(This homily was given on the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 24, 2016. Because I just began this new blog, I will occasionally post homilies I've given in the past so as to add content to the blog)
Here’s a question: Do you see God in the same way that you see an ATM machine? Strange question, I know; but it’s actually a good analogy for the way many people understand prayer, which is the focus of this weekend’s gospel.
Why do we go to an ATM machine? Most of us go to the ATM primarily to get cash. Yes, I know some people might use the ATM to get a balance inquiry. But the bottom line is that we find the ATM useful for ourselves. In a sense, we’re asking the ATM to give us what we need. We wouldn’t say that we have a personal relationship with the ATM (that would be weird). We don’t go to the ATM just to spend time with it (even weirder). We go to the ATM to get something.
Unfortunately, this is the way many of us see our relationship with God. We see God as our ATM. Our prayer consists of going to him to ask for things. We pray because we think God can be useful to us, not to get to know him. We see him as the dispenser of blessings and favors. True, asking things from the Lord is a good and important part of prayer, especially asking blessings for ourselves and loved ones; but it is not the essence of prayer.
In today’s gospel Jesus teaches us how to pray. The disciples see Jesus praying and they ask him to teach them how to pray. Why do they ask him that? Because they see how absorbed he is in prayer. They see that for him prayer is not about going through the motions, words, or formulas; they see that Jesus is consciously and experientially absorbed in a relationship. He is aware of the Father’s presence and he radiates that presence. He is aware that he is the beloved Son of the Father. His disciples want that experience of prayer! They want that consciousness that comes from prayer: consciousness of an intimate relationship with God, consciousness of being a beloved child of God.
How does Jesus answer their question? He doesn’t tell them that they should start by asking for things. He says, when you pray, say “Father.” In other words, he invites them into a relationship with his Father. And by the way, the term he used would have sounded sacrilegious. No one in his time called God their dad, their papa. But that’s the term he uses: it’s the affectionate word that a child would have used for his/her father. What Jesus is telling them is that prayer is first and foremost about this deep relationship with God; it’s not primarily about asking things.
True, at the end of this gospel, he does invite them to ask, seek and knock, but only after he invites them into a personal relationship. And what he tells them to ask for, primarily, is the Holy Spirit. In other words, he tells them to ask for God himself, not things from God.
The lesson for us is clear: our prayer must be about seeking God, not primarily about seeking things from God. Very often our prayer is simply about asking things from God, like we ask for money from an ATM. But that is not the heart of prayer; the heart of prayer is seeking union with God, friendship with God. As I said last week, prayer is about being silent, being aware of the loving presence of the Lord, allowing him to touch our hearts and lives with his presence.
I’d like to give you another challenge this week. Last week I invited you to spend 10-15 minutes a day in silent prayer. Keep doing that; however, this week when you pray let your prayer be focused on seeking God, not things from God. Don’t make your prayer primarily about asking things from the Lord for yourselves or others. Let your prayer be this: Lord, grant me the grace to know your more intimately, to love you more deeply, and to serve you more fervently.
How do we do this? When you sit in quiet to pray, simply focus on Jesus. See the loving face of Jesus. Know that he is with you, inviting you into a deeper relationship with him. And then just tell him that you want to know him more, that you want to love him more, that you want to serve him more. Just focus on him and his love for you. And just sit with him. Just be present to him as he is always present to you.
First, seek the Lord; do not first seek things from the Lord. And as you seek the Lord, you will become more deeply aware that he is your loving Father and you are his beloved child.