I. God Answers My Prayers . . . In the Negative
A. One of my earliest memories is learning to pray. Mom and Dad prayed the Rosary every evening and they prayed with me before tucking me at night. When I was five or six, Mom told me that God always answers our prayers.
B. That seemed pretty cool. At the time, ATM machines had not yet been invented but, ahead of my time, I regarded God as an ATM, a kind of Santa Claus who showed up, not just at Christmas, but all year long. So instead of submitting my list to Santa Claus, I submitted it to God. It included a bicycle, model cars, and a dog . . . none of which materialized. “But you told me,” I said to my Mom, “God always answers our prayers.” “Yes,” she said firmly, “and sometimes, he says, ‘no.’”
C. You would think that my difficulties with prayer would have gone away once I became a priest, and, for these last 21 years, a bishop . . . but alas, not. It’s not that God has been anything less than utterly generously with me. He has lavished me with undeserved blessings of every sort and, if the truth be told, God must think me an awfully ungrateful cuss. Yet that doesn’t stop me from asking. I prayed furiously that a wonderful, holy priest be cured of a terminal illness. I pulled out all the stops, sought the intercession of Fr. McGivney, pointed out to God the enormous good this priest has done and could do in the future, and how electrifying a cure would be for everyone in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. It turns out this holy priest was more resigned to God’s will than I was. Just over a year ago, he died a holy death which I was privileged to witness. Seemingly, God has answered my prayers, then and now, with a fatherly ‘no’.
II. Hands Held Persistently Aloft . . . Light from Today’s Scripture Readings
A. …and for that reason, I wrestled with today’s readings, which are all about prayer. There’s that first reading the Book of Exodus where we find the Israelites locked in a life-and-death struggle with the fierce Amalek tribe. Time and again, Moses had been the great intercessor for the Israelites and God seemed to listen to his prayers – but now he was getting older – and was no longer able to hold his hands aloft in prayer. Aaron and Hur, his assistants, solved the problem by propping up his hands and Joshua, whom we meet for the first time in this reading, won the battle. Even in his weakened state, Moses seems not to have lost the magic touch in defending God’s Chosen People from their enemies.
B. Then there is Jesus’ teaching on prayer. He tells us in the Gospel to pray always and not to become weary. To illustrate his point, he tells us about a widow, who nagged the corrupt judge, so much so, that he ended up judging in her favor. Jesus doesn’t want us to think of his Father as a corrupt judge nor does he want us to nag him . . . but he does want us to imitate the widow’s persistence when we pray. Even so, Jesus doesn’t say that the Father will give us whatever we want. Notice carefully what he does say; he tells us that if we pray persistently God the Father will ‘secure our rights’ and ‘see to it that justice is done.’ I guess that’s why I didn’t get the bicycle I wanted, or a car on my 16th birthday, or the cure of a priest whom I had come to regard as a soul-friend. None of those things, apparently, had anything to do with ‘securing my rights’ or ‘doing me justice’.
C. What, then, does it mean when God answers our prayers tout suite, on the turn of a dime? People often ask me, as they do all priests, to pray for loved ones – loved ones whom I do not know and I am not likely to meet. Later, many of these people tell me that my prayers were answered. I used to think that it must have been someone else’s prayers that were answered but my spiritual director took me over the coals for my lack of faith. “How do you know that it isn’t your prayers God is answering?” he asked. All I can figure is that God must be ‘securing the rights’ and ‘doing justice’ for these strangers I’ve prayed for . . . but what could those phrases possibly mean?
III. Securing Their Rights and Doing Them Justice
A. One clue to the meaning of these phrases was the audience for whom Luke wrote his Gospel. The Church in Luke’s day was suffering persecution and looked to God to vindicate the rights of its vulnerable members, vulnerable in the way that a poor widow could be defenseless in those days. To be sure, believers in our day are persecuted, whether it is the hard persecution suffered by Christians in the Middle East or the polite persecution which we experience here in the West. When we suffer for the faith, the Lord will vindicate us. But does God secure our rights and secure justice for us when we pray persistently for help with our everyday problems and worries? This requires us to take a deeper dive, so please stay tuned, don’t touch that dial!
B. When Jesus teaches us to pray always, to pray persistently, he imposes no limit on the subject matter of our prayer . . . provided, of course, that our prayer is rooted in the Word of God. Unless our prayer is grounded in God’s Word, we could very well be talking to ourselves and asking for things that harm us – physically and spiritually. Enter tonight’s reading from St. Paul to Timothy in which Paul urges his friend Timothy, now the Bishop of Ephesus, to find the answer to his dilemmas in the revealed Word of God. The Spirit blows where he wills and God can answer any prayer, even those prayed from the utter barrenness of our hearts – . . . yet, in some way, our prayer must be rooted in that inspired Word of his which is ‘capable of giving [us] wisdom for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.’
C. Here, St. Paul helps us see how the Lord secures our rights and does us justice. God is indeed out to vindicate my rights – that is to say, the birthright of my baptism in which I was called to become a living image of the Christ of the Beatitudes. That birthright can only be secured by a spiritual struggle, like the Israelite’s battle with Amalek or the widow’s struggle with the judge. If my prayer accords with that birthright, God will answer it in his good time and in his own way, not mine. If my prayer does not accord with my baptismal birthright, God will also answer my prayer but in ways I do not expect. In fact, I may need my wise spiritual director to help me see that God has answered my prayers in ways that exceed my poor imagination, in ways that accord with his purposes, not mine.
A. Is there ever a day when you don’t have someone or something to pray for? Ever a Sunday when you don’t bring your prayer list to the Eucharist? We, like our contemporaries, want to have swift and direct answers and we want God to deliver on our timetable, just as we like. But God doesn’t work that way. His delay is not indifference but rather his way of forming us according to his own mind and heart. In so doing, he is more than vindicating our rights. He is calling us to friendship and everlasting glory.
B. So let us pray, constantly, persistently, and cheerfully. Vivat Jesus!