Why don’t we get what we ask for? (Luke 18: 1-8a)
Preface. Why don’t we get what we ask for? Even Jesus was not granted His prayer that he be spared the ordeal of crucifixion. To a mother who has suffered the loss of a child, a father facing a fatal illness or a family desperate for work, most explanations given for the question of unanswered prayer are not satisfying. Surely the hardest explanation to accept is, “God answered and the answer was ‘No’.” How could God let this happen? Many people lose their faith and walk away from Christ because of a failure of prayer. This lectio asks the question, “Why pray?”
First, some thoughts about general instructions on prayer: We are advised to pray alone, lest we be hypocritical (Matt. 6:5-7); indeed, Jesus Himself frequently withdrew to pray alone. We are advised to be brief, to encourage sincerity (Mark 12: 40, Luke 20:47). We are advised to be humble (Luke 18:11) and to grant forgiveness to anyone against whom we have a grievance (Mark 11:25), even those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:28). We are told that “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22).
Lectio: read the opening verses...
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, `Grant me justice against my adversary.' "For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, `Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'” And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. (Luke 18: 1-8a)
Meditatio: reflect on the verses... Suppose that like the widow in the tale above, we pray and for a time do not receive what we want. Do we benefit anyway? Certainly: praying forces us to consider what we really want; when prayer is not immediately answered, we search our motives to see if they are godly; when we become frustrated enough, we may search our lives for unrepented sin and seek to reconcile ourselves with God. We cease to use prayer as a form of magic. We cease trying to manipulate God and accept His supremacy. We seek out others and discuss our needs and ask them to join us in prayer, and so build community. For that matter, every moment that we are in prayer is a moment that we are unable to sin by our deeds. Therefore, delay in the answer to prayer can be a blessing in itself.
But we want what we pray for! It is terrible to pray for something without ceasing and without end, begging every day. And it is even worse to see the object of the prayer slip away, so that the prayer becomes dust on our lips. It is at that time, when we realize that despite our sincerity and our belief and our renunciation of sin, we are not going to get what we want, that our faith is most endangered. If we press too hotly the Matthew 21:22 passage, which promises us anything if we will only believe, we may lose faith. The failure of our prayer becomes, in our minds, the failure of our belief. We may become bitter and angry with God, incensed that our sincere belief was met with stony silence.
And so now consider the reading. The promise of a speedy answer to prayer in this passage is not a promise to everyone. It is directed specifically to those among God’s chosen who pray for justice. The chosen are the disciples, to whom Jesus directs encouragement. Indeed, if we now look back on the Matthew 21:22 passage (“If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer”), we see that it is also directed exclusively to the disciples. Are we prepared to risk the hardships, the abuse, the beatings and ultimately the executions that Jesus’ disciples faced? If not, how can we presume to expect God to do whatever we ask? And when we pray, how often do we pray for righteousness (justice)?
Oratio: pray from your newfound understanding... Adoration. How frail we are, how little we can accomplish without your aid, Lord. You alone command illness and death. Your Spirit, which is truth, casts down tyrants and exalts saints, so that the powerful are never secure and the weak never hopeless. Your Love, who is Jesus, walks through prison walls and satisfies even the loneliest heart. Confession. We want to be gods on our own, able to command whatever we wish. Yet in reality we are powerless, besieging you like a flock of beggars every day. And worse, we are terrified of real justice: what will we do on that day when many who today are starving, imprisoned, addicted, homeless, crippled, desperately alone are lifted up and made first in your Kingdom? What will we do when our works are assayed in the fire and found to be straw? Thanksgiving. Thank you for placing before us the righteousness of Jesus and the Disciples, so that we can know how to pray. Thank you for the gift of humility, by which we search our motives. Supplication. Lord, you know everything we want before we open our mouths. But we pray out loud so that we may consider what we are praying for—are we praying for justice or just to satisfy ourselves? When we pray for money, help us to consider how many people lack material goods, even food. When we pray for advancement in position, help us to remember that the first shall become the last. When we pray that a dying person live, help us to remember the fatigue and pain of illness. Let us not ask others to endure illness for our sakes.
Contemplatio: seek in silence. Feel God's Presence, and allow it to inspire a new Psalm from within...
Our Creator, in Heaven and also in our hearts:
We remember you, the Author of our lives, and give thanks.
Help us to drag the blessings of Heaven out into this wretched earth,
So that people may want to do what you ask now, in this life, before the judgment.
Give us what we truly need:
no more lest we grow arrogant nor less lest we become bitter.
If we judge others harshly, judge us harshly.
If we judge gently, judge us gently.
When temptation is before us, whisper a warning in our ear.
When we pray, remind us to search our prayer to see if it is truly just.
Everything is yours: our lives, our families, our very souls.
You, the Source of Justice, cannot be anything except just.
Even when our prayers do not seem to be answered,
We will trust in Your goodness.
Or at least we will try.