Jesus teaches us in today’s gospel to be persistent in our prayer. He gives us another parable about a judge and a persistent widow. And as many famous and notable Scripture scholars have pointed out over the centuries, this parable can really only be about one thing: FOOTBALL.
As you probably know, the Cowboys are playing the Packers this weekend, and so I started off this weekend making a phone call to my seminary classmate, Fr. Scott Valentyn of the Diocese of Green Bay, just to get the trash talk started. I left him a taunting voicemail on his answering machine which he has yet to return, in fact.
You see, the readings instantly reminded me of football because of our seminary’s annual Thanksgiving weekend football game, aptly named the Spaghetti Bowl. The Spaghetti Bowl is played between the first year class, the New Men, against the other three classes, the Old Men. The game usually is a lopsided victory favoring the Old Men, who have three times the numbers to draw from. It was about 15 years ago that the Spaghetti Bowl went down in history (or at least into the volumes of seminary lore) as the last time the New Men actually defeated the Old Men. At this particular game, the New Men were so determined to beat the Old Men that they decided to draw on their knowledge of Scripture to sway the odds in their favor. They actually got one guy to put on a long gray wig, a huge white beard and long robes, and he stood on the rooftop overlooking the field, with one classmate on his right and one on his left, holding up his arms for the entire game. Sure enough, through the antics of geeky seminarians, and probably due in part to the talent on the field, the New Men pulled out a historic victory over the Old Men.
Now, I know that this coming Friday is the game against Penelope and Abbott, so don’t get any ideas because I just preached this same homily over there earlier this morning!
And so it seems that prayer has the power even to sway football games in our favor. I just talked to a young woman a week ago who said, during a particularly close game between Abbott and Aquilla, that she was persistently praying Hail Mary’s throughout the last five minutes of the game. Now I’ll bet if Sunday is the day when we pray the most, Friday probably comes in a close second, whether it’s at the football game or because there’s an exam. I’ve heard it said that as long as there are exams, there will always be prayer in school.
Sometimes God seems to answer our prayers, but we’ve all had the experience of unanswered prayers. And why is that? God wants us to be happy, right? And I know what makes me happy, so why does God seem not to grant my request? Well, first of all, God is not a genie in a bottle. He’s a loving Father who grants our prayers if we ask for something that will be good for us.
But I know what’s good for me! I know what makes me happy!
Slow down there, Buckerovsky. Sometimes we don’t always see the big picture. But God does. After all, he is an all-knowing, all-seeing God.
Here’s the key: God answers prayers in one of three ways:
- not yet
- something better
Sometimes God does answer our prayers affirmatively. That should surprise us more than when He doesn’t seem to answer. It seems that when God answers our prayers, that we have somehow changed God’s mind. Let’s explore that.
For example, if I pray for rain, or maybe a new job, or to bail me out on this exam, and God answers that prayer, am I telling God what to do? Of course not. God is not under my control. Remember, He only answers our prayers if it is something good for us.
So why didn’t God just give me the good thing in the first place? Why did I have to ask for it? It has to do with God’s will. God can will whatever he wants, but he doesn’t just will good effects, he also wills the causes of those effects. And sometimes the cause is our prayer. In other words, sometimes God wishes to give us good things when we ask for them.
So, is God just playing games with us? What’s the deal with that?
I’m glad you asked, Jerry Seinfeld. To find out why God would do such a thing, let’s look at an example. Let’s say you’re 13 years old, and grandma gives you a present for Christmas. You tear into it eagerly, only to reveal that it’s perhaps the ugliest sweater you’ve ever seen. Thanks, grandma. Of course, you don’t really appreciate it, even though you know grandma loves you and it’s the thought that counts. But you still didn’t want the sweater. Now, imagine you’re 19 and you’re off at college and your dorm is having an ugly sweater contest at the huge Christmas party. There’s a $500 prize for the ugliest, tackiest sweater. NOW you really need that ugly sweater! So you happen to pick up the phone and call grandma, “Say, grandma, you don’t happen to have any ugly—I mean, festive Christmas sweaters, just, you know, lying around, do you?”
Now you appreciate the gift because you know it’s something you needed. God’s not just playing games with us, he is a good Father, who is training us to conform our wills to His. The great mystery of prayer is that it transforms us, so even when it seems like the answer to our prayers is “no,” we are left changed, molded, in a way, to God’s will. Thy will be done, not my will be done.
Then there are times when we ask for something, and it’s a long time in coming. For example, St. Monica prayed and prayed for her son’s conversion. For years she prayed, spilling so many tears over her pagan son and the immoral life he was living. Then, by the grace of God slowly and invisibly working in her son, he finally got it. He finally understood that God’s spirit was within him the whole time, but he was looking outside, as if to find God somewhere in the universe. It was if God was shouting to him, but he wasn’t listening. That son, we know as St. Augustine, one of the foremost theologians of the Church, known today as “The Doctor of Grace.” But Augustine had to come to conversion slowly, reluctantly, until he finally got it.
So St. Monica’s prayers were answered, not immediately, but eventually. You see, God sees all time as one instant. He knows past, present, and future. And so He knows when to give us the good things we ask for.
And finally, sometimes God doesn’t give us the precise thing we ask for, because he wants something so much better for us. I once heard that this young father walked into his kitchen one day only to find his 1-year-old son sitting on the floor, with a fly swatter in his hand, licking the fly swatter like it was a popsicle. Just going to town on it. So naturally, the father tried to take the dirty fly swatter away from him, and the kid starts wailing. So what did he do? He took a popsicle out of the freezer, and gave it to his son. And wouldn’t you know, the kid forgot all about the fly swatter. You see, the father didn’t take it away to be mean, he took it because he wanted something better for his son.
We don’t know God’s plan in the minute details of our lives, but we can at least trust that he has our best interest in mind.
In conclusion, the persistence of our prayer doesn’t change God’s mind, but rather, it changes us. It conforms our wills to His. The fruit of the persistent prayer is transformation from within to be more like our Heavenly Father—and that’s the best thing the Father can give to us.