Father Hanly’s beautiful homily for 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, is all about prayer.
Readings for Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
- First Reading: Genesis 18:20-32
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 138:1-2, 2-3, 6-7, 7-8
- Second Reading: Colossians 2:12-14
- Gospel: Luke 11:1-13
The subject today, of course, is prayer. And it’s such a vast subject, it’s hard to know where to begin and where to end. But we’ll follow the gospel story of Jesus.
The disciples of Jesus come up to him and say, “Lord, teach us how to pray the way John the Baptist taught his disciples how to pray.”
And then Jesus looks at them and he gives them the prayer that only needs the opening two words to tell us everything about who we are, who Jesus is, what we are destined for, what is the meaning of all the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.
And he says to us, “When you pray, say: ‘Our Father.’”
Now he doesn’t mean our Father all together. He means: “I call my God my Father, and now this relationship we give to you. From now on you will say:
‘Our Father in heaven, holy be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. And give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, because we now forgive all those who sin against us. And do not bring us to the test, but deliver us from all evil.’”
And, of course, this is the prayer that everyone knows and everyone learns, mostly when we are little children.
So the first thing I would like to say about prayer is that, when I was a child, I learned this prayer from my own father. We knelt down every night before I climbed into bed and he would say with me the “Our Father.”
And at the end of it, of course, being an Irish family, we would say the “Hail Mary,” because the Irish, especially, have a very close devotion to Mary.
And then we would end with “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,” except then we used to call him the Holy Ghost.
And then he’d say, “Okay now, what are you going to pray for?”
And I would say, “God bless Mummy, God bless Daddy, God bless Peggy” (my older sister). And then I’d say, “God bless Brownie.” Brownie was my dog. And then I would stop.
And he said, “You forgot one.”
And, of course, I’d left out my little sister, Ann, because that afternoon she was trampling all over the little wooden aeroplane that I had spent so much time putting together. She got very furious with me and she just jumped up and down on it. So I wasn’t going to say.
And my father said, “And who else?”
And I’d say, “Brownie?”
“No, no, not Brownie.”
“No, no. Come on, who else?”
Finally, there’d be a long silence and I’d say very quickly, “And God bless Ann.”
I’m telling you this story because it was wonderful, when I look back, that it was my father who taught me these prayers, not someone maybe in the school or… but it was my father.
And every night he would kneel down, and I know my mother made him because he was a shy man, and I think she took care of the girls but he had to teach me my first prayers.
Prayer has got many, many aspects to it.
I once said to my sister Peggy, many years later…
Peggy became a ballerina and then opened a school for children and she still has it. She’s eighty years old and she’s still dancing ballet with her students.
And I said to her, “Peggy, when do you pray the best?”
And she says, “When I’m dancing.”
And that’s true, if you want to see Peggy in prayer, you have to see her dance, because with the music and the children and all of it going round and round, you have this great feeling that they are all touching God.
There are other approaches though.
Elijah the prophet, when the king Ahab and his wife, who was out to kill him, Jezebel, found him in Carmel, which is a part of the shoreline of Israel, and they came with soldiers to arrest and kill him, he ran all the way down the whole side of the country and all the way into what is now Egypt and all the way up to Mount Sinai and all the way to the top of Mount Sinai.
And he hid himself in a cave there and he prayed desperately to God.
He prayed for the wind, for the storm.
And he heard great thunder. But God was not in the thunder.
And there was terrible lightning. But God was not in the lightning.
And then when the lightning and the thunder passed, the rain came down and beat upon the cave. But God was not in the rain.
And, finally, when it was all over, there was a slight whisper in the wind. And Elijah heard the whisper in the wind and he knew God was with him.
The story is told to us to let us also understand that in prayer, sometimes, silence, quiet, waiting, this is how we best commune with God.
Abraham has a more interesting approach.
Abraham, you remember last week Abraham was host to the three strangers, one of whom might just be God. And the three strangers were taken care of with great hospitality.
And they were moving on. They were on their way to Sodom, the evilest city in the world at the time.
And when they said goodbye to Abraham, one of them, who could very well have been God Himself, turned to Abraham and he said to him, “We are going to Sodom. And there are very wicked people there. And we must destroy Sodom, because of how evil it is.”
And then Abraham began thinking that there were people in Sodom that he knew and so he began to bargain with God.
He said, “God, if you go and find forty-five people there, just forty-five who are good, you wouldn’t destroy the good with the evil would you?”
And God, of course, had no choice. He said, “No, I would not destroy the good with the evil.”
And he said, “Now, when you go there, God, and you find maybe thirty, would that be enough?”
And He said, “Thirty would be enough. Thirty good people in all of Sodom? We’d save Sodom for thirty good people.”
And then Abraham, wiggling him down a little further, says, “Well now, I know that you are a good and gracious God, and I wonder, you must pardon me for being so arrogant, but would you do it for twenty?”
And, of course, God says, “Yes, I would save the whole city for twenty people.”
And then finally he says, “I know that I shouldn’t be talking to you this way, this is terrible. Would you do it for ten?”
And God says, “Yes, I will do it for ten good people. I will save the whole city.”
And then God went down and He couldn’t find ten people and that was the end of Sodom.
Now you’re all thinking, “If he got down to one maybe? How far could you push this?”
But what the writer is doing is telling you something more important. It’s the relationship that Abraham had with God, that Abraham would feel free to stand and bargain like a haggler in the marketplace for the city in which he knew that the people were just terrible.
And so it is that we think of why is the story important. The story is important because God and Abraham have a relationship. They have a relationship where they depend on each other, where they care about each other, where they want to be closer and closer together.
And this is the meaning of the story is that God loves Abraham and Abraham loves God and their lives are lived together.
If you go to Israel today and you go to Jerusalem, there’s a sign on one of its beautiful old gates there and it is carved in Arabic: “To Abraham, the friend of God.”
And, of course, that is what prayer is supposed to be for us.
Our Father. Our Father because we’re with Jesus. Our Father because Jesus shares his sonship. Our Father because He becomes our Father and the whole world changes because it is not the distant God way up in heaven judging people, it is our Father who we can haggle with and argue with and cry with and laugh with and live with.
This is the kind of God that is revealed to Abraham as he haggles for the city of Sodom.
One of the things about prayer is that sometimes we don’t want to pray.
I have an old friend, this happened many years ago, and I met her one day and she was quite angry and I said, “What are you so angry about?” And she began to take her husband (inaudible). She was so angry at him. He had done something unforgivable. I don’t know what it was.
And then I said, “Well, Mary, have you prayed over it?”
She said, “I have not.”
And I said, “Why?”
And she said, “Because, if I pray, I know what God is going to say and I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to forgive him.”
Some people refuse to pray when they’re upset and tangled up, because we’re afraid of what God will say and what God will ask and what He has a right to ask because, you see, we are the friends of God. God is our friend and friendship has its responsibilities.
Quietness is one of the ways of preparing ourselves to talk with God. But there’s another one.
I have a friend who prays and prays and prays.
And then he said to me one day, “I’m not praying anymore.”
I said, “Why not?”
He said, “Because everything I ask for I never get.”
And I said to him, “Well, are you ever quiet when you pray?”
He said, “No, I say all the prayers and I keep saying would you help me this and that and all the rest of it.”
And I said, “Well, you’ve got to give God maybe a chance to… Maybe if you just kept quiet for a minute, He might be able to talk back to you and then you would understand that prayer is not just a one-way conversation (give me this and give me that, take care of me and all the rest of it).
“You must listen for the silence of God and He will invade you. And He will take hold of you in the depths of places that you could not believe, because you were too busy haggling and talking with God.”
I’ll tell you a lovely… you’ve probably heard this before, but I’m going to tell it anyhow. I’ll end with this, my favourite story. It’s a true story and it’s a story about what I think is the essence of prayer for two reasons. It involves two people together. The story goes like this…
There was a lady who had a little boy and they lived next to an old man. And the old man fell upon a very, very difficult time because his wife had died.
And when they looked out the window, the lady said to her little boy, “Now, I don’t want you to bother Mr So-and-so, because he’s had an awful time. His wife has just died. Now you just leave him alone.”
And he was sitting in a chair out in his backyard. And, of course, every day he used to sit there reading his paper.
But the boy looked out the window and he saw that the old man, that the paper had fallen out of his lap and he couldn’t see it, and he felt very sad.
And his mother said, “Now you just leave him alone. He needs to be quiet.”
So the little boy, of course, was let to go into his own backyard. And, as soon as he gets in the backyard, his mother goes into the kitchen, he runs all the way up his driveway and around into the old man’s driveway and he runs into the backyard and he sees the man and he picks up the paper and he jumps into the man’s lap.
And his mother comes out on the other side and she looks over and she sees there’s her son, who she’d told not to go near him, is sitting in the old man’s lap. And she gets very angry. And she waits and waits and waits.
And he sits there for about a half hour. And, finally, he climbs down, puts the paper on the old man’s lap and walks all the way back up the old man’s driveway across and down to his driveway.
And the mother just couldn’t wait to get him, and she took him by the ear and she said, “What have you done? I told you to leave him alone. Leave him alone. What did you say to him?”
And he said, “I didn’t say anything. I was just helping him cry.”
This is prayer — quiet, no big parades, not a lot of jumbled jargon. It’s just the love of the child for the old man and the old man for the child.
And that is what prayer is, because it’s lifting up your mind and your heart to God, together with someone you love.