Sunday, October 18, 2009

Be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it—ALTHOUGH YOU MIGHT NOT GET IT IN THE WAY YOU EXPECT TO!

(Twenty-ninth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 18, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 10: 35-45.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-ninth Sunday 2009]

There’s an old saying: Be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it!

As it’s written, there’s a great deal of truth in that expression.

But, based on today’s gospel story—and on my own observation and personal experience—I would maintain that a qualifying phrase should be added to that saying in order to make it completely accurate:

Be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it—although you might not get it in the way you expect to!

There are, as most of us know, three possible answers to the prayers of petition that we lift up to God: the Lord can say Yes; he can say No; or he can say Wait.

But that’s only half the story. I say this because most of the time when we ask God for something, we have our own ideas about how God should give it to us!

The problem is, our ideas about how God should supply our needs don’t always match up with his ideas on the same subject.

And this causes some people to think that God doesn’t hear their prayers, when, in fact, he does.

For example, we say to God, “Please give me patience”—and we want God to magically and instantaneously infuse that gift into our soul such that nothing bothers us anymore.

Of course, that’s not the way it usually happens. Normally when God gives us this particular gift, he also allows it to be tested—and I mean REALLY TESTED!

We say to God, “Please heal me of this illness”—and we want God to make us well immediately and directly by a special miracle.

And at times he does heal people that way.

But he also might heal us through the instrumentality of modern medicine, and only after some long and very painful therapy.

We say to God, “Please restore my relationship with my ex-friend, John; we haven’t spoken to one another in years”—and we want God to pour his grace into John’s heart, such that John immediately picks up the phone and calls us and apologizes for what he did and said to us all those years ago.

Well, maybe it will happen that way, but maybe it won’t. Maybe God will only answer that prayer after we have made the first move toward reconciliation with a letter or a phone call or a personal visit.

Sometimes God gives us what we want, but not exactly in the way we want it.

And so it was for James and John. They asked Jesus for special places in his kingdom, and, happily, they did get what they asked for! Here in this scene, of course, Jesus doesn’t commit himself on the matter, but we know for a fact that he did honor their request—their ‘prayer of petition’—because of what he said in Matthew 19. There Peter says to Jesus, “We have put everything aside to follow you. What can we expect from it?” And Jesus responds by saying, “I give you my solemn word, in the new age when the Son of Man takes his seat upon a throne befitting his glory, you who have followed me shall likewise take your places on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel.”

The Heavenly Father made it clear to Jesus that Peter, James, John and the other apostles would have special places in his eternal kingdom. So this request—in effect, this prayer of petition—that James and John made in today’s gospel was ultimately answered by Jesus with a resounding Yes; however their path to those special heavenly places was probably not what these two apostles expected.

When they made their request, they probably did not think they would have to endure great suffering beforehand, but that’s exactly the way it happened. James was the first apostle to be martyred (Herod Agrippa had him beheaded only a decade or so after the Resurrection of Jesus), and John endured a martyrdom of intense persecution throughout his life for his faithfulness in proclaiming the gospel. Both drank from the cup—the cup of suffering—from which Jesus drank.

They probably expected a much easier path to glory, a much easier ‘road to the throne’ so to speak! They accepted “the cup” willingly and eagerly in this gospel scene, but I doubt they really understood what that cup contained!

So let’s not be discouraged when we pray for good things for others, and suffering comes to them instead. In reality God might be saying Yes to our prayer, but by a different path than the one we think he should follow. God does not cause evil, but he will sometimes allow us to experience evil for the sake of a greater good.

That’s the way it was for James and John: he allowed them to experience the ‘cup’ and ‘baptism’ of intense suffering, for the sake of an eternal crown of glory.

I have known, for example, many people who have prayed for the conversions of their children who are addicted to drugs or alcohol or who are living an immoral, hedonistic, materialistic lifestyle. They pray and they pray and they pray—and nothing seems to be getting better. In fact, their children sink deeper and deeper into sin. They sincerely wonder if their prayers are falling on deaf ears. Finally their children hit rock bottom, and are on the verge of despair—but then, they turn their lives around. They open up to God; they make a humble and thorough confession; they get reconnected to the Church; they start coming to Mass again; they find a community of believers that supports them; they make ‘a complete 180’ in their lives.

Afterward, so very often, these converted men and women will say, “I’m not happy I brought all that suffering on myself and nearly destroyed my life, but I know that if I hadn’t suffered in that way—if I hadn’t hit rock bottom—I never would have changed my ways. I would have continued down the wrong path—and I probably would have ended up in hell.”

Be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it—although you might not get it in the way you expect to!

But that’s ok. At least, that’s what these converted men and women would say. And I’m sure James and John would agree with them, sitting, as they now are, on their glorious thrones in heaven.