I have just been to a week-long retreat in preparation for my priestly ordination next month. I did it in Sevenhill, a Jesuit Retreat Centre situated in Clare Valley South Australia. It is a very conducive place for prayer and reflection not only because of its historic buildings or of its acres of vineyards, or of its historic winery (which produces world-class wines), but also because of the serenity of the place, of its beautiful scenery. It is so peaceful and quiet, that I have actually forgotten my worries beforehand.
My first impression was that I would really enter into the retreat mode quite easily due to the tranquillity of the place. However, it was not really the case. The external factors are less important than the inner disposition. And I have to admit that I always find it challenging and even at times difficult to look at my inner and real motivation for whatever I am doing. Anyhow, I told my director that my expectation for the retreat is to be spiritually prepared for my upcoming priestly ordination. But it’s too general an expectation. My director suggested I would pray with the Scriptures (typical Ignatian Spiritual Exercise) to be enlightened somehow.
I prayed on the first day, nothing was made clear then. Second day, nothing happened. Thankfully on the third day, I realized that the grace I was actually asking for is ‘to be closer to Jesus.’ It was an insight for me, because I thought as a priest, I really need Jesus. I need to have Jesus in my heart. I need to be closer to him, because it is Him whom I am representing to as a priest. I need to be closer to him, because he is the one whom I am going to preach about, not myself. It took me three day to realize this.
Friends, in our gospel for this Sunday, it took three times for the Canaanite woman to plead before Jesus to help her in her need. He ignored her at first. But she continued, “Lord help me.” And Jesus answered her, “I am only sent for the lost sheep of Israel.” The Canaanites are considered enemy of the Jews, and outsider. And yet, here she is begging Jesus, a Jew, to help her. She pleaded for the third time, and Jesus said to her quite harshly, “It’s not fair for the children if the food is thrown to the ‘dogs.’ Jesus here did not even refer her as ‘other sheep’ or an ‘outsider’ but a ‘dog.’ Yet this did not discourage the woman, she went on pleading until Jesus was moved to answer her prayer because of her firm faith in Jesus as the only who can help her daughter.
Jesus in our gospel today reminds us not only to persevere in our prayer in faith and with hope, but to make this gospel as a checklist on our attitude towards prayer. Jesus is asking us today, “Do you have faith in me?” Obviously we answer ‘yes’ otherwise we would not come to him in prayer. But he would go on asking us. “But what is our attitude towards prayer?”
The gospel has four answers for us here today.
First, be patient. When we pray, we can only expect one of the three replies from God. Yes, if what we are asking is in accordance to his will and it is for our good and for the good of everyone. No, if what we are asking of God is contrary to his command to love him and one another. And maybe, if what we are asking is not appropriate for us or for the person we are praying for at this very moment, but is beneficial for us later on. We just have to be patient.
Second, is to acknowledge that we need God’s mercy. This is what the Canaanite woman did. She recognizes her need of God’s mercy so she came to Jesus even if she is not one of the Jews. Her need of mercy enables her to transcend the barrier- the gap of race or colour, and because of this daring move, Jesus met her along the way. He also transcended the barrier, even if he said he is only sent for the lost sheep of Israel. We need God’s mercy whoever we are, rich or poor. No one of us can say with all honesty, we don’t need God’s mercy. As long as we still commit sins, as we always are inclined to, we really need God’s mercy. We really need to pray always, ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
Third is to acknowledge our helplessness before God. The Canaanite woman said, ‘Lord, help me.’ She couldn’t do anything more. She needs help and Jesus is the only one who can help her in her problem, so she came to him. Many times, in our life, when we need help, we don’t turn to God. We however turn to our ‘gods’ to our ‘demi-gods’, such as alcohol, pornography, drugs, and many others that are not really helping us at all. Instead of giving us life, they took our lives away. But our God is always there to help, we just ask him and trust that he would help us.
Fourth is to acknowledge our ‘littleness’. Jesus refers to the ‘outsiders’ (non-Jews) in our gospel today as ‘dogs’. That’s an insult for the Canaanite woman. But she accepted it in faith, in fact she used it as a way to get to the heart of Jesus. “But Lord, even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table.” And that humble admission of one’s littleness even nothingness moves Jesus to heal her daughter, all because she came to him in faith.
So as we continue in our reflection for this Sunday, let’s examine our prayer.
Are we patient, humble and faithful enough in our prayers even if it takes days, months or even years before our prayers are answered?
But more importantly: ‘Are all our prayers, leading us closer, more intimately and forming a real relationship with Jesus?’
If all our prayers lead us closer to Jesus, then all our prayers are answered. We don’t need anything more.
So let’s make this our prayer then: ‘LORD, draw me closer to you everyday in my life. Amen.’