July 29, 2013

Homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH


Christ teaching the disciples to pray

About 30 years ago I worked at a seminary. We had a librarian named Sr. Frances. Whenever she would remind me of something I had promised to do, I would answer, “In due time.” To which she always replied with a paraphrase of Luke 16:22: “In due time the beggar died.”

Most of us know the type. They ask for something. They remind us the next day. And the next, and the next... Until we do it, convenient or not, just to make it stop!

Today’s story of Abraham has a brief prologue that is not included in the lectionary.  “With Abraham walking with them to see them on their way, the men set out from there and looked down toward Sodom. The LORD considered: Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, now that he is to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth are to find blessing in him? So the LORD said”—and here begins our text, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great,” etc.

God actually shows no impatience with Abraham. Not only doesn’t he “make it stop”, but as we have just see he sets the stage himself. He wants Abraham to intercede. We mustn’t think this discussion lasted only a few minutes. It not doubt followed a leisurely ancient Middle Eastern pace.

Note that Abraham asks nothing for himself, not even for his nephew Lot’s family.

Hearing the gospel, we might wonder: Didn’t the disciples know how to pray? They had the example of Abraham. They probably knew all the Psalms by heart. In fact, every phrase in the Lord’s prayer (except the promise to forgive as we are forgiven) has a correspondence in the Psalms. In Psalm 103, for example, we read: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.” This is just like the fathers Jesus speaks of in the gospel, who know how to give good gifts to their children. Note that it is not a matter of just giving them what they want. No matter how much the child might want to play with a scorpion, no parent could grant that request.

We need to ask for the right things, for “good gifts.” In pleading for the remaining ten just people of Sodom, Abraham asked for a good gift. If the conditions had been right, God was ready to give it to him.

We would expect Jesus to say that the Father will give good things to those who know how to give good things to their children. That is in fact what we find in Matthew 7:11. But today’s gospel says that the Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. This is similar to Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the Kingdom of God.” There is a good gift that includes all other good gifts. That is the Holy Spirit. Or we might say the Holy Spirit is the criterion. Anything we ask for that the Holy Spirit dwelling in us can ask for is a good gift.

To sum up, in this long discourse on prayer Jesus reminds us who it is we are addressing (the Father), who we are (needy children), how to pray (persistently, insistently), and what to ask for (good gifts, most especially the Holy Spirit). It’s a lot more than just saying certain words.

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