Everyone who listens
to my father and learns from him
On the way out of church following Mass one Sunday morning, a parishioner approached the priest who had celebrated Mass and asked, “Can I speak with you for a moment, Father?”
“Sure,” the priest said. “Let’s go into the sacristy where we will have some privacy and where it will be a little more quiet.”
Once inside the sacristy, as the priest was taking off his vestments and placing them into the closet, he asked the parishioner, “So, what is it you want to discuss?”
The parishioner began what ended up being a somewhat lengthy lesson about the importance of prayer and of being persistent in prayer. A bit agitated, the priest finally said in a somewhat impetuous tone, “Yes, yes, I know. That’s all very important for our spiritual lives. So, what’s the bottom line?”
“Well,” the parishioner said, “I’ve been praying and praying for years about something I think is important. After all of these prayers and all of these years, when is God finally going to answer me?”
The priest thought for a moment, looked the parishioner in straight in the eye, and said, “So, what is it you don’t understand about ‘No’?”
Prayer and persisting in prayer are very important to our spiritual lives. But, as this joke reminds us, we oftentimes pester God in what we call “prayer” about great everything would be if God would just make everything how we want it to be. It’s almost as if we use prayer not to open our minds and hearts to God by revealing our struggles, hopes, fears, and our need for God’s grace—the truth about who we are as God’s creatures—but to engage God in an arm wrestling match to get God to see and do everything our way. After all, we reason, the world would be such a better place if we were in charge! Or, at a minimum, we us prayer in an effort to convince God to be on our side, to see things our way and on our terms and, then, to give us what we want…on our schedule.
Spiritual problems emerge, however, when we don’t get what we want and on our schedule. In fact, it’s gets a little worse than that. When God is silent to our all of our conniving and pleading when what we really want are immediate answers to our prayers, we are tempted to blame God, to give up on God or, as the joke suggests, to continue pestering God even though God has already given us an answer. As the priest said to the parishioner, “What is it you don’t understand about ‘No’?”
The spiritual problem this joke points to is that even though we may believe we’re praying, we really aren’t praying. How do we know this? It’s simple: we’re talking at God not listening to God and we’re certainly not learning from God. As Jesus said in today’s gospel, “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” We may believe that we’re praying, but because we’re not listening and we’re certainly not learning from God’s silence, we can’t possibly be praying because we keep returning to God with the “same old, same old” rather than coming to Jesus to be nourished and strengthened in holiness by the Bread of Life.
So, what does all of this mean for us who know, as St. Paul reminds us, that we need to root out from our hearts all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, reviling and malice so that we will become kinder, more compassionate, and forgiving?
Let’s consider Elijah the prophet, who was badgering God, as we heard in today’s first reading.
A man who was truly generous in spirit, Elijah accepted God’s call and agreed to undertake the very dangerous task of confronting King Ahab, who had turned from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to embrace the god of his wife, Queen Jezebel. Leaving his family and work behind, Elijah journeyed through the harsh desert to the royal court. Lo and behold, Elijah convinced King Ahab to return to the God of his fathers. But, Ahab’s wife, the cunning Queen Jezebel, resented Elijah’s success in turning her husband away from her god. Filled with bitterness, fury, anger, reviling, and malice, Jezebel swore out a death sentence upon Elijah. Fearing for his life, the prophet fled to the desert.
That’s the background for today’s first reading.
Despite his success, Elijah now is sitting out in the middle of the harsh desert beneath a broom tree, trying to keep cool while hiding from Jezebel’s minions who are out for Elijah’s head and the bounty it will bring. Sitting beneath that tree, Elijah certainly had to be wondering why God was doing this to him because, after all, Elijah reasoned, he did exactly what God had asked him to do. For doing this, why should Elijah have a price put on his head? Growing despondent over this negative turn of events, the prophet’s prayer has taken the form of a complaint: “Why do I even bother? I do what God asks! And this is my reward?” Then Elijah says, “Just let me die here and get it all over with.”
In the face of God’s silence, Elijah continues to complain to God how Elijah had given it his all. But now, sapped of strength with no water or nourishment in sight, Elijah is quickly losing faith in God, his vocation, and in himself. Whereas Elijah had believed that doing everything God had asked would bring a life of happiness and bliss, events in Elijah’s life since doing what God had asked seem to be teaching a different, more cynical lesson. All of this leads Elijah to pray that God will leave Elijah alone to die. The prophet’s hope is that death will provide an escape route from the anguish and misery he is experiencing.
Looking upon Elijah’s plight, this isn’t simply the stuff of some obscure Jewish prophet who lived some 2800 years ago. No, it’s the real stuff of our lives 2800 years later. Elijah’s story provides instructive guidance concerning how—despite God’s silence—our prayers have already been answered.
Think about these examples.
What serious and honest person has entered marriage without firmly believing that “this is it,” only to discover through the rough and tumble of married life that the dreams quickly fade and one’s hopes don’t glimmer and shimmer quite as brightly as they once did? Then, hard as one tries, the temptation to despair taps this spouse on one’s should as does the temptation to lose faith in God and in one’s vocation. But, like Elijah, have you found yourself complaining to God—ooppsss, I mean “praying” to God and in the silence asking—“Why do I even bother? I do what God asks! And this is my reward? Just let me die and get it over with.”
Or, what parents—peering into the eyes of one’s newborn child—don’t have visions about how wonderful it will all be as the perfect parents, with the perfect kid and, even, being the Holy Family itself, only to discover that it doesn’t quite work that way. Suddenly, a parent becomes aware or is made aware about a child’s imperfections or how you act just like your Mom or Dad did when you were a know-it-all, recalcitrant kid, just like your child is now? Like Elijah, have you ever found yourself complaining to God—ooppsss, I mean “praying” to God and asking in the silence—“Why do I even bother? I do what God asks! And this is my reward? Just let me die and get it over with.”
What young person—watching television or observing friends and seeing everything that everyone else has and that you desperately want—doesn’t have visions about how wonderful it would be if only you had other parents and grew up in a different house where you had all the trinkets and toys and baubles you could ever want? Then, suddenly, you realize you never will have all of these things, that your parents are your parents, and that your home is your home with nowhere else to go. Some young people get depressed by such thoughts. Like Elijah, have you ever found yourself complaining to God—ooppsss, I mean “praying” to God and asking in the silence—“Why do I even bother? I do what God asks! And this is my reward? Just let me die and get it over with.”
The spiritual issue Elijah’s plight addresses focuses upon a delusion, namely, we believe that when make God’s way our way, our lives will be filled with ease, comfort, and bliss certainly not personal sacrifice. But, that’s simply not the case, as Elijah’s experience attests, as Jesus’ rejection attests, and as our own experience as spouses, parents, and as young people attests. As we struggle and work at fulfilling our vocation and as we live our lives trying to be good and holy people, that is when we discover not the “Land of Oz” we believe God owes us—if only God would answer our prayers—but we discover our limitations, our imperfections, and our restive need for the Bread of Life.
But, if we just listened to and learned from God’s silence rather than returning to God with the same old complaints—remember what Sigmund Freud said psychosis was, namely, “Knowing that something doesn’t work and keeping on doing it again and again and again”—we’d come to Jesus. Rather than complaining like Elijah, we’d discover Jesus—the Bread of Life—ready to nourish us. And, unlike like Elijah who was sitting there in the desert and despairing, we’d also discover when we come to Jesus—the Bread of Life—ready to strengthen us. Thus, rather than demanding that God do something for us, we’d come to Jesus—the Bread of Life—who will nourish and strengthen us to do something for God!
This raises two issues to consider. First, why do we persist in demanding God to give us candies and sweets—that may offer a jolt of energy but provide no substantive nourishment—when God has already given us the Bread of Life? Second, why do we persist in demanding that God take away our problems and difficulties when God has already given us the Bread of Life to show us how to deal with our problems and difficulties? Is it that we are trying to avoid the heavy lifting—the personal sacrifice—that comes with embracing the Cross?
Jesus proclaims in today’s gospel, “I am the bread of life.” When we listen to God and learn from God’s silence, we come to Jesus who provides us the nourishment and strength we need if we are to fulfill our vocations. This Bread of Life—the word of God contained in Sacred Scripture and the Body and Blood of Christ that is the Sacrament of the Eucharist—is the true source of our nourishment and it the only source of strength along the pathway of our vocations as we encounter problems and difficulties.
As St. Paul says to the Ephesians, praying means being “imitators of God, as beloved children, who live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.” What grieves God is when we talk to God, not listening to or learning from God and, then, not coming to Jesus to be nourished and strengthened in holiness by the Bread of Life. Yes, we talk to God—calling it “prayer”—but we don’t imitate Jesus by removing all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling from our hearts, along with all malice. Yes, we talk to God, but we aren’t kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven us in Christ. It isn’t difficult at all to understand why God is grieved by the aroma of this offering which requires no personal sacrifice on our part.
It’s not by demanding that God take our problems and difficulties away—whether they are the problems and difficulties associated with marriage, raising children, or growing up within a family—that we fulfill our vocations. No, it is by listening to God, learning from God’s silence, and coming to Jesus to be nourished and strengthened by the Bread of Life that we fulfill our vocations.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus said. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down form heaven so that one may eat it and not die.” Nourished and strengthened by the Bread of Life, instead of demanding that God do something for us, we will do something for God by making a sacrificial offering of ourselves to God, what St. Paul calls “a fragrant aroma.” And what is that? We will work and sacrifice to remove all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling from our hearts, along with all malice, and be kinder, more compassionate, and forgiving people.
Each year, the people at Magnificat® produce a companion edition for the season of Advent. Similar to a what older Catholics may remember as a "prayer book," the companion edition contains all sorts of prayers, readings, reflections, art, and activities for every member of the family to prepare each day of the season of Advent for the coming of Christ at Christmas.
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Does today’s homily raise any
question(s) that you would like