Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fatigare deos ("Tiring the gods") Reflections on the Gospel of the 29th Sunday, Luke 18:1-8

Children have different ways of getting their parents to give them what they want. When I was a kid, I used to pester my parents with small notes I’d tape all over the house. And just to make sure I had all the bases covered, I’d also call up my grandparents and get them to put in a good word for me. I also made sure I behaved myself at home and school and was extra helpful in the house. When I now remember all the things I did as a child to get what I wanted, I feel rather stupid. But it always worked! I always did get what I want, usually after my parents got sick and tired of all my reminders.

The pagans of Jesus' time had a term for a similar practice. They called it fatigare deos, “tiring the gods”. They believed that their perseverance in telling the gods what they want would pay off, because the gods would eventually get sick and tired of hearing their prayers and would finally grant their requests. The story of the woman and the judge in today’s gospel reading could perhaps resemble this ancient pagan practice of “tiring the gods”. But the fact is, it’s very different! The point of Jesus’ story is precisely that we aren’t like this poor ignored woman before God, and that God is not at all like this indifferent judge. God isn’t someone who will hear and respond to us only because we’ve worn him out with our prayers.

“Consider the birds of the air”, Jesus tells us. “They neither sow nor reap. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Or look at the lilies of the field. They neither sew nor spin. Yet not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed like them”. “If you know how to give your children good things, how much more will your heavenly Father give you what you need”. Trusting in God’s wisdom is the point of Jesus’ story in today’s gospel. He asks us to trust that God knows all our needs even before we say them. “Even the hairs on your head have all been counted”, he tells us, because “God knows each one of us by name”.

We don’t have to ‘tire’ God; we have to trust him. And trusting him means two things. First, it means trusting that while he may not immediately give us what we ask for, or give us what we want, God always knows what we need, and will always give it to us when we need it.

Abraham was promised a son, and was promised to be the father of many nations. Years later, we hear him saying, “O God, what good is all my wealth if I have no son?” In due time, of course, God did give him a son. In fact God gave him not one, but two: Ishmael and Isaac; and he did become the father of many nations. In due time God responds to our prayers. And while his reply may not often be in accord with what we want, it will always be in accord with what we need and what is for the best—something that may not be as clear initially, but turns out to be so eventually.

Second, trusting in God’s wisdom also means realizing that we pray, not to tire him into giving what we ask, but to remind ourselves of our dependence on him. To persevere in prayer is to increase our trust in God, because in doing so, we increase our confidence in ourselves. The ultimate purpose of prayer is not simply to receive what we ask, but to make us strong, confident, and without fear in facing the challenges, difficulties, and hurdles life sometimes puts in our way. It makes us remember what Scripture says: “Do not fear. I have your name written on the palm of my hand”. It is when we realize the profound meaning of trust in God’s all-embracing care that we discover deep within our very selves, a power and a force capable of overcoming tremendous odds—something that is itself a gift of grace. To borrow the words of a famous atheist, “in the midst of winter,” prayer allows us to “find in ourselves, an invincible summer”.

Persevere in prayer then; because in doing so, you will realize that truly, nothing is impossible, for God; but also for yourself.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)