“Ask, and You Will Receive” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, July 24, 2022

There is a wonderful story in the Book of Tobit in the Old Testament. The book describes the plight of two good and faithful people who are suffering in different ways. One of them, the man Tobit, is blinded by a tragic accident of fate. The other, Sarah, has the misfortune of having each of her seven husbands killed by a demon  .( The devil always wants to rob us of joy , to have us spend our days in misery , barely surviving, dragging ourselves through each day .)  In their separate tragedies, both Tobit and Sarah turn to God in prayer and intercession, asking for deliverance from their suffering.  We are told in the book of Tobit that “at that very moment, the prayers of both of them were heard in the glorious presence of God. So, the angel Raphael, (the angel of healing) was sent to heal both of them” (Tobit 3: 16). The rest of the story shows how God brings joy back into both their lives and heals them both, as their lives unfold and intertwine with each other.

This lovely story tells us something important about prayer. Firstly, God never ignores or puts on the shelf, any prayer for help directed towards him. As the responsorial psalm today declares:” On the day I called, O Lord, you answered me.” There is an immediate response to our prayer from God. Sometimes that response is simply “Wait “. God is bringing together several plans for healing and deliverance at one and the same time, including his plans for us and our situation, and we need to be patient as God unfolds and works out each of those plans. Even then, he doesn’t leave us hung out to dry as he asks us to wait. Our psalm today goes on to say:” On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul”. Even if we have to wait for the full answer to our prayer, he is there with us, strengthening us and enabling us to endure to the end. 

As an example of what I am talking about, I remember the story of Father Francis MacNutt, a priest with a tremendous charism or gift of healing. He was called in once to pray for a young boy with a tumorous growth in his head. He suggested that various members of the boy’s family come together to pray with him, and they did, out of the love they had for this young boy. At the end of an hour of praying, they observed that the tumour had shrunk somewhat, and that encouraged them greatly. So, Fr MacNutt suggested that they come back the following day and repeat the process, which they did, and again saw further reduction in the growth in the boy’s head. They continued like that for ten days, at the end of which the tumour had completely disappeared, but by then, the family members had become so united in faith and love by their praying together, that many disputes amongst them were resolved. You see, God could have answered their prayer straightaway and healed that boy at the first time of asking. But at the same time as bringing healing to the boy, he was also working on the much more difficult task of healing the divisions in the family, which took more time. When answers to our prayers are not seemingly answered straightaway by God, we might ask ourselves, what other things, in us and in others, could God be working on as well as the situation we are interceding for? It may be that he is working at changing our hearts, showing us how we are in part to blame for the situation we are concerned about , and how we need to repent of that, before God’s plan for healing or deliverance can come to full fruition. 

A woman I know was tremendously frustrated and angry with her husband because he was a chain smoker. She never stopped pressing him to quit smoking, pointing out its health hazards, and so on. She used tears, desperate imploring, warnings, emotional blackmail – nothing worked, her husband simply dug in his heels and refused to stop smoking, saying he was not able to quit. His smoking had become an addiction There was nothing he could do about it. One day, while she was pouring out her anguish to the Lord in prayer, she had a revelation. She went to her husband and said:” The Lord has shown me that I was wrong to take out on you my frustration and anger over your smoking. I am sorry that I put all that pressure on you to quit. I promise never to do that again. Please forgive me.” Her husband readily forgave her, and in a very short space of time, miraculously, he found that he was able to stop smoking. The wife’s efforts to force him to stop smoking were, in fact, getting in the way of God’s grace reaching her husband’s heart and spirit and breaking the curse of addiction off him. 

Waiting and trusting is very hard for us human beings. In this world of instant coffee, instant food, instant credit, we find it difficult to learn patience- we want it NOW!! Probably our parents, or grandparents can give us good lessons in the virtue of waiting something out, so it comes right, rather than rushing in to grab it, and thereby likely spoiling things. They can teach us that the best things in life are worth waiting for. that there is value in persistence and disciplining ourselves to patience. When it comes to prayer, and indeed , the whole Christian life, we have to learn to become marathon runners, not sprinters, in the words of the book of Hebrews , to “run with perseverance the race of life that is set before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, who begun our faith-journey and who will bring it to successful completion” (Hebrews 12: 1 – 2). In my early life, I was always more successful as a sprinter, than a marathon runner, and that extended to my spiritual life also. I expected instant holiness, and instant answers to prayer, and instant success in ministry. I have had to learn that patience is indeed a virtue, that it is not a quality I had at the beginning, but have had to grow in the discipline of, waiting and learning how to lean in on the Lord, pressing into the goals he has set for me.  I marvel at God’s incredible patience as He oversaw the slow growth of my soul over many years of my backsliding, slowness to learn what is really important in life and what isn’t, and have come to appreciate what our psalm today describes as His “steadfast love and faithfulness”  

On Friday , we celebrated the feast of Mary Magdalene, who is remembered because of that hauntingly beautiful story of her weeping outside of Jesus’ empty tomb, and wandering around in search of his body, thinking it has been taken away, until the risen Jesus appeared to her and called her by name, pausing before returning to his heavenly Father, in order to respond to her anguished prayer and show her that he was indeed alive, risen from the dead. Commenting on his story, Pope St Gregory the Great writes this:

“We should reflect on Mary’s attitude and the great love she felt for Christ; for though the disciples had left the tomb, she remained. She was still seeking the one she had not found , and while she sought, she wept; burning with the fire of love, she longed for him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see him. For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us:” Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved” At first, she sought but did not find, but when she persevered it happened that she found what she was looking for. When our desires are not satisfied, they grow stronger, and becoming stronger they take hold of their object. Holy desires likewise grow with anticipation, and if they do not grow they are not really desires. Anyone who succeeds in attaining the truth has burned with such a love’.

God wants to heal our bodies, for sure, but most of all, he wants to heal our hearts of bitterness, anger, resentment, unforgiveness and malice. All these things, says St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, “grieve the Holy Spirit” (4:30). And all these things hinder the path of God’s grace for healing in the rest of our lives. God wants to deliver us from burdensome problems in our lives- Psalm 34 :17 – 18 says “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit and rescues them from all their troubles”. But more than that, God wants to deliver us from selfishness, shallowness of faith, trust and love, self-seeking, self- serving, self-righteousness and all the other “self” sins. Instead of railing against the Lord when he seems to be dragging his feet with regards to a particular situation we have been praying about, it would be better for us to ask “Lord, is there some way in which I am getting in your way and preventing you fully answering my prayer?” 

In our gospel today, Jesus tells us that our heavenly Father wants to give us good gifts , but he will not give us something which looks good to us, but in reality isn’t – fish /snake , egg/scorpion. The best thing he wants to give us, his greatest gift to us, says Jesus, is the Holy Spirit. With that, we get all the good things God wants us to have. Prayer for the infilling with the Holy Spirit will always be answered by God. So let us pray.