Many people are surprised to learn that most of the phone calls coming to a parish office have nothing at all to do with parish ministry. Most of the phone calls received by all parish offices across the country are cold calls from sales people.
At All Saints we are offered on a daily basis a better rate for long distance calling, photocopies, office supplies, internet service, health insurance, travel arrangements and just about any other consumer product or service that one can imagine. One of the most memorable sales calls came on Christmas Eve a few years ago; it was from someone who wanted to sell me a postage machine for the office. The salesman was surprised when I said I didn’t have time to listen to the sales pitch. He protested, “I can save you money!” I replied, “Jesus saves more than that.”
The repeated refusals that telemarketers receive (at least, from All Saints), seem not to discourage them in the least. They keep calling, evidently in the hope that their persistence will result in a sale. They seem to be convinced that they will eventually catch me in a moment of weakness. The Scripture readings this Sunday seem to encourage a tele-marketing approach to prayer.
In the first reading Abraham bargains with God about the fate of the city of Sodom. This familiar Scripture passage says, “But Abraham persisted: ‘Please, do not let my Lord be angry if I speak up this last time. What if ten righteous people are found there?’ The Lord replied, ‘For the sake of the ten, he replied, I will not destroy it’.” (Genesis 18:32) We know the fate of Sodom. It seems that there were not even ten decent people living there at the time.
This story from Scripture intends to clarify the reason for Sodom’s destruction. God is depicted as compassionate, patient and willing to spare Sodom for the sake of just a few people. The fact that destruction happened, then, is fully the fault of the unrighteous rather than the result of God having an uncontrollable temper. This story intends, as well, to clarify the nature of prayer.
Similarly, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable about a man with poor planning skills whose neighbor has poor people skills. (Luke 11:5-8) The story concludes with the summary comment, “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)
Persistence seems to be the theme of both Jesus’ parable and the conversation between Abraham and God. Persistence, as a strategy for prayer, might have several possible interpretations. There are Catholics who practice persistence in prayer in the same way that telemarketers practice persistence in trolling for sales. They repeat memorized prayers and devotions on a regular basis, with the expectation that eventually they will get what they’re requesting.
It is enticing to think that one’s persistent efforts at prayer might eventually produce winning lottery numbers, a solution to an intractable problem or even eternal salvation. However, this approach to prayer might not be the very best one. If prayer is about nothing more than getting what we want, then we’ve made ourselves into our own god. It might be worth our effort to look at a different interpretation of persistence. Perhaps prayer is not primarily about getting what we want, whether the desired outcome is an object, a resolution to a problem or some eternal benefit. Perhaps the goal of prayer is getting to know God rather than getting things.
If the goal of Abraham’s prayer was to negotiate leniency on behalf of Sodom, he failed to do so. (Genesis 19:24) If the goal of prayer, according to Jesus’ parable, is to wake God from a comfortable sleep so that we might have our physical needs met, perhaps God is like the god Baal whom Elijah taunted. (1 Kings 18:27) Prayer that serves only one’s personal issues and concerns is most certainly an act of idolatry. On the other hand, if prayer is about getting to know God, then the Scriptures should be understood as talking about relationship rather than wish fulfillment.
In the first reading, Abraham prolongs a conversation with God about mercy and forbearance. In doing so, Abraham comes to know God as patient, just and slow to anger. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus portrays God as being more solicitous and provident than a parent (Luke 11:11-13), and he encourages his disciples to remain constantly in communication with this providential God. (Luke 11:9-10) The real purpose of prayer is not to get what we want, but to get to know God.
We come to know God in exactly the same way we come to know family and friends: through many conversations over a period of many years. Jesus’ instruction on persistence in prayer intends to encourage us to remain in a prayerful conversation with God, even when we don’t get the things we desire. Rather than taking a tele-marketer’s approach to prayer, the Scriptures teach us to seek continually to know God’s will in greater detail. When we pray in order to come to know God as merciful, kind, generous, forgiving and provident, then we’ve put ourselves in the only relationship that is a right relationship with God: the one in which we can be confident of receiving fully the gift of the Holy Spirit and, perhaps, a merciful judgment as well.