Reflection for Sunday – July 24, 2016
Readings: Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13
Preacher: Fr. Paul English
In 1987, I went in search of cousins in Ireland. I met some who immediately invited me to stay. They were wonderfully hospitable to this unplanned guest with the same last name. One day Patrick, the dad, took me to a sheep sale. He saw a few “hoggets” he wanted so he approached his friend selling them and offered an amount of money. His friend said, “You’re out of luck. They cost twice that much.” At this Patrick called him every harsh name in the book and said, “we’ve been friends all these years and you’d do this to me?” The price came down a bit but was still too high. That’s when Patrick employed the foul language. He then raised his offer some. They struck a deal, then shook hands and discussed how each one’s family was doing, and parted with a smile. I left amazed that they were even talking to each other!
I continue to reflect on that bartering exhibition. There was a deep and long-standing friendship. I now realize both men wanted the same outcome: a few sheep for one and some money for the other. But I now see my set of incorrect expectations and understandings about the deal. In my pre-conceived notion of buying sheep, I expected civil conversation, posted prices and “the customer’s always right.” Were I the one buying sheep that day, I would have been back in the truck sheepless in a matter of seconds, minus one long-time friend. I’m glad it was Pat!
Middle-eastern people and many folks outside of North America would easily recognize the “bartering” that happened in today’s first reading. Oh, there are assumptions. People in Abraham’s time, just like in our own, have contrived rules they think God must abide by. In this case, “you transgress the law, God punishes you and it may even be fatal.” Cut and dried. But Abraham asks, “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?” and enters into a process of bartering with God who, in each instance, says, “No, I’d be merciful even for that small a number of good people.”
Abraham is a kind of “every person,” with his personal, urgently meaningful conversation with a God who is invisible and thus often hard to comprehend. In effect, he asks, “How merciful are you?” and comes to see that God’s mercy is without limit! He experiences something we don’t usually think of as coming from God: a parent’s love, deep, wise, protective, desiring only the best for the child—love that transcends and gives context to law.
Saint Paul says much the same thing today. He makes it clear that the power of the impersonal law to constrain, force, demand and accuse us could never save us in the first place. On the other hand, because of his completely free gift of a relationship of love, of his self-donation, Christ helps us understand law’s real place. It’s not the first thing to consider. It’s something dependent on the love of God in Christ Jesus and meaningless without it.
People even relate to prayer in this way. How different are we from the disciple of Jesus who says: “Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples?” This was typical of “disciples” with their “masters,” asking the master to teach his “method.” As we still see today, there was quite an emphasis on saying something— and the right thing. They sought formulas and in some cases incantations.
In the Gospel today the disciples ask after seeing Jesus himself praying. And he teaches them (and us) about prayer: it’s a loving conversation, or better, spending time—even if not talking, telling or asking anything—with the object of our love, with the one who first loved us. It’s not about saying the right words. Prayer doesn’t need words at all to be beautiful and soul-satisfying, simply being with and lovingly aware of the one who loves you, loves me!
One of the lessons Jesus’ disciples need—then and now—is to be persistent in this cherished conversation, not giving up after a few encounters, but making this union of spirits with God as usual and as frequent as the time two people in love spend together.
The invitation is ours. Can we cast off personal obstacles and give this relationship a try? Through Jesus, God has been inviting us and hoping for our company all our lives.