Isaiah 38:1-6 / Matthew 8:5-13
We have begun again the season of Lent, and if yesterday has pressed upon us most directly of the three pillars of Lent the pillar of fasting, then today the Church reminds us through the Scriptures more forcefully of the pillar of prayer. We hear two accounts of petitionary prayer, both related to freedom from illness. The first is the prayer of Hezechiah who had been warned by God through the prophet Isaiah that he will die. The second is the petition made by the centurion to Jesus on account of his servant who lieth at home sick of the palsy and ... grievously tormented. Both king and soldier make a positive assertion on behalf of their claim, the king protesting his fidelity to God and the uprightness of his acts, the centurion acknowledging Jesus' unquestioned authority: For I also am a man subject to authority, having under me soldiers, and I say to this: God, and he goeth, and to another: Come, and he cometh; and to my servant: Do this, and he doeth it. Moreover, while the one asserts his own virtues and the other divine authority, both join to their petition a confession of sin, the king with great weeping, the centurion with those words placed upon the lips of the Roman Catholic faithful before receiving the Lord in Holy Communion: Domine, non sum dignus ... Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof: but say only the word and my servant shall be healed.
Now, for unbelievers, and indeed for many believers as well, petitionary prayer is something of a puzzle. Why, they wonder, would God answer prayers? It would seem to make sense only in light of reasons which are themselves objectionable and rejected by the faithful. That is, we surely do not imagine that God needs to be informed of our necessities and of those things which afflict us. Likewise, whatever may have been the case of pagan belief, Christians do not imagine that God needs to be convinced by our petitions, as if he either does not understand what we need or else is not initially inclined to assist us apart from our persuasive words and actions.
All the same, we do not think that God treats us as playthings, requiring of us arbitrarily the performance of prayer which he might as easily answer as not, but which itself is altogether unrelated to his response. Similarly, we do not think that pray has no effect at all, no connection to God's response to our stated need. While some may regard it as more fitting to God to imagine that, as he already knows our need, we ought not think to ask him for anything, that God will do as he will, and we only ought to give thanks for his goodness in whatever form it takes, we know this is not so. Why? Precisely because the Scriptures teach us otherwise. In the case of Hezekiah, the Scriptures could not be clearer: Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father: I have heard thy prayer, and I have seen thy tears: behold I will add to thy days fifteen years: and I will deliver thee and this city out of the hand of the king of the Assyrians, and I will protect it, saith the Lord almighty. In a similar way, Jesus says to his followers: Amen I say to you, I have not found so great faith in Israel, and to the centurion: Go, and as thou hast believed, so be it done to thee. Indeed, the best prayer we know, received from the Lord Jesus himself, is itself a series of petitions, of things we ask God to bring about.
The fact is that God has decreed all things to come about through means also resulting from his decree. We are nourished by eating food, learn by thinking over what we have seen, heard, and experienced, are clothed by the work of our hands, and sustained in youth, illness, and age by the kindness and care of those around us, all of which have effect by their own power not in addition to, or instead of, but rather because of God bringing them about. Some things, however, God has chosen to bring about, whether through natural causes or through his supernatural effects, in response to our prayer.
Why should God withhold some goods unless we should pray? And why, if he governs the world in this way, can we not effect some of the goods we most desire whenever we ask? While it would be foolish to imagine to know the hidden counsels of God, we can at least see two crucial effect on us of God bringing us certain goods only through prayer. First of all, it reminds us that at the root of all reality are not raw, brute facts that are just givens, so much data, but rather the personal reality that is the Holy Trinity. To respond rightly to the world, then, means to recognize that more fundamental than the natural processes we see, observe, catalogue and analyze, are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit from whom all things have their being. To know the world, and to bring about in it real change for our good, means then to appreciate the personal relating that is at the heart of all that is.
Second, the necessity of prayer prompts us to be engaged in the world, in its needs, and especially in those things that afflict us. To know about poverty is one thing. To see the hungry poor at your doorstep is something else. To know that God asks us to be the means by which such as these, and any others who suffer, will have their needs met is both empowering and challenging. It is empowering in that it frees us from the sense that we, with our meager resources, can do nothing of real good in the world; through prayer, the poor is at least as well equipped, if not all the more so, than the rich. It is challenging because it means that we must get to know our neighbors better, so that we can all the better pray for their good. Knowing that God may intend our particular prayer to meet the pressing problems of those whom we see every day, whether from across the world in the news or sitting at our front gate, means that we must rise to the occasion, to seek by prayer to accomplish what in truth costs us so little, save a humble confession to God of our needs, and the needs of the world.
O God, Who by sin art offended and by penance appeased, mercifully regard the prayers of Thy suppliant people: and turn aside the scourges of Thine anger, which we deserve for our sins.