17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading 1. Genesis 18: 20-32
Reading II. Colossians 2: 12-14
Gospel. Luke 11: 1-13 (ask and you will receive).
In last weeks readings the theme was hospitality. We saw that hospitality, one of the outstanding characteristic of the Jews of the Bible, derived from the example of their father, the patriarch Abraham. In today's first reading Abraham exhibits another quality that Jews and Christians have always prized. Persistence.
We have to remember that before the negotiating session in today's episode, the Lord had promised Abraham a reward for his faithfulness. Abraham's barren, elderly wife, Sara, would now have a son who would carry on his race forever. Even though he had been blessed in this manner, the Biblical account in Genesis depicts Abraham interceding with the Lord to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction.
Despite the tragic ending of this story, it's hard not to see humor in today's reading. It seems a little like an Abbott and Costello routine where Abraham although in a humble way dares to lecture and influence his Lord. What nerve or chutzpah! He actually asks, "Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?" He finally gets the Lord to agree to save the cities if only ten innocent men are found there. Unfortunately, we know that not even one innocent person would be found.
However, the biblical author uses this form of humorous discourse not because he believed that the Lord of All required instruction, but because he wanted to show two things. First, that the Lord encourages us to be persistent, especially in prayer. Second, the presence of a few good men or women in a community could save the entire community.
In today's gospel reading St. Luke gives us a slightly different version of the "Our Father" or "Lord's Prayer," than the more familiar version in St. Matthew's Gospel. Now there were two famous prayers that every Jewish male was required to say each and every day in our Lord's time. Certainly a rabbi like Jesus would know them by heart. When one of the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He chose to boil down these prayers to their very basics.
Father, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us,
and do not subject us to the final test.
We say this prayer so often that we hardly think of it. But let's reflect a moment on its meaning. First, the prayer is addressed to our Father in Heaven but the word that Jesus uses for father is the familiar, Abba, which means that God is as close to us as our own fathers. He is not distant or remote and we can feel free to address Him in as familiar a way as Abraham did in our first reading. The rest is just a series of petitions asking for our Father's assistance in getting through the daily struggle of life.
It's hard to believe that this short prayer is all we have to say. In another place Jesus cautioned against the multiplication of words in prayer. Keep it simple would appear to be His advice. Our Lord makes clear that persistence in prayer is more important than words.
And I tell you, ask and you will receive;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
We all recognize the importance of persistence in our daily lives. In business, especially in sales, there is no more important quality. In sports success is impossible without persistence. It's well known that great athletes, whatever their so-called natural ability, practice harder and longer than others. Basketball stars like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird were noted for getting to the arena hours before their teammates for extended practice sessions. Constant repetition and drilling built muscle memory so that when the game was on the line, they would not have to think about what to do.
I remember hearing a talk by a great American Olympic gymnast, Peter Vidmar, on his own practice routine. He and a teammate in preparing for the Olympics would practice their routines for hours each and every day. At the end of each day's exhausting session, they never failed to go through one last routine no matter how tired they were. They would pretend that they were actually in the Olympic finals with the team title on the line, and that each of them would have to hit a perfect "10" to win the title for the USA. They went through that routine each and every day and wouldn't you know when they got to the Olympic finals, they found themselves in the same situation that they had practiced at home.
If athletes know the value of persistence, why don't we? Why do we think that we don't have to put the same effort into our spiritual lives that athletes do into their games. None of us has enough natural ability to get by in life without hard work and practice. When theologians speak about virtues like Faith, Hope, and Charity they are speaking about gifts of God that we have to work on each day until they become like habits. We have to develop spiritual muscle memory to deal with the tests that life will present.
In today's second reading St. Paul says that the same Father who raised Jesus from the dead has also raised us from the dead. All we have to do now is run the race to the end.