Father Donald Senior, CP

‘We forgive everyone in debt to us’

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

July 24: 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Gn 18:20-32; Col 2:12-14; Lk 11:1-13

Combined, the readings for this Sunday provide us with a powerful lesson on the meaning of persistent prayer. In our first reading, we have another vivid Abraham story from the Book of Genesis. Last Sunday we heard about the mysterious visitors who bring the divine presence to Abraham and Sarah, promising them they will bear a son even in their very old age. “Nothing is too wonderful for the Lord,” one of the visitors insists, even as Sarah laughs out loud at the prospect of her 90- year-old womb being able to bear new life.

This week those same visitors linger until the Lord expresses concern about the outcry he is hearing against the grave sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. Few other stories in the Bible present God in such very human terms.

When Abraham realizes that God is very angry, he begins to bargain with God — in a manner any good Middle Eastern shopkeeper today would understand! “What if there are 50 innocent people in the city, would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it for the sake of the fifty innocent people within it?”

Abraham pushes the envelope even further, reminding God that he is supposed to be just! “Far be it for you to do such a thing, to make the innocent die with the guilty so that the innocent and the guilty would be treated alike! Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?”

Scolded by his own creature, God relents. “Okay, for the sake of 50 innocent people, I will spare the whole place…” What about 45? Abraham stretches his luck. What if there are “only 40” innocent there? Or even 30? What about 20? Now Abraham goes for broke: What if there are at least 10 there? “OK,” God replies, “For the sake of those 10, I will not destroy it.” His anger beaten back, God relents and forgives!

Now we move to the Gospel selection, one of the richest texts on prayer in all the New Testament. When Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray, just as John the Baptist taught his disciples, Jesus teaches them the Lord’s prayer. This same prayer is found in Matthew’s Sermon the Mount (6:9-13) but Luke’s version is briefer and more direct. God’s name is praised, the kingdom of God is longed for, we ask for daily bread and, above all — echoing Abraham’s conversation with God — we pray for forgiveness, just as we forgive others.

The rest of Jesus’ instruction is about persevering in prayer. He tells the story of the man who gets out of bed at midnight when his neighbor knocks on his door to borrow three loaves of bread for a visitor. The man finally gets up not because of friendship but to get his neighbor to quit knocking.

Jesus tells his disciples, ask and you will find, knock and the door will be opened. No parent would ever give his son a snake to eat when he asks for a fish, or a scorpion when he asks for an egg. Of course not, Jesus’ disciples must have been thinking. “How much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

Why this emphasis on persistence in prayer? God is not deaf. It is not so much a matter of changing God’s mind as it is shaping our spirit. Habitual, earnest prayer changes our hearts and minds. It reminds us of God’s goodness. It forms a “habit of the heart” that will spill over into action.

When I reflected on these readings I thought of the remarkable incident where the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, forgave the man who in October 2006 brutally murdered five of their children while at school. The Amish went to the killer’s funeral and provided funds to his bereft wife and children. When asked why, one of them said: “Forgiveness is part of our life. Each day we pray the Lord’s Prayer — ‘forgive as you are forgiven.’”


  • scripture