6th Sunday after Epiphany
(February 16 • 2014)
‘Ask, Seek, and Knock’
ROCKINGHAM UNITING CHURCH
Genesis 18: 20-33
Luke 11: 1-13
A man, one day, asks his Christian friend. “In a soccer match between a country that is predominantly Catholic against another country that is predominantly Protestant, the supporters of both teams pray to God to hand the victory over to their team. Which side do you think God will go for?”
Well,” answers his Christian friend, “I don’t think God will go for any of the teams. I think God will be amongst the crowds, enjoying the game.”
Friends, we often think that, as it is implied in the hypothetical scenario in our story, we can make God do whatever we want through prayer. If only we pray harder, God in the end would give in to us and do whatever we please. Some people still have the idea of God like an ancient deity who could be ‘manipulated’ by saying certain mantras or doing certain rituals. Since, nowadays, these rituals and mantras are considered as archaic, people resort to prayer instead. The means may have changed, but the idea behind it is still the same. If only we ask harder, search harder, and knock harder, somehow we will receive what we want, find what we’re looking for, and the door will finally be opened for us. If only we are as persistent as Abraham when he pleaded to God to save Sodom, God would in the end yield to our request and do whatever we ask God to do.
But is a good parent not supposed to always give in to his/her children’s desire? If God is a good parent, as God should be, then God should not give whatever we want only because we throw one request after another in our prayers.
Things also get a bit complicated in a situation like the hypothetical scenario raised by the man to his Christian friend at the beginning of this reflection: in a match between two teams who both pray to God to hand over them the victory, whom will God give God’s favour to? If God, in this kind of situation, is obliged to respond to prayers the way people want God to respond, then God is definitely in trouble.
Also, what about the time when we pray and pray, but we seem to get no answer from God?
A couple of years ago, letters that were written by Mother Theresa to her supervisor were disclosed to the public. It was a surprising revelation. In the letters, she revealed to her supervisor how she struggled in her prayer; how, for the last half century of her life, she felt no presence of God whatsoever whenever she prayed. She told her supervisor that, for her, God was like the “Absent One”. In a stark contrast with Jesus’ words in Luke, she told her supervisor that, “... I look and do not see, - Listen and do not hear.” Yet, she never ceased praying.
Who would have thought that such a spiritual giant like Mother Theresa had admitted privately to his supervisor that she had such trouble in her spiritual life? Many people may indeed find her admission disturbing; yet I believe many others, who often experience the same feeling of being forgotten or abandoned by God, would find in her a spiritual strength that we all need.
The social and cultural milieu of Jesus was not much different from today’s regarding prayer. Many people in his time were also struggling with their faith. They had been waiting for the promise of God’s deliverance from the oppression they were in, yet generations had passed and nothing had happened. Therefore, many people had stopped hoping and praying.
It was within this kind of disappointing circumstance that Jesus told his audience that God was like a person who, in the end, would show compassion to his friend who ‘nagged’ at him for help. I wonder whether or not Jesus actually intended the parable to be humorous. Instead of using a less ‘controversial’ example, he used an example where the man helped his friend not out of compassion, as any ‘good’ friend should have done, but because he was annoyed; thus his help came out of the wrong reason altogether!
Jesus, of course, did not want his audience to come to the conclusion that God would help people if only they ‘annoyed’ God enough; or that God helped people not out of God’s love or compassion, but because God did not want to be bothered any more. No, Jesus did not say that. He simply said that if people, whose love and compassion were limited, would finally give in to constant requests, how much more God, whose love and compassion were unlimited, would be moved to listen and answer our request. If we, mortals, who often make mistakes, know how to meet the need of our children, how much more God, who is holy, knows about fulfilling people’s needs!
“So do not stop praying,” Jesus must have said to his audience. “God is our Father, our Dad.” We should no more approach God like Abraham approached God, full of fear and choosing his words carefully when he talked with God, as if he had been a slave who was conversing with his master who was easily offended and quick to punish those who dare to challenge. No, God isn’t like that. God is like our Dad or Mom, a person whom, for many, we can approach freely without any fear. God is a person who understands our needs and would listen to us. “So remember!” Jesus must have said, “God will not give us a snake when we ask for a fish.”
Therefore, we need to strike the right balance. We should not pray to ‘nag’ at God to do what we want. By the same token, we should also not stop praying because the answer is often not as direct as we expect for. We need to be open to the mystery of prayer, which connects us to the mystery of God. There is no such thing as an easy answer in prayer, because no one can predict God completely.
In our reading in the book of Genesis, Abraham stopped at ten people and thought that he had nailed God down. Therefoe, he left God, believing that he had won the argument; that he had saved the people of Sodom from calamity. But, in the next part of our story in Genesis, Sodom was still destroyed because the only people who were righteous in the city were Lot’s family: Lot, his wife, and two of his daughters (less than ten people).
The destruction of Sodom is still terrible and difficult to comprehend. How come a merciful God is told to have brought such destruction to the city? I have no answer to the question. Nevertheless, the story reminds us that God saw what Abraham did not see; God knew what Abraham did not know. Abraham may make his case for Sodom, yet it was God who finally made the decision concerning Sodom’s fate.
Therefore, prayer is a mystery. Always. The answer to our prayer is often not as direct as we hope for. That’s why, in our reading in Luke, Jesus used the image of asking, searching, and knocking. For me, all these three activities show a process that needs to be done before we receive the answer to our prayer.
Prayer is thus like a journey. When we pray, we expect for an answer, but we must not stop there. We must also search for the answer we’ve been asking for. As we do this, we will be transformed by the journey of searching for the answer. On the journey, our perspective is often cleared, our greed is often diminished, and our need is often pronounced. In the end, we may finish in a different place from where we started. But that’s fine because when we finally find the answer, we will realise that the answer may not be the same with the one we wanted before, but usually it is exactly the one that we need.
Therefore, ask, and we will be given; search, and we will find; knock, and the door will be opened to us. I believe this is a timeless guidance for us all in prayer.