What do you think of today’s Gospel? There are three parts to it. It starts off rather nicely with Jesus teaching his disciples – that is, us - the Lord’s Prayer. It ends with an exhortation by Jesus for us to pray. “Ask and you will receive.” That’s nice too. But in the middle is a strange story of a guy trying to borrow three loaves of bread at midnight. This parable is only in St. Luke’s Gospel. And it is kind of weird.
What are we to make of this story??? ¿That since the friend in question will not give the loaves to the guy out of friendship, he will do so out of frustration, just to get rid of the guy? The annoying neighbor’s persistence is rewarded. Fr. Carroll Stuhmueller, a famous scripture scholar, says that the word translated as “persistence” in our reading is really better translated as “shamelessness.” I like that word. Sounds like some of our politicians. “Shamelessness.”
So, is the point that this is how God deals with us? Do we need to pester and badger God into responding? Do we just shamelessy have to wheedle and nag and aggravate God, till finally it is easier for God to give in to our demands than it is to continue to listen to our moaning and groaning?
Well, it is, after all, an effective tactic. Children seem to know innately, instinctively, the value of shameless persistence. If they get told "NO" the first time, they then begin the siege of whining, begging, pleading, nagging, and asking: "Why not, huh, Mom? Can I, PLeeease? Billy can, can I Mom, huh?, Pleeeeeeease?"
Why do kids do this? Because it works! Like in the Gospel, the man's friend at midnight finally caves in to get some peace. A crude tactic, but effective.
Is this how we are to approach God? Welll... Yes and no. You see, it is about relationship. The shameless neighbor is counting on his friendship, his relationship with the man in bed. Children when they do this are counting on their relationship with their parents when they resort to this. Jesus is using some Middle-Eastern exaggeration here to urge us to count on our relationship with our heavenly Father when we pray.
Prayer is not like a bureaucratic request we put into the central office at work, nor like an application we put into some government office, nor like some requisition we submit in the military. No. Prayer is much more personal. Much more familial. Much more intimate. And that is why Jesus uses this rather odd example of shameless friendship. We can rely on our relationship with God, because we are intimately related to God.
It is not Jesus' point that God must be wheedled, begged, cajoled, pleaded, bothered, nagged and harassed into responding to our prayers; but rather that if this crude tactic is effective, how much more will our Heavenly Father - who loves us more than any human parent could - respond to us: "If you, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?"
St. Matthew has basically this same saying in his Gospel, only he has "How much more will your heavenly Father give good things to anyone who asks him!" St. Luke changes the "good things" to "the Holy Spirit." That is what God will give in response to our prayers.
I am intrigued by this change of Luke's. "Good things" is pretty easy and straight forward, but "the Holy Spirit" is a mystery, and hence a little more difficult to get a handle on.
The Holy Spirit is nothing less than God's own inner life, the love that is poured out between the Father and His Beloved, the Son. This is what God gives to those who pray persistently. According to St. Paul, the results - or as he says, the fruits - of having the Holy Spirit are: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." [Gal 5:22-3].
These are the "good things" that St. Matthew talks about that God will give us: not necessarily a BMW, nor a large house, nor a big promotion, nor the latest i-phone, nor good grades, nor good weather on the weekend, but rather the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Understanding what it is that God will give us in response to our prayers helps us understand the importance of persistence in prayer. If we were praying for things, like health, or a job, or to sell our house, then once we got what we wanted, there wouldn't be any reason to keep praying. But since the Holy Spirit is not a thing, but rather a living person, the relationship has to stay alive. It is not that you get the Holy Spirit once and for all, and that is it. No, you grow deeper and deeper in relationship with the Holy Spirit, growing in "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." [Gal 5:22-3].
These gifts do not mean that our life will be easy, that God will make all the bad things go away and keep us safe - just as he did not shield His Son Jesus from pain, disappointment and hurt. But these gifts give us the strength to pass through all the dark and difficult times without becoming bitter and closed in on ourselves.
Rather, we will be able to pass through the troubles with greater compassion and love.
These gifts also give us the strength to pass through all the good times without selfishness or complacency, but instead with gratitude and joy. And that is what makes for a full life.
Jesus teaches us to pray with persistence because we can rely on God’s care for us, so that we might grow in the Holy Spirit, His Spirit, and so become more like Him.