A businessman who needed millions of dollars to clinch an important deal went to church to pray for the money. By chance he knelt next to a man who was praying for $100 to pay an urgent debt. The businessman took out his wallet and pressed $100 into the other man’s hand. Overjoyed, the man got up and left the church. The businessman then closed his eyes and prayed, “And now, Lord…, now that I have your undivided attention….”
We might smile at the businessman’s prayer and yet he ticks a lot of the boxes about prayer in today’s readings. First of all Pope John Paul says: ‘pray as you can and not as you can’t. While that $100 sounds like a good bargaining chip there is a great precedent for it in the first reading where we find Abraham bargaining with God for all his worth and whittling God down to ten just men. This man might be a rampant capitalist dealing in millions yet he believed in God and trusted in God to help him. That’s not something you can take for granted these days where God is so easily pushed aside as irrelevant. As for asking, well that’s exactly what Jesus says. ‘Ask and you shall receive’ right up to the point of banging down your neighbour’s door at midnight for a loaf of bread.
We can gather from this that there is a place for petition in prayer but prayer is much more than that. In its essence prayer is relationship with God, a relationship of friendship. The one nice thing about friends is that we can call on them in our need. Yet that doesn’t mean we bring our begging bowl everytime we visit our friends. Look at Exodus 33:11 where it says that ‘the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.’ I must say I would like to live that attitude a bit more when I pray.
‘Seek and you will find!’ To seek is something more than asking. It’s about stepping out to reach something that is hidden from us because it’s covered or concealed. Two days ago we celebrated the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. The readings for her feast are all about seeking and desiring with all one’s heart. ‘I will seek him whom my heart loves’ is a sentiment quoted from the Song of Songs and Psalm 63 reiterates this with ‘O God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting’. This sums up Mary Magdalene’s attitude in the gospel where she is desperate in her search for the Lord at the entrance to the empty tomb. Mary knows exactly what she is looking for and it is not a bag of money. It is Jesus and she keeps searching until she finds him. The risen Lord reward her heartfelt search and thus she became the apostle to the apostles. Small wonder then that Pope Francis upgraded the 22nd July from a memorial to a feastday in her honour.
Prayer is a learning process. When one of the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he recognised that praying is something we learn. Just as Jesus had to be taught to talk, so too his parents instructed him in the ways of prayer – from the prayers of Scripture to their own ways of relating with God. It is interesting then to note that the prayer he taught parallels almost every phrase of the Magnificat which his mother exclaimed at the Visitation. And here I must acknowledge that my source for this is Mary McGlone who makes this parallel very well. I’m taking the liberty to paraphrase what she wrote.
Jesus said ‘Father, hallowed be your name.” Mary begins the Magnificat with, “my soul magnifies the Lord.” He said, “your kingdom come,” and she proclaimed that God had overthrown tyrants, dumbfounding the arrogant. Jesus prayed for bread and she rejoiced that God had filled the hungry with good things. Jesus told his disciples to pray for forgiveness and she proclaimed that God’s mercy reaches from age to age. Jesus taught them to pray, “Do not subject us to the test,” and she said, “God has helped Israel.”
In essence, Mary’s song rejoiced in the fulfillment of the petitions Jesus taught his followers. No wonder we call her the woman of faith! Notice how selfless this prayer is. It is a prayer for the coming of God’s kingdom where we all live in harmony and peace.
The one word not mentioned in the Magnificat is ‘Father’. That word is special and original to Jesus correcting the dominant image of God at the time as the boss or the king who is to be feared rather than loved. Unfortunately, we are so used to rolling this word off our tongues that we no longer realise just how radical it was then to call God ‘Father’ or Daddy or even Mammy. The psalmist was well aware how awesome it is for God to be so intimate with us. “When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place—what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?”
The ‘Our Father’ is the prayer of the Church par excellence. It took the guts of a century to form the New Testament. Before that the Christians turned to the Our Father as a summary of the Christian message and they recited it three times a day, morning, noon and evening. It doesn’t take long to say an Our Father. It would be lovely for families to resurrect this tradition that carried those early Christians through thick and thin.
Sunday, 24 July 2016