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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 28, 2013
Genesis 18: 20-32; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13

A fundamental question that arises from these readings is whether we can change God’s mind through our prayer. Catholics have long held that God is immutable – a very classicist way of thinking. We believe God to be transcendent and eternal in God’s will and knowledge, but these readings teach us something about God that challenges this classicist view.

Abraham petitions God to spare the lives of residents of Sodom and Gomorrah if only fifty people among them are righteous and innocent. God, who once wanted to wipe out the cities for their great sins, that is, the lack of hospitality and not sexual perversion, decides the spare the lives of all for the sake of the single innocent person. Abraham continues to reason with God and appeals to his divine heart. In the end, Abraham’s persistence persuades God to let the citizens live.

In the Gospel, Jesus gives his disciples the perfect way to petition God in prayer. It acknowledges God’s omnipotence, transcendence, and his imminent way of being always ready to provide for us, yet at the end, Jesus takes it a bit further and begs us to bring our specific, concrete needs to God by encouraging us to seek, ask, and knock. Jesus wants us to be as active in our relationship with God as God is with us. He is promoting mutuality in dialogue. If relationships are to be strong, each person has to present confidently and fully oneself to the other. It becomes a sharing of who one is and what one has with the one we love.

Do we change something within God when we pray? I don’t know, but when we pay attention to the emotions of God, we wonder if God’s heart is moved. It seems so. Abraham’s intercession to God saves the people of the wicked cities; Moses always intercedes on behalf of the Israelites when they turn away from God; when we pray, we sometimes ask God to do something for us for a loved one; Jesus heals because of his deep compassion for others; when Jesus dies upon the cross, we can only imagine that God’s heart is somehow affected. It seems God’s emotions can change his will.

If this is the case then it is necessary to bring our emotions and desires to the Lord more than our intellect and reason. We know that debates never resolve an issue; compromises do. We know that digging our heels into the ground and stubbornly holding out on an issue does not mediate positive results. Firm authoritative voices, reasoned arguments, passive aggressive silence, and any behavior that separates us from another cannot bring about mutually beneficial outcomes. Only conversations that respect mutual exchanges of feelings will yield goodwill.

The Psalms are a great model for pouring out emotions to God in prayer. They teach us to say unfiltered whatever is in our heart – even if it sounds mean or evil to us. We have to do it to be authentic. The ancient Hebrews asked God to slay their enemies because of their fear and hatred while still maintaining that God was a god of mercy and goodness, but they were able to reach into the depths of their hearts to express their most basic needs. God listens. When God listens, God stands in solidarity with the way we feel, and like Psalm 139, we feel seen, heard, and known to our very depths. The genius of this Psalm is that it comforts many in our unique individualism. God speaks personally to us and we come to know that God’s heart embraces and envelopes ours.

If we know this to be the case, why are we so reluctant to ask God for concrete, specific things in ordinary life? It might help us to think of God’s emotions when he gives us something that we want or need. Just as parents interiorly smile when they lavish gifts on their young child during a birthday celebration, God’s smile must be all the wider when we accept what he offers. God is always creating and offering us gifts; we have to learn to accept them and pay attention to the joy God must feel – even if what we ask for is solemn or for the good health of an ill loved one.

Abraham’s story teaches us that God’s heart is constantly being turned toward us and that his care embraces each person – whether righteous or wicked, finding great favor in the righteous and rejoicing when one who is wicked turns towards the path of life. God will provide. God will listen. God will never stop being involved in our lives merely because God is happy we are in his life. I guess in the end, God never really changes.

Themes for this Week’s Masses

First Reading: Moses came down the mountain with two tablets of the commandments in his hands. He heard the sound of merriment because Joshua was leading the people in idolatry to a Golden Calf. Moses angrily called to mind their sins and God let them know he would punish them in due time. Moses pitched a meeting tent so that anyone who wanted to meet the Lord could go inside. When Moses entered, a column of cloud would come down and stand at its entrance and Moses would speak to the Lord face-to-face. Moses stayed in prayer for 40 days and 40 nights without eating food or drinking water. He wrote on the tablets again the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. Moses dedicated the ark to the Lord. He set up the tables and tent and when the cloud of the Lord descended upon the tent when Moses entered. Moses then announced the schedule of feasts (Feasts, Tabernacle, Passover, Sabbath, Booths) to be kept in honor of the Lord. They will rotate on a seven year cycle with a Jubilee every seven and fiftieth years.

Gospel: On the Feast of Martha, Jesus tells Martha not to fret too much over the details because Mary, her sister, is spending time with Jesus and has chosen more wisely how to use the gift that Jesus is to them. On Tuesday, Jesus continues to explain the Parable of the Sower to his friends. Everyone is responsible for making sure they stay free from the Evil One who is intent to tearing people down. On Wednesday, the Feast of Ignatius of Loyola is celebrated. The Gospel tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that is buried in a field. The prudent servant goes out and buys the whole field so he or she may rightly possess the treasures. Jesus likens the kingdom of God to a net thrown into a sea. When the fishers pull in the nets they separate the good from the bad and put the good into buckets. The end times will be like this when the good and the bad are judged and separated. The people are amazed at the teachings of Jesus and wonder from where his power and authority come. King Herod also wonders who Jesus is. Some say that he is John the Baptist resurrected; others say he is a prophet. Herod realizes that a mighty power is working within the person of Jesus.

Saints of the Week

July 29: Martha (1st century) is the sister of Mary and Lazarus of Bethany near Jerusalem. Martha is considered the busy, activity-attentive sister while Mary is more contemplative. Martha is known for her hospitality and fidelity. She proclaimed her belief that Jesus was the Christ when he appeared after Lazarus had died.

July 30: Peter Chrysologus, bishop and doctor (406-450), was the archbishop of Ravenna, Italy in the 5th century when the faithful became lax and adopted pagan practices. He revived the faith through his preaching. He was titled Chrysologus because of his 'golden words.'

July 31: Ignatius of Loyola, priest (1491-1556), is one of the founders of the Jesuits and the author of the Spiritual Exercises. As a Basque nobleman, he was wounded in a battle at Pamplona in northeastern Spain and convalesced at his castle where he realized he followed a methodology of discernment of spirits. When he recovered, he ministered to the sick and dying and then retreated to a cave at Manresa, Spain where he had experiences that formed the basis of The Spiritual Exercises. In order to preach, he studied Latin, earned a Master’s Degree at the University of Paris, and then gathered other students to serve Jesus. Francis Xavier and Peter Faber were his first friends. After ordination, Ignatius and his nine friends went to Rome where they formally became the Society of Jesus. Most Jesuits were sent on mission, but Ignatius stayed in Rome directing the rapidly growing religious order, composing its constitutions, and perfecting the Spiritual Exercises. He died in 1556 and the Jesuit Order was already 1,000 men strong. 

August 1: Alphonsus Liguori, bishop and doctor(1696-1787), founded a band of mission priests that became the Redemptorists. He wrote a book called "Moral Theology" that linked legal aspects with kindness and compassion for others. He became known for his responsive and thoughtful way of dealing with confessions.

August 2: Peter Faber, S.J., priest and founder (1506-1546), was one of the original companions of the Society of Jesus. He was a French theologian and the first Jesuit priest and was the presider over the first vows of the lay companions. He became known for directing the Spiritual Exercises very well. He was called to the Council of Trent but died as the participants were gathering.

August 2: Eusebius of Vercelli, bishop (d. 371), was ordained bishop after becoming a lector. He attended a council in Milan where he opposed the Arians. The emperor exiled him to Palestine because he contradicted secular influences. He returned to his diocese where the emperor died.

August 2: Peter Julian Eymard, priest (1811-1868) left the Oblates when he became ill. When his father died, he became a priest and soon transferred into the Marists but left them to found the Blessed Sacrament Fathers to promote the significance of the Eucharist.

This Week in Jesuit History

·      Jul 28, 1564. In a consistory held before twenty-four Cardinals, Pope Paul IV announced his intention of entrusting the Roman Seminary to the Society.
·      Jul 29, 1865. The death in Cincinnati, Ohio of Fr. Peter Arnoudt, a Belgian. He was the author of The Imitation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
·      Jul 30, 1556. As he lay near death, Ignatius asked Juan de Polanco to go and obtain for him the blessing of the pope.
·      Jul 31, 1556. The death in Rome of Ignatius Loyola.
·      Aug 1, 1938. The Jesuits of the Middle United States, by Gilbert Garrigan was copyrighted. This monumental three-volume work followed the history of the Jesuits in the Midwest from the early 1820s to the 1930s.
·      Aug 2, 1981. The death of Gerald Kelly, moral theologian and author of "Modern Youth and Chastity."

·      Aug 3, 1553. Queen Mary Tudor made her solemn entrance into London. As she passed St Paul's School, an address was delivered by Edmund Campion, then a boy of thirteen.


  1. You say Abraham's prayer persuaded God to "let the citizens live" but my Bible says He rained down fire & brimstone on them, except for Lot's family. It almost seems God strung Abraham along, knowing all the time He was going to whack them anyway. It always seemed to me a rather cruel story. Abraham's agonized outburst "Should not the Judge of all the earth do justice?" is echoed every time a natural disaster wipes out guilty & innocent alike.
    As for changing the Divine mind, it is one of those problems akin to the classic free-will/divine-omniscience puzzle. How man can be the cause of anything in God is impossible to figure out. English doesn't have aorist tense, & we are so locked into temporal thinking that it will always seem to us that God "knew beforehand" what we were going to ask or do & factored all that into His eternal plans. Certainly in His earthly life, Jesus let Himself to be coaxed into changing His (apparent) plans, e.g. the Cana miracle & the Syro-Phoenician woman. He encouraged persistence in prayer with the parable of the Unjust Judge (What a metaphor for God!)Seldom does He tell people they should just put up with their sufferings since it is God's will & good for their character. That is something we've come up with afterward when theodicy hasn't been all that successful in explaining unmerited suffering.
    The whole petitionary prayer idea is flawed. If God is omniscient/benevolent, He doesn't need us to tell Him how to improve our lot. If He automatically does the best thing just because of His own perfect nature, then He cannot really change His plans & do something worse just because we ask Him. Conversely, He will do what is best whether we ask or not. Yet He insists that we ask. The Our Father is nothing but an unabashed string of petitions with not even a word of thanks. So much for the old ACTS model of proper prayer.
    Why does He want this? We are told it is because humans need to ask & since He encourages the Father analogy, He plays along. "What father among you, if his son ask for bread, will give him a stone?" But as a parent, I'd be horrified if my children felt they had to plead for food, much less beg me not to kill them with cancer, etc.
    God seems to want to have His cake & eat it. He wants us to trust our Shepherd to supply our needs, but He also apparently wants us to ask & indeed pester Him when our idea of what we need is not being met in the way we'd like. For safety, we are taught to piously add "if it be Thy Will" just in case the particular instance is not one where He wants persistence in prayer, but one where He wants us to show Christian resignation.
    This is not just theoretical for me. Like the Syro-Phoenician woman, I have prayed for over 40 years for my disabled daughter (even before she was born & before anyone knew she'd be disabled), but I haven't been clever enough to come up with anything like the dogs-get-the-crumbs argument to persuade God into healing her or at least ceasing to let her deteriorate. When is it time to give up & decide it's a Christian resignation offer-it-up case? Just one example of many.
    I hardly dare make a petitionary prayer any more because it is getting to be a proximal occasion of sin for me. Yet if I don't, I know I'll be blamed for lack of trust. Like cagy King Ahaz, trying not to fall into what looked like a trap, I feel safer saying "I will not ask! I will not tempt(test) the Lord" and yet I'm afraid God will just be annoyed as He was with Ahaz. Again, it would sadden me if I asked my kids, "What would you like for your birthday?" & they were afraid to tell me lest it be a trick question, so they would just say, "O give us what you know is best for us, wisest of mothers, and we will be content!"
    Sorry to have nattered on so long, but you really hit a raw nerve with that one.

    1. Ah, you read beyond the verses of Scripture for this week. For the short term, Abraham did petition God to spare the lives of the inhabitants.

      I like avoiding petitionary prayer too, but I often do it and it makes me aware of others, but tell me then how you pray?

  2. The story is well known. The clichés about "fire and brimstone" surely derive from it. I actually like the part just before the reading where God is not willing to take the report of Sodom's wickedness on hearsay. He says something to the effect of "I must go down to see whether things are as bad as they say." Of course this is unashamedly anthropomorphic and theologically absurd, but it shows that the Old Testament people expected God to be no less scrupulous than their own courts when it came to condemning people on other people's testimony.
    As for how I pray, it is not good. I have a little list of standard prayers that I go through before getting up. Most days I then go to Mass (no Mass here on Tues or Thurs). I say one Rosary a day but I have to do it with a group or at least a recording because I can't concentrate on it. Throughout the day, I talk spontaneously to God, but it is often not the most pleasant conversation---plenty of kvetching and grumbling. To counteract that, I keep the Christian radio station on 24/7 in the hope that the praise and joy will rub off at least a little. I have often tried to get some spiritual direction, but so far I've never found anyone willing to do it. I wish I were better at prayer, but I figure I can't deceive God and He knows how grumpy and ungrateful I am (Whose bright idea was it to create someone like me, after all? Definitely not mine! He has to either live with it or really throw on the grace to help me correct it!) and I figure He has heard worse. He will have to be satisfied for now to know that even though I don't expect anything I would consider good from Him and even though I love Him but I don't always like Him very much, I still hang in there and try to do the stuff I am told He wants---love justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with Him. No luck so far on the last one, but 2 out of 3 is better than nothing.

    1. Scripture is complex. The readings for this week are all about persevering in prayer. Continue with those prayers where you get a response from God. And do the best type of prayer you can, breathe.....