Persistence Pays

(Homily for Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C)

I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves
because of their friendship,
he will get up to give him whatever he needs
because of his persistence.
(Lk 11:9)

On a busy afternoon a few weeks back, a man came to the rectory looking for help. Since both the secretary and the office volunteer were away, I asked the man to please understand that I did not have time to attend to him. I explained that I had a policy against giving handouts. The man insisted that he did not want a handout, but only that I listen to how he got into his current predicament. He then began to recount his various health problems and his recent string of bad luck, all the while producing medical documents and employment records.

After about fifteen minutes, I stopped him and said there was no way I could help him. “Please come back tomorrow,” I pleaded, “and maybe someone from our parish St. Vincent de Paul could talk with you.” He kept insisting until I finally left the room and returned to some things I had to get done before closing the office. I thought maybe he would just leave, but when I came back a half hour later, he was still sitting there. He resumed his story.

Once again I broke in, reiterating my policy and stating that I was just not set up to give the kind of help he was asking for. He spread out his documents once more and patiently tried to get me to understand that his case was very different. “Look,” I finally said, “I will give you something. But I want you to know I am only doing it to get rid of you.”

He got a very pained expression on his face and said, “Father, don’t say that.” But he did accept the bill I offered him and went on his way.

I am not recounting this incident so you can judge my handling of the situation. (I actually did bring it up in a subsequent confession.) I mention it because this man is an example of how Jesus tells us we should pray: Ask. Seek. Knock. Keep insisting. Even if it seems like you are making a nuisance of yourself, don’t stop. If you don’t get an immediate answer, repeat your request. Then repeat it again, relentlessly if necesssary. Persistence pays.

At this point you may be thinking, “Well, I can understand Father Bloom giving in to a persistent request. But is God so easily swayed? Is he swayed at all? Doesn’t he know exactly what we need even before we ask?” Yes, but we have it on the highest authority, Jesus himself, not to mention the entire Old Testament and constant Christian tradition, that we are to ask God for what we need, for ourselves and for others.

C.S. Lewis explained the paradox this way: We are exhorted to ask even though God already knows what is best – for the same reason God allows us to do anything:

“We know that we can act and that our actions produce results. Everyone who believes in God must therefore admit (quite apart from the question of prayer) that God has not chosen to write the whole of history with His own hand. Most of the events that go on in the universe are indeed out of our control, but not all. It is like a play in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise.”

If someone says, “Why bother with prayer? God already knows what we need – and he is either going to give it to us or not. Why try to second-guess God?” that appears sensible, even quite pious. However, as Lewis responds, “Why wash your hands? If God intends them to be clean, they'll come clean without your washing them. If He doesn't, they'll remain dirty (as Lady Macbeth found) however much soap you use. Why ask for the salt? Why put on your boots? Why do anything?”*

Of course, we all know we can cause real events – like washing our hands, sprinkling salt or putting on shoes. If God allows us to cause those things to happen, why should it be strange that he allows us – by asking him directly – to bring about other effects? There are things which might not happen unless we request them. It does seem almost fantastic that the recovery from illness, a job opening, the conversion of a loved one gone astray, peace in Iraq, etc. might depend on our prayer. But from a strictly logical point of view, it is no more odd than our ability to cause any effect.

Perhaps for most of you this philosophical reflection is unnecessary. You have prayed and God has answered you. You have seen enough results to trust Jesus when he says, Ask. Seek. Knock. I can only encourage you to keep at it. However, if you have grown discouraged – or indolent – please listen again to Jesus’ clear words: “For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

************

*I encourage you to read Lewis' entire essay (Work and Prayer). It begins:

Even if I grant your point and admit that answers to prayer are theoretically possible, I shall still think they are infinitely improbable. I don't think it at all likely that God requires the ill-informed (and contradictory) advice of us humans as to how to run the world. If He is all-wise, as you say He is, doesn't He know already what is best? And if He is all-good won't He do it whether we pray or not?'

This is the case against prayer which has, in the last hundred years, intimidated thousands of people. The usual answer is that it applies only to the lowest sort of prayer, the sort that consists in asking for things to happen. The higher sort, we are told, offers no advice to God; it consists only of 'communion' or intercourse with Him; and those who take this line seem to suggest that the lower kind of prayer really is an absurdity and that only children or savages would use it.

I have never been satisfied with this view. The distinction between the two sorts of prayer is a sound one; and I think on the whole (I am not quite certain) that the sort which asks for nothing is the higher or more advanced. To be in state in which you are so at one with the will of God that you wouldn't want to alter the course of events even if you could is certainly a very high or advanced condition.

But if one simply rules out the lower kind, two difficulties follow...

Spanish Version

From Archives (17th Sunday, Year C):

2013: Call to Faith - Pope Francis
2010: Try God
2007: Why I Believe God Exists
2004: Persistence Pays
2001: Lord, Teach Us To Pray
1998: Prayer of Intercession

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Sunday: Homilies

Bulletin (Peru, Financial Report, Politicians and Communion)

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