(Seventeenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on July 24, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Genesis 18: 20-32; Luke 11: 1-13.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventeenth Sunday 2016]
Was Abraham’s prayer answered?
He prayed for the people of Sodom in today’s first reading, asking the Lord to spare the city in spite of the great wickedness and evil that was present there. But, as we all know, the place eventually got “torched”: fire and brimstone came down from heaven at God’s command and annihilated the city—as well as everyone who lived there.
Now some might read the story of these events in Genesis 18 and 19 and say that Abraham’s prayer—his intercessory prayer for God’s mercy—was not answered.
But I would disagree with that. I would say that God did in fact answer Abraham’s prayer, even though the intention of that prayer (the saving of Sodom) was not fulfilled.
You see, there’s a difference between a prayer that’s answered and a prayer that has its intention “fulfilled.”
In this we can learn something about the intercessory prayers that we offer up for people each and every day—especially the prayers we offer up for the conversion of members of our own families.
Abraham’s desire in this story—you might say his “deepest prayer”—was that at least 10 people in the city of Sodom would respond to the grace of God in a positive way—by repenting of their sins and resolving to live in a state of righteousness before the Lord. Now he no doubt wanted the whole city to repent and get right with God, but he had been in Sodom long enough to know that that wasn’t likely to happen. So he engaged in a brief dialogue with the Lord, getting him to agree that if he could find just 10 innocent people in Sodom he’d spare everybody else.
So Abraham’s prayer was answered—God’s powerful and merciful grace was offered to all the citizens of the city—but, unfortunately, less than 10 of them allowed that saving grace to transform their lives.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
The lesson here is that when we pray for the conversion of other people—our relatives, our friends, even people we don’t know—God always offers those individuals the grace they need to say yes to him and change their lives.
In that sense, he always “answers” our prayers.
But, like the people of Sodom, the men and women we pray for can say no to that grace. And, sadly, they often do. There’s a principle that you learn when you study theology: “Grace perfects nature.” Grace doesn’t negate or override nature. And so, because God gave us a free will as a part of our human nature, his grace will never “force” us to do anything. It may prompt us to do or say certain things; it may inspire us to do or say certain things, but the grace of God will never overpower the precious gift of freedom that our Creator has given us.
I know a 25-year-old young man who has parents who have been have been on their knees for years, praying that he’ll get serious about life and start practicing his Catholic faith again. (This a very typical situation that I’m sure many of you can identify with.) We’ll call this young man John (although that’s not his real name). Now I am absolutely certain that every single time John’s parents have said a prayer for him God sent that boy a special grace. In that sense, the Lord has answered ALL their prayers. But for a long time, just like the people of Sodom, John said no to the grace he was given—until the last few months, when he’s finally begun to say yes to God’s grace and move in a positive direction. One big reason for the change is that the Lord brought a really nice girl into his life who’s motivating him to be more accountable and more responsible. It’s like the boy Bishop Sheen wrote about in one of his books. Sheen wrote, “[This young man] would not comb his hair, wash behind his ears, clean his fingernails, or come to the table with clean clothes. And when he went out the door, he always slammed it. [But then] one day he came down, hair combed, clean clothes, hands well-washed, and clean behind the ears. And when he went out the door, he closed it gently. His parents could not understand it. They had begged, coaxed, pleaded, and bribed to no avail. [What they did not realize was] he had met Suzie.”
This is why I tell parents, “If you are praying for your son’s or daughter’s conversion to the faith, or for their return to the faith, make sure that you ask the Lord in your prayer time every day to send your child a good, Catholic friend—or several of them! Like or not, the fact of the matter is that young people today will very often listen to their friends before they listen to their parents. That’s not a good thing, but it is the way it is. It’s reality. So go with reality! If your child strikes up a friendship with another young person who is Catholic, caring and moral, then that young person will probably do your work for you. He or she will motivate your child and challenge your child in a way that your child will probably be open to and responsive to—which will make it much more likely that your child will say yes to the grace God is offering him or her in response to your prayers.”
One of the reasons why many of the people of Sodom did not say yes to God’s grace was because the culture there was so corrupt. Practically speaking, this means that, if you were a person living in Sodom at the time of Abraham, in all likelihood ALL your friends (or at least the vast majority of them) were corrupt. That’s a reasonable presumption given the fact that there weren’t even 10 righteous people in the entire place. With all those negative influences, it’s obvious that repentance and conversion were highly unlikely—even among those who otherwise would have been open to change. And so, in spite of the prayer of a great saint like Abraham, the grace that God offered out of his great mercy was rejected.
His prayer was answered, but its intention was not fulfilled.
We’re living in a culture right now that in many ways is exactly like the culture of ancient Sodom and Gomorrah: hedonistic, violent and ungodly. This is the culture our young people are growing up in: almost everything they see and hear during the course of their day is pointing them away from God. Thankfully, however, they do have one very big advantage: they have more opportunities—many more opportunities—to find good, godly friends than the people of Sodom did just before their city was destroyed. The experience of John and his new girlfriend makes that fact crystal clear.
Which, of course, is great news.
But we need to pray—faithfully and persistently (as Jesus indicates we should in today’s gospel)—that the Lord will help our young people TO FIND good and godly friends and TO BE INFLUENCED by those friends in a positive way.
Then our prayer will be answered like Abraham’s was (because God’s grace will be given), and the intention of our prayer will in all likelihood be fulfilled (which Abraham’s intention for Sodom was not) because the person we love and are praying for WILL say yes to God’s grace and change their life for the better.