People suffering with some misfortune are often told “Pray. It really works.”
Some might argue this is a bit disrespectful. To God, I mean. Trying to make something work requires calculation and assumes some level of control on our part. “If I do this, something good will happen.” Seems a bit manipulative—like carrying a good luck charm in your pocket in case of emergency.
Life is neither magic nor science. It’s the art of God at work in us. God doesn’t promise magic in response to our will. The problem with praying that OUR will be done is explained in the Book of James (JAMES 4:3)
“You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. … “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Maybe instead of “prayers work” we should advise “work your prayer.” Praying for God’s grace in good times and bad keeps us in his presence. We may suffer, whether because of cancer or Covid, but our God offers companionship and empathy through all trials. This knowledge sustained St. Paul during his journeys, as he told the Corinthians (2Corinthians 12:7-9)
“A thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’”
If more people recognized the grace of God at work in them, that power would “work” like a network. Paul exemplified the power of sustained faith in God throughout his ministry, and he helped people share that grace with others. The Philippians to whom he ministered used the power of that grace to help Paul through his own trials, as he testifies in Sunday’s second reading (PHIL 4:12-14):
I know how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I can do all things in him who strengthens me. Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.
Sharing is key to God’s grace—and to his kingdom. After all, Jesus said that kingdom was among us. His grace is a constant presence, not something we keep hidden and only call upon to “work” according to our will. God offers it through good AND bad times. Who would reject it? Maybe those who don’t recognize His grace as offered. Did an acquaintance ever invite you over for a visit and you just didn’t feel like going—but you went anyway and ended up having the time of your life? Sunday’s gospel reading is kind of like that—only the invitees didn’t only reject the invitation, they rejected the inviter. Jesus composed this parable from firsthand experience with rejection (MAT 22:1-10):
“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those invited: Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.’ Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests.”
Some of Jesus’ best friends came from among that street crowd, many of whom had sordid pasts. But God’s grace flowed from Jesus, into them and through each other. Like Paul, we can be both receptors and a conduit of God’s grace. In that way, we are called to be God’s answer to each other’s prayers. Prayers “work” to strengthen our hearts and to power our works.