Cycle C | Ordinary Time | Week 17
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
Bill Moyers the press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson of America was once saying the grace before meal at staff lunch in the White House and the President shouted: “Speak up Bill, I can’t hear a thing!” Bill quietly replied: “I wasn’t addressing you, Mr. President.”
As the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray in this Sunday’s Gospel, he shared with them his own God-centred formula, different from our self-centred approach. In letting us call God “Our Father” (not Lord or Master), Jesus is not just teaching us how to pray but inviting us to share in the intimacy which he shares with his Father, an intimate relationship of a child and a loving dad.
In the Jewish culture at the time, God was a distant figure, simply to be obeyed. He even had a name that could not be spoken because it was too holy. God was a bit like the old school Headmaster. You only got to see him if you broke the rules! Hence, one of the revolutionary teachings of Jesus was that the Almighty is actually a loving God whose powerfulness is in service of His love. This is difficult for us to process because we usually experience power as domination and violence.
Furthermore, by saying “Our Father” which is communal as opposed to “My Father” which is individualistic, and “give us this day” “forgive us our trespasses” and not “give me” “forgive me”, Jesus states in clear terms that nobody comes to God alone. If God is “Our Father”, we are all his children and in effect brothers and sisters, members of one great family. Unless we accept this fact, it will be hypocritical to call God “Father”.
When we knock on the door of a loving God therefore, we must knock in the spirit of “Our Father” and not that of “My Father”. Hence, when we receive from God Our Father, we receive not just in our name but on behalf of others who are also in need. Sadly, many receive and selfishly hold back what is meant for the common good.
We are to pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom. Following the successive reign of corrupt and oppressive kings, Israel had longed that God himself will come to reign and set things right. That prayer was answered in Jesus who is the kingdom personified. Thus, the Kingdom of God is not just a future “heaven” but a world that is built on all the values Jesus stood for. When we pray that God’s kingdom come, we therefore pray for a world built on truth, love, compassion, justice, freedom, human dignity, peace, and also remind ourselves of our role in its realisation as members of Christ’s mystical body.
We are to pray for our daily bread. Surely, this isn’t how we pray as our anxieties reach far out into the future. But, if God has taught us to pray for the day’s bread, anticipating the demands of tomorrow means going beyond our means since they are not provided for in today’s budget. Yet, the bread that sustains ultimately is that of Christ’s Body and Blood. As we recently acknowledged, Christian communities withstand all persecutions in so far as they can still access the Holy Eucharist.
We are to pray for forgiveness in repentance for our sins but we are forgiven in the measure that we ourselves forgive. The African proverb which translates that, “he who is holding someone on the ground is holding himself down too” could not be more applicable.
The bit “lead us not into temptation” has been contested as pre-supposing that God induces people into temptation, which doesn’t appear plausible. Yet, it was the Spirit (of God) that led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil before his public ministry.
Trials could therefore be a way of strengthening us or determining our readiness for a purpose. But, that God “do not abandon us to temptation” makes sense – a translation recently approved by the Pope.
Jesus eventually used a parable to underscore the need for perseverance in prayer. A man needed some bread in the middle of the night but his neighbour is naturally reluctant to get up and attend to him at such hour. Eventually, the man’s persistence won the day. One may wonder, if our Father cares for us that much and already knows our needs, why do we have to ask so insistently?
Indeed, God doesn’t need to have his arm twisted to give us what we NEED but that someone prays doesn’t necessarily mean that the person has the faith that makes for answered prayers. In a way, our perseverance demonstrates our faith since the one without faith would easily give up.
Moreover, God requires persistence in prayer to test and strengthen our faith. The feeling might be that our faith will be easily built if prayers are instantly or miraculously answered. But that would only yield shallow faith that fails the first time we didn’t get what we asked for right away.
Strong, deep and lasting faith that can weather disappointment and discouragement is built on persevering even when the answer doesn’t come on our terms.
Indeed, when we try to box God into answering prayers exactly how and when we want it, we miss God’s presence in ways we are not expecting. As a loving Father, God certainly does not always give us what we WANT for our wants are often short-sighted and self-centred.
Indeed, the way we pray and what we ask for can be quite revealing of who we are and where we are in our relationship with God, with people and with the world around us.