July 28, 2019
A woman was running very late for an important meeting with her lawyer. When she arrived at the office building, even though the lot was large, she could find no place to park. After driving around uselessly for about ten minutes, she decided to pray. “Lord,” she said, “you know how important this meeting is for me. Please help me find a parking space.” She drove around for another five or ten minutes, but still nothing changed. So, she decided to sweeten the deal. “Lord,” she said, “if you find me a parking space, I’ll put 100 dollars in the collection at mass this weekend.” She drove around a bit more but still there was no room. “Lord,” she said, “this is very important to me. If you give me a parking space, I will put 500 dollars in the collection this weekend.” She drove around for five minutes more, but everything stayed the same. Finally she said, “Lord I am truly desperate here. If you give me a parking space, I’ll put a thousand dollars in the collection this weekend.” And, just as she said those words a parked car right in front of her backed up and pulled away. “Never mind Lord,” she said, “a place just opened up.”
It is easy to play games with prayer. This is true because most of us imagine prayer in an overly simplistic way. Yes, prayer is asking God for what we want, and God can give it to us. But prayer is not some kind mechanical, automatic process by which the things we want automatically appear. If every prayer was answered in the way in which it was prayed, everyone would be a believer, and every year the Indians would win the World Series.
Prayer has to be something more than simply getting the goods. This is what Jesus is showing us in today’s gospel. Now when we first hear Jesus’ words, they seem to confirm a magical notion of prayer. He says, “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.” But if we look at these words more carefully, we’ll see that any magical notion is dispelled. Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive.” But he does not say, “Ask and you will receive what you asked for.” Jesus promises that if we pray, if we ask for something, we will receive something. But what we receive is in the hands of God. This is why the most important word in today’s gospel is the word, “Father.” Payer is talking to God, but not as the creator or the all-powerful supreme being. Prayer is talking to God as our father who loves us. Therefore, in the deepest sense, prayer is bringing what we need to God and then trusting our father to act.
If you were suddenly diagnosed with cancer, you should pray. You should go to your father and say how frightened you are, how helpless you feel. You should ask for God to cure you. If you ask, you will receive. You might receive a cure, but you might receive something else, perhaps courage or a sense of peace. When people we care for are in trouble, we should pray. We should tell God how much they mean to us and how difficult their lives are because of a divorce, financial problems, or some other difficulty. If we seek help from God, we will find it. But it might be as simple as the call to help the people we love by our presence and care. If there’s something in our lives we know we need to change, we should pray. We should tell God that how our attitude of prejudice or the addiction that controls us is lessening our life and hurting others we love. If we knock on that door, it will open. It probably will not turn us immediately into a perfect loving person, but the road onto which that door opens is a road that leads to life.
Prayer is not some magical exercise. It is not a way to negotiate a parking space. Prayer is bringing our needs to our father. And the good news is this: when we approach the God who loves us, we will not be turned away empty-handed.