17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Janah Hattingh
My dear friends, do you know what it takes to adopt a child as your own? Do you know what the adoption process is like? Perhaps some of you do. The story is told of a married couple who, out of the kindness of their hearts, decide to adopt an orphan boy from a foreign country. Just to give him a better life. As you might expect, there are considerable legal procedures to go through. Official documents to file. Governmental departments to satisfy. Both in the foreign country as well as in their own. But even after all the official hurdles have been crossed, the process isn’t complete. In fact, as the couple soon realise, it has only just begun.
For even after the law already recognises the boy as their son, the child himself needs more time to do the same. Having spent the early years of his life in an orphanage, the boy is used to having to fend for himself. He’s constantly on guard. Always wary of strangers. So when his new parents first take him into their home, he keeps to himself. Not only does he not speak, he also starts to steal. Nothing of great value really. But simple things. Like an apple. Or a slice of bread. A spoon. Or a mug. He quietly takes these things, and hides them away. Saving them for a rainy day.
Patiently, his adoptive parents help him to understand that he is now their son. A member of their family. That he belongs in their home. And that they are responsible for caring for him. That they want only what’s best for him. So that whatever he needs, he has only to ask them for it. He doesn’t have to steal. It takes him a while. But gradually the boy begins to come around. He stops stealing and learns to ask for the things he needs.
Of course, like any good parents, the couple don’t always give him what he wants. Sometimes they refuse. For his own good. But just by learning to ask for what he needs, the boy receives something far more precious than the things for which he asks. Something that children of good parents often take for granted. He learns what it feels like to belong to a family. To have a home. To be able to entrust his life to people who love him. In learning to ask his parents for what he needs, the boy receives the one thing that he needs perhaps most of all. He learns what it means to truly be a son.
My dear friends, I tell this story because it helps me understand something in our Mass readings that may at first seem rather puzzling. As you’ve probably already noticed, the readings are about prayer. Especially petitionary prayer. The kind of prayer where we ask God for what we need. For ourselves and for others. The readings tell us not only that we should ask, but also how to ask.
In the gospel, Jesus says ask, and it will be given to you search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you… And the Lord also says that, if we ask and search and knock persistently, without giving up, we will receive. For the one who asks always receives; the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will always have the door opened to him. Don’t you find it striking, sisters and brothers? How the word always is repeated? Again and again. And yet, isn’t this precisely what makes the reading difficult to understand?
For Jesus seems to be saying that we have only to keep asking God for what we want, and God will always give it to us. But is this true? Is this what we experience in our own lives? If I were to ask God for a million dollars, will I really receive it? If so, then why do we even bother to do any fund-raising? As we will be doing at our parish carnival next week. And if I don’t always get what I ask for, then is Jesus mistaken? Or, worse, could he be misleading us? Even lying to us? What do you think, sisters and brothers?
I’m not sure, but I think the problem here is that I misunderstand what Jesus is saying in the gospel. Jesus is not saying that I will get whatever I ask God for. What he is saying is that I will receive if I ask. But receive what? Not necessarily the exact thing for which I ask. Just as that adopted child in the story doesn’t always get what he asks for from his parents. In the gospel, Jesus says that the heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. And it’s important for us to understand the role and function of the Holy Spirit.
You may recall that, at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the virgin Mary conceives Jesus in her womb. This is what the Spirit does. It enables Mary to bear Christ, the only-begotten Son of God. But that’s not all. The same Spirit who produces in Mary the life of God’s Son, also reproduces the very same life of Christ in each one of us who have been baptised. So that, in Christ, we all become adopted sons and daughters of the Father.
Isn’t this what the second reading is telling us? You have been buried with Christ, when you were baptised; and by baptism, too, you have been raised up with him…. He has overridden the Law, and cancelled every record of the debt that we had to pay… In other words, by his Dying and Rising, Christ has satisfied all the legal requirements for our adoption as children of God. But that’s not the end of it. It’s only the beginning. For, like the boy in our story, we ourselves need time to learn what the Law already recognises. And this is why we need the Holy Spirit. It is by the Spirit, that we learn what it means to be adopted children of our heavenly Father.
Isn’t this why St. Paul can write, in the letter to the Romans, that we have all received the Spirit of adoption, enabling us to cry out, 'Abba, Father!’ (8:15)? For by giving us the Holy Spirit, our heavenly Father helps us to realise our own identity, our dignity, as His adopted children. And, like that adopted boy in our story, we receive this precious gift by learning how to ask our Father for what we need. The more we ask, the more we open ourselves to receive the Spirit. And the more we become children of God.
Which helps us to understand what is really going on in the first reading. Here Abraham begs God to show mercy to the people of Sodom. And yet, although God gives in to all of Abraham’s demands, Abraham doesn’t actually receive what he wants. For he wants God to spare the city. But, unfortunately, not even ten just people can be found there So Sodom is destroyed. Does this mean then that, for all his persistence in asking, Abraham receives nothing from God? No. By interceding so fervently for the people of Sodom, sinful though they are, Abraham shows himself to be a true son of God. He demonstrates that he is merciful, as his heavenly adopted Father is merciful. By asking God for what he wants, Abraham becomes more and more an adopted child of God.
All of which should help us to understand the true and deeper significance of petitionary prayer. We engage in it not to manipulate God into giving us what we want. But more to allow ourselves to learn what it means to be adopted sons and daughters of a merciful and loving God. We pray not in order to change God’s mind. But to allow God to change our hearts. Remaking us more and more into the image of God. Reproducing in us more and more the life of Christ, the only-begotten Son of God.
My dear friends, if it is indeed true that prayer is not so much a tactic for manipulation as a process of adoption. Then what must we do to allow ourselves to be transformed, more and more, from mere orphans into true sons and daughters of God, our loving and merciful Father today?