17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Previous Years: 2019
Preached at Assumption Parish in Bellingham, WA
Edited Recording Transcription
We hear these readings every three years. So you’ve heard that first reading before, where Abraham talks to God about the number of people that are necessary for him to save Sodom and Gomorrah. Now think to yourself: do you remember this reading being about Abraham trying to change God’s mind? Just keep that in mind while we go through this.
When we talk about God, it is important to keep in mind his different attributes and characteristics, so that we know who we are worshipping. One of the attributes and characteristics that defines the God that we worship is that He is perfect. “Perfect” here means you have everything necessary to be yourself and do what you do. So God being perfect, for example, means that he doesn’t need us. By creating us, by creating the universe, it added nothing to himself, nothing to his perfection. Perfect also means that you cannot change because a change indicates that you had something that you no longer have or that you didn’t have something that you now have.
As such, if one of the important attributes of God is that He is perfect, and that means that He cannot change. what does it mean to do intercessory prayer? Why would we even ask God for something? Because from a human perspective, it feels like and sounds like we’re asking God to change His mind. “Oh, Lord, somehow you have no idea what I need, so I’m going to bring it to your attention so that you can change your mind and give me what I want.” “Oh, Lord, you haven’t been paying attention to me, so here’s this thing that I want you to do.” “Oh, Lord, you are wrong. I know what I need. Here’s what I need. Why don’t you change your opinion?” That’s not how you pray to a perfect God.
Pair this, though, with another important aspect attribute of God. The New Testament tells us that God is love. And Jesus expands on that today by telling us that God is Father. God is love and God is Father. So even though God is perfect, even though we can’t change his mind… (And again, why would we want to? He is perfect and we are not. Any change we would cause in him would be to take him from perfection to imperfection…) Just because God is perfect doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love. Even though we can’t necessarily go and change his mind, why would we want to? He is already the infinitely loving, perfect father. He is already taking care of us at every moment of our lives. He is already doing everything that he possibly can for our good, actively working for our salvation, actively ensuring that we have the peace of Christ in our hearts. When we pray to God, we are praying to someone who is like our own fathers, but without any of the imperfections of our own fathers. Somebody who knows us and loves us and cares about us and works for our good. That’s the God we’re praying to. So again, why would we want to change his mind if he’s already doing everything possible and everything perfect? Why would we want to somehow cause him to be different?
Heading back to the Genesis reading, what is Abraham doing? Notice that God simply says He’s going to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah. He doesn’t say what He’s going to do. Abraham is not pushing back against God’s declaration that he was going to wipe out those cities, because God did not declare such a thing. When Abraham asks if God will destroy the city if there are 50 innocent people, Abraham has come up with an idea of what he thinks God is going to do, and then checks with God to see if that is the plan. “Lord, will you wipe out the city if there are 50 innocent people?” Abraham is not trying to change God’s mind, he is on a mission of discovery. After the first question, though, Abraham does not fully understand yet. So he continues to go down the list of numbers. Once we reach ten people, though, there seems to be some sort of definitive statement. Maybe there was body language exchanged. One of them walked away. They just knew that that was the end. But Abraham goes through this process of trying to discover what is the will of God. What will he do here? How much mercy is there in the God that I worship?
For us as Christians, who struggle with the concept of asking an unchangeable God for things in prayer, that first reading gives us way forward. The purpose of prayer is to discover and unite ourselves to the will of God. There are a lot of different ways that we can talk about prayer. We hear prayer as a conversation with the Lord. Prayer is time spent with the Lord. Prayer is the presence of God. All of this is true. But if we had to give a solid, theological definition, the goal of all of those conversations and all of that presence and all of that time, the goal of prayer is to unite ourselves to the will of God.
Remember what I just said, God is an infinitely perfect, loving father. The only will we should care about is His will, because his will is the perfect will. Whatever we want is nothing compared to what he wants, because what he wants is for our good. What he wants is our greatest good. A good that oftentimes we cannot imagine, a good that we can’t even comprehend because it is so much beyond our imagination. So when we pray, when we spend time with the Lord, we’re asking, “Lord, what do you desire for me, for my family, for my parish, for my world? What are you asking of me as your beloved son or daughter? What do you want?” Because his will is the thing that will save us. Uniting ourselves to his will is uniting ourselves to our own salvation and the salvation of the world. Prayer is that conversation like Abraham had with God. “Lord, is this what you want?” We often bring him very specific things. That’s a lot of times what intercessory prayer is. Just bringing him things and seeing what he thinks.
Most of us here are united by a prayer for people in our families that we love who don’t have a connection with God or the church. Let’s use that as an example. We bring that to God and we say, “Lord, what is your will? What is your will for my son or my daughter? Or my sister or my brother?” Well, the first thing we remember is that God’s will is to be an infinitely perfect, loving father, that he is their father the same as he is our father, that he loves them with the same depth of love with which he loves us. And then as we continue to pray about the ones that we love, as we continue to bring them to the Lord and ask what his will is for them, after we remember His will is to love them deeply and completely as a father. Then he might reveal to us a more specific will. He might tell us something about our relationship with that person, what our role is in his will for that person. Obviously, he wants their salvation, and as Catholics, we believe their salvation is through the Church. But how does that come about? Sometimes the Lord might say, “It’s not your job. Your job is to love them where they’re at. Your job is to be present to them as best as you can. But it’s not your job to say anything or to push.” He might tell us that such might be his will for us and them. Or he might say that it is your job to say something you’ve never revealed, for example, why you love God and not just obey him. Or maybe you’ve never said how much you love that person. Maybe we have to increase the depth of our relationship with that person before any conversation of faith could come up. Maybe the Lord will reveal to us that He wishes to work through a different person, to bring them to faith, through a conversation that’s not from us in all cases.
As we intercede for that person and pray for that person, what changes isn’t God. He is already loving them perfectly and completely. What changes is us. We change in the light and the presence of God. We change because He is pouring over us and forming us to be more like him. We change because, as Saint Luke says, the greatest gift he can give us is the Holy Spirit. We change because we make space for the Holy Spirit to live and dwell in us. Having the Holy Spirit, we act with the will of God and no longer our will. The time spent with the Lord is so important because our unity with His will is so important. To live our lives apart from his will, not remembering that he’s a loving father, not remembering that he’s a loving father for all people: It’s a sad life. It’s a hard life. But the more we pray, the more we will be like God in everything we do.
I struggle with this Gospel because Jesus makes some very clear and definitive statements: “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be open to you.” I minister a lot to people who are mad at God. It’s not a sin to be mad at God, I tell them. Always bring that anger to the Lord. He wants whatever’s on your heart, even if it’s anger. But they’re mad at God because they prayed for something and it wasn’t given to them. And that’s a hard place to be because of what Jesus says. It sounds like if we ask for it, we’re going to get it. Like it’s pretty plain in the text.
Well, if we pray for something, a few things are going to happen. If we pray for something that is not for our good, then the Lord will change our heart to help us realize that. We might say, “You know what, Lord, I have a neighbor who just bought a boat and I really want a boat. And I just want you to give me that boat, like make it so I can have that boat.” And the Lord might say, “That boat is not going to be good for you. It’s not going to help you be the person I want you to be.” And so he might change that desire in our heart and we might pray for the boat until we realize, I don’t want to pray for that anymore, because it’s not in accord with the will of God. Or he might tell us to wait. He might say, “Okay, yeah, you’re going to get a boat, but it’s going to be after your kids a little more grown. I need you to center on your kids for now.” He might keep that desire in our hearts but put it on hold. Or he may very well fulfill that desire. He may very well say, yeah, that’s going to happen and this is how it’s going to happen. Or he might say, I’m going to take care of that.
We even have instances where we say intercessory prayer looks like it has changed the mind of God. We hear about miracles, for example, from the prayers of the saints, or we hear about miracles from our own prayers, the miraculous healings, for example. And we might say, “Well, Father Moore, you’re telling us that God can’t change, and the point of prayer is not to change the mind of God. But it looks like it has. In these instances, what’s that about?” It seems from everything we know about God, he delights to work through secondary causes. He delights to use the angels rather than to act himself. He delights to serve us, maybe not by giving us an auditory message, not by speaking directly to us, but by speaking to us through another person. By inspiring that person to say something to us. He loves co-workers. He loves to work with his creation and to allow his creation to participate in himself. And so a lot of times he wants to pour graces on us, but he wants us to want those graces. He wants to draw us into himself before he unleashes those graces. He wants us to be coworkers with him. He wanted Abraham to know how merciful a God he was, but he needed Abraham to be the one to ask.
Again, God is a father. And if you think about your own fathers, when dad was super directive, “I’m going to sit you down and I’m going to tell you what you need to hear,” sometimes that’s helpful, but most of the time it’s not. God wants us to be in conversation. He wants us to ask and to hear and to listen and to receive that. Coworking with God is good for our humanity. It allows us to know Him on a much deeper level. And so intercessory prayer does work. Not because God doesn’t love us, not because God is ignoring us. But because God wants to work with us. He wants us to discover His will and to ardently desire his will in prayer. And then, once we’ve discovered his will and our desire for his will, then we are ready to see his will fulfilled in the world. What a beautiful thing the Lord does for us.
Finally, we might ask, what role does the Our Father play in all of this? This is Luke’s version of the Our Father, a little simplified from Matthew’s version, a little different than what we use in Mass, but essentially the same prayer. If the purpose of prayer is to unite ourselves to the will of God and to form ourselves according to his will, then every time we pray the Our Father, we remind ourselves of the will of God. So what is the will of God?
It is that we should know Him as a father, as a loving father who knows us and loves us and works for our good. It is that his name should be hallowed, respected, and loved all over the world; that we should love his name in our own lives.
It is God’s will that his kingdom should come. And where does that kingdom begin except in changing our own lives and doing our own pursuit of the Lord?
It’s that we should receive our daily bread. In Greek, this is a very fancy word that only exists in the two versions of the Our Father. In Greek, ηυπερουσιον (hyperousion). In Latin, “supersubstantialem.” In English, it would kind of mean super bread, like bread that is beyond what is normal bread, that is beyond creation. It’s a clear allusion to the sacraments. God wishes that we should be blessed by the sacraments.
Forgiving our sins as we forgive those who sinned against us. God desires that we should be a community of forgiveness. A community that lays down our burdens and lays down our grudges.
And of course, that we should not be subject to the final test, that we should not be let into temptation. It is God’s desire that we should live a life apart from sin, that we should live a life where we don’t give in to the temptations of this world. But we resist them and pray that we would be protected from them.
Every time we pray the Our Father we pray as Jesus taught us to pray. It is the first and most important prayer. Every time we pray the Our Father, we are asking the Lord, in all of the petitions, that His will be done. We tell the Lord “We know what your will is because your son taught us and we ardently desire your will.” We form ourselves according to his will. We are people of prayer, people who desire the will of God in our own lives and to carry it out in the world.
¿Quién crees que es más poderoso: tú o Dios? Obviamente, es Dios.
¿Y quién crees que es más perfecto: tú o Dios? Obviamente, es Dios.
¿Y quién crees que es más amoroso: tú o Dios? Obviamente, es Dios.
Entonces, ¿por qué crees que es tu trabajo cambiar la mente de Dios? ¿Por qué crees que tratar de cambiar la mente de Dios es una buena idea? No solo parece tonto, parece malvado, que criaturas diminutas, rotas, caídas y corruptas como nosotros tengan algún poder sobre Dios.
Dios es, después de todo, nuestro Padre perfectamente amoroso. Cualquier cambio que produjeras en él solo lo empeoraría. Cambiar de opinión lo llevaría de la perfección a la imperfección.
¡Cuán orgullosos somos de pensar que sabemos más que Dios, que tenemos mejores ideas que Dios, que debemos controlar la voluntad de Dios en lugar de que Él controle la nuestra!
Si aún no es obvio, estoy hablando de la oración. La mayoría de nosotros nos acercamos a la oración como una oportunidad para cambiar la mente de Dios. Si solo oramos lo suficiente, lloramos lo suficiente, encendemos suficientes velas, ofrecemos suficientes devociones, entonces podemos hacer que Dios nos preste atención y nos escuche. Pero esto es como niños mimados, que gritan hasta que se salen con la suya. Ora obviamente no es así. No puede ser así. Así es como oraban los paganos: cuantos más sacrificios ofrecían, más sentían que podían controlar a los dioses. Así no es como oran los cristianos.
Para el cristiano que adora a un Dios perfecto y amoroso, ya sabemos que Dios está trabajando para nuestro bien. Ya sabemos que Dios nos ama y está haciendo todo lo posible para traernos el mayor regalo posible, que es nuestra salvación y la presencia del Espíritu Santo. Como dice Jesús, si incluso los malos saben cómo dar buenos regalos a sus hijos, por supuesto que el perfecto Padre Celestial nos va a dar los mejores regalos. Así que, para el cristiano, la oración no se trata de cambiar la mente de Dios, la oración se trata de cambiar nuestras mentes. La oración se trata de unir nuestras voluntades a la voluntad de nuestro perfecto Padre Celestial.
Jesús nos dice que oremos. Él nos dice que preguntemos. Nos dice que llamemos. ¿Por qué? Porque sólo vamos a aprender la voluntad de Dios si hablamos con Él acerca de las cosas en nuestras vidas y lo que está en nuestros corazones. “Señor, estoy preocupado por el dinero”. Bien. Tal vez él te dirá que no debes preocuparte y él cuidará de ti. Tal vez él te dirá que debes tomar clases, para que puedas conseguir un mejor trabajo. Tal vez te diga que debes salir a comer menos. No exigimos dinero del Señor como hijos con derecho; oramos al Señor acerca del dinero para que podamos aprender cuál es su voluntad. Si somos insistentes, él siempre nos responderá. O tal vez estamos preocupados por la salud de alguien, por el cáncer o la diabetes. Tal vez el Señor nos diga que planea hacer un milagro. O tal vez nos ayude a encontrar la paz con la idea de la muerte. De cualquier manera, él nos ama y va a cuidar de nosotros. Pero debemos confiar en que Él sabe mucho mejor que nosotros lo que necesitamos, y debemos confiar en que su voluntad es mejor que nuestra voluntad. Debemos orar para conocer su voluntad y estar unidos a su voluntad.
Tenemos que dejar de tratar a Dios como una máquina expendedora, donde si pongo suficientes oraciones, mi producto deseado saldrá. Tenemos que empezar a tratar a Dios como un Padre, que está en relación con nosotros, que nos ama y se preocupa por nosotros y siempre hace lo que es mejor para nosotros. Es por eso que Jesús nos enseña a orar. Ninguna parte de la oración del “Padre Nuestro” es la demanda de un niño mimado. Cada parte es un recordatorio para nosotros de cómo formarnos de acuerdo con la voluntad de Dios. Nos recordamos a nosotros mismos que Él es nuestro padre, que debemos amarlo y respetarlo a Él y a su nombre, que debemos desear su presencia y su reino aquí en la Tierra, que debemos unirnos a los sacramentos, especialmente a la Eucaristía, que debemos perdonar a aquellos que nos han hecho daño, y que siempre debemos tratar de evitar el pecado y la tentación. Estas cosas son la voluntad de Dios para nosotros. Cuanto más oremos, más desearemos estas cosas, y más cerca estaremos de nuestro perfecto y amoroso Padre Celestial.
Español – Original English
Who do you think is more powerful: you or God? Obviously, it is God.
And who do you think is more perfect: you or God? Obviously, it is God.
And you do you think is more loving: you or God? Obviously, it is God.
So why do you think it is your job to change his mind? Why do you think trying to change his mind is a good idea? It does not just seem silly, it seems evil, that tiny, broken, fallen, corrupted creatures like ourselves should have any power over God.
God is, after all, our perfectly loving Father. Any change you would bring about in him would only make him worse. Changing his mind would bring him from perfection to imperfection.
How prideful we are to think that we know more than God, that we have better ideas than God, that we should control God’s will rather than having him control ours!
If it is not yet obvious, I am talking about prayer. Most of us approach prayer as a chance to change God’s mind. If we just pray enough, cry enough, light enough candles, offer enough devotions, then we can make God pay attention to us and listen to us. But this is like spoiled children, who yell and scream until they get their way. Prayer is obviously not like this. It cannot be like this. This is how the pagans prayed – the more sacrifices they offered, the more they felt they could control the gods. This is not how Christians pray.
For the Christian who worships a perfect and all-loving God, we already know that God is working for our good. We already know that God loves us and is doing everything he can to bring us the greatest possible gift, which is our salvation. As Jesus says, if even the evil ones know how to give good gifts to their children, of course the perfect Father in Heaven is going to give the best gifts to us. So for the Christian, prayer is not about trying to change God’s mind, prayer is about changing our minds. Prayer is about trying to unite our wills to the will of our perfect Father in Heaven.
Jesus does tell us to pray. He tells us to ask. He tells us to knock. Why? Because we are only going to learn the will of God if we talk to him about the things in our lives and what is on our hearts. “Lord, I am worried about money.” Okay. Maybe he will tell you that you should not be worried and he will take care of you. Maybe he will tell you that you should take classes, so you can get a better job. Maybe he will tell you that you should go out to eat less. We do not demand money from the Lord like entitled children; we pray to the Lord about money so that we can learn what is his will. If we are insistent, he will always answer us. Or maybe we are worried about someone’s health, about cancer or diabetes. Maybe the Lord will tell us that he plans to work a miracle. Or maybe he will help us find peace with the idea of death. Either way, he loves us and is going to take care of us. But we must trust that he knows far better than we what we need, and we must trust that his will is better than our will, and we must pray to know his will and be united to his will.
We have to stop treating God like a vending machine, where if I put in enough prayers my desired product will pop out. We have to start treating God like a Father, who is in relationship with us, who loves us and cares for us and always does what is best for us. This is why Jesus teaches us to pray. No part of the “Our Father” prayer is the demand of a spoiled child. Every part is a reminder to us of how to form ourselves in accord with the will of God. We remind ourselves that he is our father, that we must love and respect him and his name, that we should desire his presence and his kingdom here on Earth, that we should unite ourselves to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, that we should forgive those who have wronged us, and that we should always try to avoid sin and temptation. These things are the will of God for us. The more we pray, the more we will desire these things, and the closer we will be with our perfect, loving, Heavenly Father.