17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
“And I tell you, ask and you will receive;
seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
One of the catch phrases we often hear today is “trust me.” “Trust me that what I say is true.” “Trust me, I am not leading you on.” Well, it’s a good quality to trust other people that we know and love, but it is not always wise to trust what just anyone tells us, anyone, that is, but Jesus. We can and should always trust him in everything He says, and especially in prayer.
Among the most important things that Jesus teaches his disciples is how they should pray. We know from the Scriptures that Jesus taught them not to multiply their words as if the sheer number of words would gain them their petition, nor were they to make a public spectacle of their prayer, and here He was talking about private prayer. The public spectacle is meant to draw attention to oneself and quickly leads to hypocrisy. When it comes to private prayer, things should be kept between God and ourselves.
In today’s gospel from St. Luke, the apostles specifically asked Jesus to teach them how to pray like He does. It is here that Jesus teaches them the greatest and most perfect prayer ever composed by man, and we call it the Lord’s Prayer not only because it is directed to God as Our Lord but also because it was taught by our Lord Jesus Christ. The prayer is certainly not wordy, and its contents are really quite simple. The first part of the prayer is directed to the glory of God, putting God before ourselves, and this should be the mark of the prayer of every Christian. It is essentially a prayer that is private, but also a prayer that is common and therefore also public, a part of our liturgical worship.
Most of our private prayers probably have to do with petition, with asking God for favors related to the things we need in our daily life. But note that the Lord’s prayer begins by focusing not on worldly needs that we all have, but focuses on the glory of God, which is our greatest human need. We pray, we ask, that God’s name be hallowed in this world, which is another way of saying that God has the primacy in our life. And secondly we asked that God’s kingdom come, that the reign of God be extended over our hearts in the hearts of all mankind. In reality these two petitions are not only directed to the glory of God but also ask for the most profound needs that we have as human beings, two deeply spiritual needs. First we have the need to honor and glorify God as our Creator and Redeemer, and, secondly, we have the need for our wills to be conformed to the divine will, that is, that God’s reign extend over our wills. It is precisely here that we can see that this is the perfect prayer of the Lord, for no one ever hallowed the name of the Father as Jesus his son did, and no one ever more perfectly subjected his human will to the will of the Father, and that is why the kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ.
Too many Christians mentally bypass this first part of the Lord’s prayer, as if these words were simply praise, simply pious words directed to God and not the expression of our deepest needs that only God can fulfill. We quickly pass on to the second part of the prayer in which we ask to meet our daily needs, “give us this day our daily bread.” Bread certainly is a human need and represents all of our basic needs, and the prayer is a way of recognizing that we owe everything to God. The greatest bread that we need, moreover, is a spiritual bread, that is, the Bread of Life, the Holy Eucharist. And then we immediately turn to another daily need that is profoundly spiritual, that God will forgive our sins on a daily basis. Just as we need our daily bread, so also we need to be forgiven on a daily basis for the ways in which we have offended God, be they small or large offenses. Man needs to be forgiven, and the Lord reminds us that our need for forgiveness from God is conditioned upon our willingness to forgive those who have offended us. Unless God forgives our sins, his kingdom can never really come into our hearts for all eternity. And unwillingness to forgive others is the most certain way to cut ourselves off from the mercy of God and his eternal kingdom. Daily bread and daily mercies sum up our deepest daily needs, just as the first part of the our father sums up the needs that cover our whole existence, that our lives hallow God’s name and that his kingdom come ever more deeply into our hearts.
Finally, at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, we pray to be delivered from evil, and here we are not talking simply about the evils that afflict us in this world, pain, suffering of a bodily or metal nature, nor simply of the evil of sins that we commit, but even from the evil we often may do that is not formally sin only because of our ignorance. So we d not say deliver us from the evil of true sin, for then the prayer could say deliver us from all sins, but it says from all evil that we may bring into this world through our blindness and ignorance, but evil nonetheless and offensive to God And neighbor. We pray to always be on the side of goodness, the side of God.
But the words of the petition seem to have even something much more profound in mind. We are used to saying “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil” and but the translation used in today’s gospel actually seems to combine those two ideas and point to something much more dramatic,”do not subject us to the final test. The prayer seems to end with a reference to the end times, and it is a petition to deliver us from the monstrous evil that will occur at the end of time according to Jesus own teaching. When Jesus speaks of the end times in the Gospel of St. Matthew, he states specifically in Matthew 24:22 that if these days were not cut short no one would be saved. Surely this is the reference to the “final test” that closes the petitions of the Our Father in today’s translation. The Christian prays to be delivered from all evil, but especially from this “final test” which means to be delivered from the tremendous temptations that will lead many astray to their own damnation. When the end time occurs, and Jesus returns in glory, it will be preceded by this terrible cataclysm that Jesus warns of in the Gospels and in the Lord’s Prayer, where he especially taught them to pray to be delivered from that greatest of all temptations.
Of course, no one knows the day nor the hour when all this will happen, but the world will always remain a source of temptation to the Christian, and our age is no different. It is one thing never to be able to find the Lord, and quite another not to abandon the Lord once one has found him. The church has always seen apostasy as the greatest of sins, turning one’s back on the Lord, and thus turning one’s back on salvation itself. And so the true Christian prays always to be delivered from this temptation, from this evil of all evils to be most feared. It makes no difference whether one abandons the Lord in the final test or in the many tests that will arise down through the ages prior to it. We need to pray every day, above all, that He deliver us from that temptation.
The general instructions that Jesus gives on how to pray concludes with a teaching on the requirement of perseverance and trusting in God our Father to hear and respond when our prayers are good and sincere. Perseverance in prayer is in itself good for us for a number of reasons. First, it keeps us from treating God like a servant, who has to do what we want and do it now. Only God knows what we truly need and when we truly need it. St. Augustine teaches on this point that perseverance helps us to refine our petitions, to adjust our wills to the will of God over time, so that what we receive will be what we truly need and not simply what we want. At the same time, says Augustine, perseverance expands our hearts because God always gives us more than we ask for, but we are not always capable of receiving it because our hearts (our wills) are just too narrow, too confined by our own expectations. My heart need to be expanded to receive the always greater gift God wants to give me, and by perseverance my heart is expanded by an ever greater desire for what God is going to give.
Prayer then leads to ever greater trust in God’s goodness and love, to trust that he is truly a good Father who wants to give us everything that is good for us and will never give us anything that is bad for us, even something in itself a good, but not good for me, at this time, in this circumstance, or maybe ever. But whatever I ask for that is truly good, and God alone knows that since he sees my whole being and the whole course of my life at once, I must trust that he will always, in His time, and in the best time for me, give me that good.
All the things we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer are definitely good for all of us, and if we ask we will receive, no question about that, so long as we persevere in that prayer and trust in the goodness and love of Our Father. We shall receive our daily bread; we shall receive forgiveness of our sins assuming thaty we have forgiven our neighbor; we shall persevere in union with Christ no matter what the temptation, even that final test if that should be our destiny. In a simple phrase that has become a cliché today, often falsely used, God teaches us one great lesson in the prayer He taught us: “trust Me