A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Recall to Prayer in a Secular Age

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Genesis 18:20-32).

I trust my Lord will not be angry, but give me leave to speak. This passage is the continuation of that read in last Sunday’s Mass, in which Abraham showed hospitality to three men, representing the Lord. Sodom and Gomorrah had acquired a very bad name because of the sexual sins. Here the Lord God is picturesquely presented as wishing to visit the city to see if the bad reports are really justified. At the outset we are presented with the same problem we have seen in last Sunday’s reading, namely men, three men and the Lord. The men are presumably angels, which in a biblical tradition can be taken to represent the Lord, who is also spoken of in surrounding verses in the singular. Thus in the very opening words it is the Lord who speaks, while soon after “the men” are said to have gone to Sodom, while Abraham is presented as standing before the Lord. Abraham’s presence with the Lord, and the Lord’s with him, indicate the divine intimacy with humans. In the context of Genesis and the Old Testament the ensuing discussion concerns a deep theological problem, namely the punishment of the just together with the sinners, a question involving God’s justice. Israel had experienced such collective punishment in the destruction Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The problem may be without solution, and is discussed in Ezekiel 14:12-23 and the book of Job, and also in today’s reading. Whatever of this original setting, in today’s Sunday liturgy this reading is to be taken in conjunction with today’s Gospel reading on prayer. In this first reading God is seen as allowing himself to be questioned by a mortal, Abraham, and of being petitioned at length, in a sense importuned, to respond to a given request, a request he grants.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 137[138]). On the day I called, you answered me, O. Lord.

Second Reading (Colossians 2:12-14).

He has brought you to life with him; he has forgiven all our sins. At first glance the precise meaning of this reading is not easy to grasp. It is a kind of shorthand for elements of early Christian belief, which would have been clear to the writer of the letter and to the first readers. They would also most probably have the various elements spelled put for them in the instruction before baptism and later. Together with these factors, it is generally recognized by scholars that some sort of liturgical or hymnic formulations lie behind this passage. We may recall that a little earlier in this latter (second reading for 15th Sunday) Paul had said that God was pleased to have the fullness of God, of divine power, reside in Jesus. Central to Christian belief was the resurrection of Christ. Christ was raised from the dead by the all-powerful might of God, the same power of God at work in baptism and Christian life. As put more fully in the Epistle to the Ephesians (1:19-21): Christian hope is aware of “what is the immeasurable greatness of his (God’s) power in you who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right had in the heavenly places”. Early Christian baptism was by immersion, and represented Christ’s burial. The newly baptised, in a sense, were buried with Christ, and emerging from the waters they were united to the immeasurable power of God evidenced in his raising Jesus from the dead. The Colossian Christians were mainly, if not wholly, of gentile, pagan origin, uncircumcised. In ideas of the time they could have been considered “foreigners”, cut of from God, not being of his chosen Jewish people and as sinners. By baptism all this has changed. They have been brought to new life; God had forgiven all of them (Paul included — “our sins”). All the demands that could have been made against Christians, the handwritten “record of debt” that they might have to pay to the lord for their sins, is represented as having been wiped clear, picturesquely presented as having been nailed to Christ’s cross. Christ died so that sins might be forgiven. Christ’s death and resurrection have ongoing influence of Christian life.

The Gospel (Luke 11:1-13).

Ask, and it will be given to you. All this reading is about prayer, with the Lord’s Prayer as model, followed by an exhortation to perseverance in prayer. The passage opens with mention of Jesus being at prayer. In his gospel Luke lays stress on the place of prayer in Jesus’ life and ministry; see the notes on the Gospel reading for the Twelfth Sunday this year. The prayer of John the Baptist’s disciples has already been mentioned by Luke (5:33). The form of the Lord’s Prayer given here by Luke differs in some details from that of Matthew (6:5-15), familiar from the liturgy and Christian prayer books. Matthew may have rephrased portions of it in keeping with his own Jewish community traditions. Two forms of the same prayer would not have been exceptional. Jewish prayers did not have fixed formulae for all details. After Jesus’ own example in Gethsemane (Luke 22; 42), Christians as brothers and sisters of Christ, under the empowering guidance of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6) address God as “Father” — Abba in its original Aramaic form. (Matthew has the Jewish form “Our Father who is in heaven”.) The petitions pray to the Father that certain things occur, the implication being that he will see that effect be given to them, beginning with the petition that his name, that he himself, be recognized as the true God. The meaning of the Greek word rendered “daily” (bread) is not at all certain. It may mean “essential”. The bread prayed for is that of daily nourishment, but may also have a connection with the kingdom: the bread that nourishes for eternal life. The Aramaic word behind “sin” is literally “debt”, retained by Matthew, changed to “sin” for his Greek readers by Luke. The temptation, or test, one prays not be led into can be variously understood, but is one in which Satan tries to ensnare and have believers fall. The final trial may also be in mind. The Father is asked to be present with his help in such trials, as, of course, he is.
    After the Lord’s Prayer Luke gives an expressive parable encouraging perseverance in prayer. The Father likes being importuned. The Father does not punish such requests. Jesus illustrates this by examples of the expected behaviour of human fathers towards their children’s requests: a stone when asked for bread, a snake (similar to a fish) instead of a fish, a scorpion (similar to an egg) instead of an egg. “If you who are evil” is a Semitic way of saying: “You, with all your imperfections”. Jesus neatly passes from the earthly to the heavenly: If imperfect human fathers pay so kind attention to this-worldly requests of their children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. For Luke the Holy Spirit is God’s power to bear witness to his kingdom (Pentecost). His presence proves membership of his chosen people (Acts 10; Cornelius). The Holy Spirit guides the Church in its journey through history. His presence should ardently be prayed for.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Recall to Prayer in a Secular Age

Today’s Gospel reading presents an occasion to reflect on the place of prayer in our own age, mainly in secular surroundings. Changed practice has not come about merely from secular conviction. It has partly been from a changed religiously neutral mindset. In the not too recent past vocal prayer was very much part of the daily routine. There was prayer both in Irish and English for most new encounters: God bless the work, on meeting people at work; God bless all here, on entering a house. These died out rather easily, but grace before and after meals continued in many quarters. Greater knowledge of weather forecasts and climate movements brought an end to prayer for fine weather, or even rain. Prayer for success in an interview with a job prospect seemed natural enough, but even here occasionally eminent Catholics would object, since it implied asking God to favour against other applicants! But this is to forget that it is the all-seeing good God who sees sides who answers prayers.
    The secular viewpoint very naturally militates against prayer even for believers, who must take stock of the situation. Both the practice of Jesus and his frequent prayer together with his explicit teaching on the subject call for a renewal of prayer life, especially for a fuller understanding of the mystery of Christ and the Church, for the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us, and protect us in temptation. Recall to prayer needs to take account of changed situations, the difficulties of family prayer, finding ways in which believers who no longer frequent the sacraments can keep in contact with God and Christ. Reflection is called for on so many issues. But for all Christ’s call for prayer in any occasion remains valid, constant, persevering prayer. See also Reflection for 12th Sunday this year.

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