by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson, Alberta, Canada
Scripture: Lk 11:9-13
Two men were shipwrecked on a deserted island. Frustrated by their situation one man began to pray, “Dear Lord, I know that I haven’t been a very good person. In the past I have lied, cheated, and hurt people with my behavior. I drink, smoke, swear and gamble. But God, if you get us out of this mess, you’ll see a changed man. I’ll….” At this point his friend shouted, “Hold it. Don’t say another word. I see a boat and it is coming in our direction.” It is interesting how some people view prayer. 1
I think there are a lot of people—Christians included—who view prayer like these two men. The first chap turned to God in prayer only as a last resort. If there were other options, he most likely would have considered them first. Only when he is in a desperate situation that he believes he cannot get out of does he turn to God for help. The content of his prayer reveals he is praying to God in a conditional way—if God will rescue them from the mess they’re in, then he is about to promise God certain things and make changes in his life. This method of praying is really bargaining with God—if you do this God, then I’ll do thus and so. However, in most cases, such prayers are likely not going to change God. We cannot manipulate God like that to get what we want. God knows the deepest thoughts and motivations of our hearts, souls and minds. Such conditional, bargaining prayers are often not sincere—since when times improve and things are going well again, often the folks who prayed such prayers forget about God and fail to honour what they had promised God.
In the case of the second chap, who stopped his friend from praying any further; he may either have been skeptical that his friend could keep promises to God; or perhaps he didn’t want his friend to stop living a sinful lifestyle; or perhaps he placed more faith in himself and other human beings to get them out of their mess than he did in God.
At any rate, I think that we too at times are tempted to pray conditional prayers; to bargain with God in our prayers—thinking incorrectly that we can manipulate God in order to get what we want. Or perhaps at times we, like the second chap abandon prayer altogether; thinking incorrectly that we don’t need God and we don’t need to pray. Rather, we can do everything on our own or we can rely on other human beings to get what we want.
I must confess that our gospel today is a challenging one for me personally. I often feel guilty or feel badly that I come to God in prayer as if I were a shopper with an endless list of items that I want. Too often I think we get our priorities mixed up. We pray for what we want rather than what we really need. Yet, I counsel myself by the reminder that even Jesus and the apostle Paul could get it wrong in their prayers by mixing up wants and needs. You remember in Gethsemane that Jesus prayed for his heavenly Father to remove the cup of suffering and death from him. Afterwards he prayed the best prayer of all—not my, but thy will be done. Paul too had prayed that the Lord would remove his “thorn in the flesh.” Yet, the answer he received was that no, God would not remove it—rather, God’s power was made known through weakness.
Yet, in today’s gospel, one of the most important messages Jesus teaches is to be persistent in praying: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone—not a small chosen minority, NO! EVERYONE—who asks receives, and EVERYONE who searches finds, and for EVERYONE who knocks, the door will be opened.” As wonderful and full of promise as these words are I think that they’ve been misunderstood and misinterpreted by a lot of folks over the years. I DO NOT believe that Jesus offers his followers a blank cheque here; he DOES NOT mean that if you pray to win the fifty million dollar lottery you shall win; nor that if you pray you can fly off of Niagara Falls and land safely below without being killed you will be able to do so! Such prayers are certainly incorrect and harmful. Nor does Jesus say here that he will give you ANYTHING OR EVERYTHING you pray for. For example, if you pray to understand the intricacies of thermodynamics and quantum physics at the age of five, most likely the answer to your prayer will be ‘No’; or if you are one-hundred years old and you pray to be a healthy twenty-five-year-old, most likely the answer again shall be ‘No.’
On the other hand, what Jesus is saying here is full of promise. He invites EVERYONE to ask, search, and knock. No one is left out here—he offers the invitation to you, me, and all people. The implication of his offer here is that HE DOES ANSWER EVERYONE who asks, searches, and knocks. The answer may be: ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘wait,’ or perhaps even ‘you’re asking for the wrong things; you’re searching in the wrong places; you’re knocking on the wrong doors.’ Such answers are all necessary and the best for us at the time; given the nature of the prayers we pray and the circumstances in which we pray them.
Sinners that we are, most likely we don’t always get it right when we pray; thus Jesus’ instruction to be persistent in praying—keep asking, don’t stop searching, continue with your knocking. In fact, ultimately what is most important for us is not necessarily that we receive what we ask for or find what we search for or walk through the door we’re knocking on. NO! Rather, what is ultimately most important is that we DISCOVER AN INTIMACY WITH OUR LORD THROUGH PERSISTENCE IN PRAYER. We come to realise that it’s about relationship with Christ and basking in and valuing that relationship more than everything or everyone in the world. Prayer is being known by and knowing our God of love as OUR Father, OUR Messiah and OUR Holy Spirit. In the intimacy of prayer, we not only commune with God the Creator of the universe; we also bear our deepest secrets to Jesus our most Trustworthy Friend and Brother; and we are graced with the presence of the Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin and reassures us of the promise that we are forgiven. With this gift of intimacy with God through persistent prayer God sometimes gives us the spiritual hug we need when we’re lonely or rejected; or the state of joy by simply being alive; or the courage required to face a situation of conflict at home, on the job, or in school. Another way of stating it is that through the gift of intimacy with God; we come to see our wealth is not in what we do not have; rather, it is in what we already have been given.
Jesus speaks about this intimacy of prayer with him by comparing it with sinful, imperfect parents providing for the needs of their children. Even they know how to give the right gifts to their children when they ask. If sinful, imperfect parents do not give their children a snake when they ask for a fish; or when they do not give their children a poisonous scorpion when they ask for an egg—then how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! In other words, it is not that God is hard of hearing that we are admonished to be persistent in prayer. Rather, it is because God our heavenly Parent wants an intimate relationship with each one of us and by giving us the gift of his Holy Spirit we shall come to trust in God as we ask, search and knock; knowing that whatever God gives us by way of answering our prayers; it is all and always for the best.
1 Cited from: Emphasis: A Preaching Journal for the Parish Pastor, Vol. 25, No. 2, July-August 1995 (Lima: OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 36.
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