It’s quite obvious that most of the praying done by us Christians is prayer of petition – asking God to grant favors or work miracles or support us in our plans. That’s quite natural: we are always in need of more than we think we can accomplish on our own and so we appeal to God, as pagans appeal to the forces of nature or to their invented gods, or as others resort to lucky charms and superstitious practices. It can’t be wrong to ask God to act on our behalf: the history of the human race’s relationship with God is filled with such requests. Even Jesus left us, his followers, an asking prayer, the “Our Father,” as we call it and which we’ll be saying again together in just a few minutes.
However, while recognizing the legitimate place of petitionary prayer in the life of a Christian, we must emphasize that its most perfect expression is what we find in that beautiful prayer of King Solomon, which we just heard in the excerpt from the Hebrew Book of Kings. Solomon asked but one favor of God, and that was the power to know always what would be the right thing to do in order to serve the people well and to please God. Solomon was overwhelmed by the enormity and the complexity of the kingly office he had inherited from his father, King David, and saw himself as too young, too inexperienced, too lacking in knowledge to rule wisely. And so he begged, not for personal riches or for victory in battle or even for a long and healthy life, but for wisdom and understanding so that he could rule with justice and compassion. To this day he is honored for that remarkable goodness of character.
Have you ever been told by someone that he or she has prayed for you for a long time? I have, often. I remember that, when I reported for my 20-year assignment as pastor at St. Brendan’s in Clifton 39 years ago, among the lovely greetings of welcome I received was that of a woman who told me that she had prayed for me every day of the previous eleven years, ever since the day we first met. I can’t tell you, as I couldn’t tell her way back then, how much that meant to me. Many times since, I’ve wondered how much of the strength and wisdom that job demanded came through the caring prayers of people like her.
Was it Plato or Aristotle or some other Greek (I can never keep those sages straight) who said that we do not achieve wisdom until we reach the age of 50? But we pray, and others pray for us, and we ask the Spirit of God within us to guide us in the way of wisdom even before we have attained it sufficiently ourselves. We ask to be able to interpret the events of our life more objectively, freer of personal prejudice. We ask to understand the meaning and eventual purpose of everything we experience. We ask to remain confident, patient, peaceful, especially in times of great personal stress and bewilderment, in times of sorrow and fear and disappointment. Prayers like these are answered always – but we have to trust enough to voice them.
The Gospel passage today is about the Kingdom of God – hidden among and within us, found by persons of faith — the Kingdom about which Jesus said, Seek it first and everything else will be given to you. How do we pray? What do we ask for? The Kingdom of God is recognized wherever there are justice and mercy and kindness and forgiveness and peace and patience and love. Our prayer should always reflect those concerns above all others. Jesus assures us that every particular need of our own complicated lives will be provided if we ask first for wisdom and understanding as the underpinnings of justice and love.