus’ image of God was clearly the latter rather than the former.

Jesus’ image of God is illustrated in his teaching to his disciples. He said, “ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:9-13)

Why, then, would someone view God as stingy, inattentive or slow to respond? These are probably more accurate reflections of the person who makes the judgment than they are of God. A person who views God as penurious and unresponsive does so because they tend to treat others that way. One might also tend to view God as inattentive or uncaring if that is one’s assessment of God’s answers to prayer.

In the event that we didn’t pick up on the meaning of Jesus’ words, Luke adds, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13) We can expect answers to all our prayers, but it is necessary for us to be able to recognize those answers when they come.

Jesus’ instructed his disciples to remain hopeful in prayer and trusting in God’s desire to save God’s people. God answers all our prayers. Our dissatisfaction and disappointment with God derives from the fact that we do not always pay attention to God’s response, and we do not always value God’s response.

Jesus promised that God will always grant us divine power for our lives. However, we do not get a guarantee of always getting what we want. Sometimes, God’s answer to our prayers is mysterious, confusing and challenging. If we walk away out of disappointment or disapproval or impatience we will never learn what God is saying to us. Jesus’ parable shows us how to recognize how, when and what God speaks to us.

Jesus tells us to persevere in prayer not because we need to focus God’s attention on our needs, nor because God needs time make a decision about how to answer us. Rather, we must be constant and persevering in prayer in order that we might be ready and able to understand God’s response. We are the ones who need time to get up to speed, to process information. God allows us this time.

The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ instruction about how to pray, is a repetition of just two requests: that God’s will to save the world be accomplished, and that we personally will be included among the saved. The answers that we should expect from God will always be expressions of God’s intent to bring us salvation, the Holy Spirit, which is God’s power exercised on our behalf.