17 October 2010

The Case for Unceasing Prayer

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 17 October 2010

Readings: Ex 17:8-13; Ps 121:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; 2 Tim 3:14-4:2; Lk 18:1-8

The moral lesson of this Sunday’s Gospel parable is quite clear from the start. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.”

1. Pray always and without ceasing.

Here is a judge who couldn’t care less about God or other human beings, basically a bad person. Then here is a widow, penniless, powerless but for her persistence to get a fair judgment from the judge. Eventually, the judge relented and gave her what she asked for.

If bad people can be influenced to grant favors to less privileged supplicants, how much more will it be with God? “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them?”

Parable said, moral lesson delivered, thus end of the story? Not quite. For at the end of the passage, Jesus gave a thought-provoking question: “but when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” What does this mean? Clue: Prayer is not just about getting what we want.

Last Thursday the world watched in anticipation and then in joyful solidarity as 33 miners were finally freed after being trapped for 60 days in an underground bunker in Chile. When a powerful earthquake shook the country last August, the fates of the miners were not known until 17 days later when they were discovered to be alive but trapped 625 meters underground. The Chilean government immediately organized a rescue operation. Other countries helped out. Even NASA sent help and designs, and a special diet of food. It took several millions of dollars and over 800 men, some of them working 24/7 to get to the miners on time. Last Thursday the drama culminated in a grand celebration of hugs and kisses, cheerful shouting and teary-eyed reporting.

One freed miner fell to his knees and prayed as he sucked in his first fresh air in months. Another made the sign of the cross. One miner, when interviewed on TV said something that basically summed up the experience for him: "I've been near God, but I've also been near the devil," he says through a translator. "God won."

God won. It makes perfect sense. Here is one answered prayer.

But amidst the celebration and the consensus of calling it a miracle, some comments give us pause to think. For example: "As I join in the rejoicing, I can't help but think that if the miners had perished we would not have said that God lost."

Most likely the comment came from an agnostic or an atheist. But it does have a point, which leads us to the very purpose of prayer.

2. To pray is to have a change of heart.

Simply put, prayer is communication with God. And its purpose is not just getting what we pray for but more about having a change of heart. Definitely, it is not God’s heart that needs changing, it is ours. The first to change is the heart of those who pray. We change in order to have our hearts become more like the heart of God.

Who knows what inner demons those 33 miners struggled against throughout their ordeal? But in the end, God won. Who knows what moved people from all over the world to lend technical support, extend encouraging messages to the miners and their families, or simply watch and get inspired by this feat of human triumph over tragedy. God won because hearts were changed in the process, goodness triumphed, hope prevailed over despair. And God would still have won even if the situation had taken a different turn (God forbid).

3. To pray is to be lead to mission.

There is more to the story of the judge and the widow. The widow is not only persistent, she stood up against a system that otherwise renders her powerless and voiceless. If our hearts are sufficiently changed in prayer, then our prayer has to inevitably lead us to see the ways sin manifests both in individual acts of injustice and in the unjust structures of society.

One may argue that one need not pray to see the injustices happening everyday -- they are all around us. Then again, it is actually in situations when we get already so used to the experiences of poverty, corruption and injustice that we need to pray in order to see reality with new eyes. Otherwise, we give up hope that our situations will ever change for the better. The widow shows us an example of not giving up, of not being desensitized into accepting that nothing will ever change no matter what she does. In the end, she got what she asked for.

Our seeing with new eyes should then lead us to action for the cause of justice and right. The forces of secularism want us to believe that prayer and religion are merely private matters. A change of heart is not meant to be a mere private victory. It is a liberating experience and therefore it cannot be confined, it seeks to be shared. This is what proclamation of the Gospel means – and it is both a yearning and a duty.

St. Paul reminds us of this Christian duty in 2 Tim 4,1-2 (in the Second Reading): “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus... proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.”

The word "presistence" is once again used. This time we are admonished not only to pray unceasingly for our needs, but to proclaim unceasingly the grace we have discovered.

As we celebrate World Mission Sunday, we are being reminded that prayer, in order to be truly liberating, should be able to effect meaningful change, first in individuals and later among families, communities and societies. Salvation is not meant to be merely personal, it is communal. God wants us all to be saved by sharing in His life. Let our prayer then move us to the mission of Gospel proclamation and Christian action.

When our prayer has sufficiently changed us and changed the face of the earth, we can then confidently say that when the Son of Man comes, He will surely find faith on earth.

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