HOMILY WEEK 01 04 – Year I
Balancing Prayer and Work
(Esther 14:1-14; Ps 138; Mt 7:7-12)
Many years ago, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr was inspired to open a Centre for Action and Contemplation. While he has been prophetic throughout his long career beginning with the charismatic renewal (he founded the New Jerusalem Community in Cleveland), then become an expert in scripture, the Enneagram, social justice, spirituality and the men’s movement (he founded Illuman), this last initiative has proven to be the culmination of all his ministry. It includes daily meditations sent to thousands, and a Living School involving hundreds.
Just putting action and contemplation together is prophetic, and as it happens, fits perfectly with the readings today. The gospel especially invites us to lead lives of charity that are grounded in prayer and contemplation.
In the gospel, Jesus is gathered on a hillside with his disciples, teaching them about the importance of prayer. This brings back memories of being in Galilee on our last pilgrimage to the Holy Land and on the Mount of the Beatitudes.
Traditionally, there are four basic types of prayer: petition, adoration, praise and thanksgiving. In this gospel, Jesus stresses the importance of the prayer of petition: Ask, and it will be given; seek, and we will find; knock, and the door will be opened.
Regarding the phrase “seek and you will find,” I believe that means we are to seek the scriptures to find out what we should pray for ideally. Here, Jesus speaks of the “good things” that the Father will give us. In Luke 11:13, he is more specific: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” The best of the good things the Father can give us is the Holy Spirit. In a way, all we have to pray for is the gift of the Spirit and all the rest will be taken care of. Can we trust like that?
Step 11 of the 12 Step program is very similar: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God … praying only for the knowledge of God’s will for us, and the power to carry that out.” Can we trust like this also?
Esther in the first reading is a wonderful example of the prayer of petition well prayed. In her desperation, she first praises God and leans on her faith in God. Then she lives the classical definition of prayer – lifting up our minds and hearts to God. Finally, she pours out her need and prays from the heart her petition to God to save her and her people from a desperate situation engineered by a devious enemy. And God hears her prayer and answers it.
Then, the bottom line of the gospel adds a whole additional element to the reading – the need for action: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” This is known as the Golden Rule, and is a call to action. Out prayer remains rather superficial until we, in a sense, become the answer to our own prayer, and try to live out the very thing we prayed for. That is what Esther does – having prayed, she then trusts in her intuition, summons up the gift of courage that God gave her through her prayer, and finds a way to reverse the scheme against her and her people.
Along that same line, Gerhard Lohfink, in his book Prayer Takes Us Home, says this about the prayer of petition: “Its only purpose is to change the petitioner. Prayer for the hungry makes sense only if it awakens our social conscience. Our prayer for the hungry must lead to action for them. Only then is it legitimate. We are to be changed by our petitions.”
Searching the scriptures can reveal very clearly what we are to do, once we have been grounded in prayer. The teachings of Jesus can be summed up as follows:
- Love God with your whole being (the Great Shema of Israel).
- Love your neighbour as yourself (St. Paul boils the whole bible down to this line in Galatians 5:14).
- Love one another as I have loved you (This raises the bar even higher).
- Love your enemies (This is the ultimate – forgiving our enemies, possible only to those grounded in prayer and filled with the Holy Spirit.)
- Do to others as you would have them do to you (the Golden Rule).
The importance of this action is underlined both after Jesus teaches the Great Commandment and the Golden Rule: these actions truly include the whole bible – all the law and the prophets, as Jesus put it.
The Eucharist is prayer that grounds us in God’s love for us, through Word and Sacrament. It then commissions us to go out, filled with the Holy Spirit, to give our lives away by caring for others – balancing contemplation and action.