The Audacity of Prayer

This Sunday’s Gospel is a summary of Jesus’ teaching on prayer. It begins with a question from a representative disciple, “Lord, teach us to pray. . .” Broadly speaking there are two categories of prayer. There is spontaneous or conversational prayer and there are previously composed prayers which we may recite alone or in community.

In this passage Jesus gives his disciples the “Our Father” prayer. In the original Greek, Jesus’ expression, “When you pray, say,” clearly means he intended his disciples to recite this prayer. In the early second century, a Christian document called the Didache, instructed the faithful to pray the Our Father, “three times a day.”

The familiar petitions of the Our Father guide us to consider God as our Father, to ask for relationship with him, and to allow our hearts to be transformed by this relationship. In my own experience, however, many Catholics are familiar with saying or reciting prayers but much less experienced praying from their hearts in simple conversation with God. Both conversational and recited prayers must be prayed well, and both are important to the Christian life.

The Catechism quotes Saint Thérèse of Lisieux to define prayer as “a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” It is not enough to merely pray with our lips, “according to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain” (CCC 2562).

Without consideration of the heart we risk turning God into a kind of favor-granting vending machine. If we give God the required number of recited prayers, God will dispense his favors to us. God is like a wet towel that we ring out to get reluctant drops of grace. Yet God is clearly not the reluctant granter of our wishes. In today’s Gospel Jesus shares a parable to counter this sort of misguided thinking (Luke 11:5-8).

In this parable a man receives an unexpected friend “at midnight.” He has nothing to feed him. In first century Jewish culture, he was required to show hospitality to this visitor or he will experience deep cultural shame.

There are no late-night convenience stores or all-night bakeries, so, in spite of the late hour he goes to the home of his friend and explains his dilemma. Pounding on his door, he explains, a “friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him.”

Although this is far from our culture, in first century Palestinian culture, both the friend at the door and the man being awakened with all his children, would experience great shame if they did not show hospitality to this visitor. Even so, the sleepy friend is reluctant to wake his family and comply with the request.

Jesus concludes, “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs.” (Luke 11:8, RSVCE)

Instead of “importunity” our lectionary translates because of his persistence. Unfortunately this does not capture the full sense of the original Greek text.

The original Greek word means “audacity, impudence, shamelessness.” The word “persistence” is too positive and neutral to capture the full sense of boldness involved. Jesus is highlighting the fact that the man pounding at the door is engaged in a shameless disturbance. The man is disturbing the peace at an inappropriate hour to gain what he needs.

In effect Jesus is teaching us to engage in a kind of holy “audacity” in our prayers. The word used is difficult to translate into English as it refers to a combination of boldness and shamelessness. Jesus does not depict the man going three different times to wake his friend. The stress is not on persistence, or the repetition of the request, but on the boldness or nerve of the request.

We might think of the audacity of James and John who ask Jesus to sit at the right and left of Jesus in his kingdom (Mattthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45). Our first thought is that they are a couple of knuckleheads, but Jesus does not completely despise their audacity. In fact, they remain in Jesus’ inner circle of disciples. We might also think of the woman with a hemorrhage (Luke 8:43). She is ceremonially “unclean” yet she has the audacity to reach out and touch Jesus’ garment and so is healed.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux notes, “Most of all, I follow the example of Mary Magdalene, my heart is captivated by her astonishing, or rather, loving audacity, which so won the heart of Jesus.” In this parable Jesus calls us to a type of holy boldness or impertinence in our prayer (11:8).

We might think it is pious to recognize that God is sovereign and all-powerful and think we should simply wait quietly and submit. This is false humility. While God certainly is all-powerful, he invites us to be bold and to ask him for our needs.

The point of the parable is to identify with the audacious man asking his friend for bread. We must not think God is like his reluctant friend or that we must shame God into answering us. The point is that God is greater than this reluctant friend. If even our reluctant friend only gives in to keep the peace or avoid shame, how much more will a loving God answer us when we ask boldly (11:8,13).

Jesus now moves on to talk about persistence. He notes, “And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (11:9). Each one of these venturing verbs; asking, seeking, knocking, has the sense in the original Greek of ask, and keep on asking, seek, and keep on seeking, knock, and keep on knocking.

Yet these are not timid prayers to a reluctant God. We are invited to come boldly. God is not distant and uncaring, but he is a loving Father. Jesus concludes, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (11:13).

Although our thoughts and values are very different from the ancient world, we also suffer from feelings of shame. Very often we feel flawed and unworthy of love and belonging. It is hard for us to trust that God loves us and counts us as worthy of relationship with him. Today Jesus invites us to come boldly and to ask for good gifts from our heavenly Father.

Deacon Scott McKellar is pastoral associate at St. Therese Parish, North.

For complete daily Scripture texts, click here: http://www.usccb.org

Daily Scripture Readings

Monday, July 29
Exodus 32:15-24, 30-34
Psalms 106:19-20, 21-22, 23
John 11:19-27
Or Luke 10:38-42

Tuesday, July 30
Exodus 33:7-11; 34:5b-9, 28
Psalms 103:6-7, 8-9, 10-11, 12-13
Matthew 13:36-43

Wednesday, July 31
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalms 99:5, 6, 7, 9
Matthew 13:44-46

Thursday, August 1
Exodus 40:16-21, 34-38
Psalms 84:3, 4, 5-6a & 8a, 11
Matthew 13:47-53

Friday, August 2
Leviticus 23:1, 4-11, 15-16, 27, 34b-37
Psalms 81:3-4, 5-6, 10-11ab
Matthew 13:54-58

Saturday, August 3
Leviticus 25:1, 8-17
Psalms 67:2-3, 5, 7-8
Matthew 14:1-12

Sunday, August 4
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23
Psalms 90:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14 & 17
Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11
Luke 12:13-21

Monday, August 5
Numbers 11:4b-15
Psalms 81:12-13, 14-15, 16-17
Matthew 14:13-21

Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, Tuesday, Aug. 6
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalms 97:1-2, 5-6, 9
2 Peter 1:16-19
Luke 9:28b-36

Wednesday, August 7
Numbers 13:1-2, 25–14:1, 26a-29a, 34-35
Psalms 106:6-7ab, 13-14, 21-22, 23
Matthew 15: 21-28

Thursday, August 8
Numbers 20:1-13
Psalms 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Matthew16:13-23

Friday, August 9
Deuteronomy 4:32-40
Psalms 77:12-13, 14-15, 16 & 21
Matthew 16:24-28

Saturday, August 10
2 Corinthians 9:6-10
Psalms 112:1-2, 5-6, 7-8, 9
John 12:24-26

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 11
Wisdom 18:6-9
Psalms 33:1, 12, 18-19, 20-22
Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19
or Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-12
Luke 12:32-48
Or Luke 12:35-40

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Saturday
August 24, 2019
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph