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Teach Us to Pray

Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Teach Us to Pray

Today’s Gospel passage allows us to overhear one of the disciples as he asks Jesus to teach them to pray. Do you remember who it was who first taught you how to pray?  One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is of the time that my mother taught me how to pray the rosary. We were living on Adler Street in Milwaukee at the time which means I was no more than five or six years old. Long before the days of permanent press clothing, she was standing at an ironing board, hair in pin curlers and wrapped in a scarf.  I was sitting at the kitchen table. Her rosary was on the table, and I started to play with it.  Instead of telling me not to play with it, she began to teach me how to pray the rosary. Years later after I had entered the seminary, one time when I was home for a visit I remember her teaching my younger brothers and sisters to say their night prayers in which she included a special prayer for me.

Just as Jesus taught the apostle the words to say, she taught my brothers and sisters and me the words to our prayers.  However, prayer isn’t a matter of saying certain words. Prayer is a relationship, and that is only learned through the experience itself. Prayer fills the need for communication in our relationship with God. Just like any human relationship, our relationship with God needs communication.

Can you imagine a human relationship that would last if there was never any communication between the people in that relationship? What would happen to the relationship if no one ever reminded the other that they were loved? What would happen if no one ever said “Thank you”? What would happen if no one ever apologized and said they were sorry when things had become fractious?  These are all rhetorical questions because the answer is obvious. No relationship can last if there isn’t some sort of communication between the people in the relationship.  The same is true of our relationship with God.

We can be taught the words to say.  However, no one can teach us the relationship side of prayer.  We must learn that by experience.

The first reading tells the story of Abraham as he tries to bargain with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham wants God to forego their destruction because his nephew and family live in the city. Abraham begins by asking God to spare the city if fifty good men can be found and works his way down to ten. The number ten is significant. Years later in the development of Judaism, Jewish practice demands that any communal prayer needs at least ten men. Think of the story of the nine Jewish lepers in St. Luke’s Gospel who accept a Samaritan in their midst in order to come up with the requisite number for prayer. In the Acts of the Apostles, we hear how St. Paul searched a river bank looking for nine other men with whom he can pray. Abraham does not dare go lower than ten as he bargains with God, for he knows that there aren’t even that many good men in the city. However, the very fact that Abraham bargains with God is important, for such bargaining presupposes that a relationship exists between Abraham and God. In fact, until Jesus calls his disciples his friends, Abraham is the only man in the Hebrew Scriptures who is called God’s friend. His request is part of his relationship with God and with his family.

The parable that St. Luke appends to the teaching about prayer also teaches us about relationships.  A man comes begging for bread for a lately arrived friend who has shown up unannounced. At this time in Israel, villages only had one communal oven.  The women of the village took turns baking bread, the staple food upon which these people existed, each woman being assigned a specific day of the week. Because of this, it would not be unusual for a household to be without fresh bread on any given day.  So this man went to a neighbor, probably the neighbor whose wife used the oven that day. Although Jesus says that the man would act because of the neighbor’s persistence, there is more to it.  If he refused, he might find himself in the same position someday. People who inhabited the same village lived in peace by preserving the relationship of friendship and kinship and hospitality.

 After the parable St. Luke continues by telling us to ask, to seek and to knock.  He also tells us what will happen if we do so.  We will receive the greatest gift we could imagine, the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This gift is better than anything else we could imagine. It is the Spirit binds us in our relationship to God and to Jesus.

In the Letter to the Colossians, St. Paul reminds of all that God has done for us through Jesus. Although Adam lost access to God through sin, Jesus has regained that access through his dying on the cross. Now, because we have been baptized into his death, nothing can ever separate us from God.

As we rest from our usual activity today, perhaps you can stop to consider who it was who first taught you how to pray.  Then stop and thank God for that gift, the gift of prayer and the relationship that goes with it.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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