At the early Mass this morning, as I reached the end of the second paragraph, a young girl in the front pew yelled out, "Well, what about 5?!?"
Having grown up on a farm, I have memories of going with my dad to auctions—cattle auctions, equipment auctions. I love the back-and-forth of the auctioneer and the bidders. It’s like a game or dance—each one anticipating the next move of the other. Of course, they find themselves at cross-purposes: the auctioneer trying to get the prices higher while the bidders work hard to keep them low.
I’ve always thought of an auction when reading this Sunday’s first reading: Abraham negotiating with the Lord over just how many righteous people it will take to keep Sodom from being destroyed. “How about 50? Would that be enough? Or 45—can I get 45? How about 30? 20? Will you give me 10?”
But reading that passage again as I prepared for Mass this Sunday, a new and different image came to mind: the audacity of a little child trying to “negotiate” something with his father. “Dad, you know I’d love an ice cream cone. Can I have one if I’m good all day? Of course, all day is a long time…so how about if I’m good this morning? Or for the next hour? Would 10 minutes be enough?” I can see the child moving in as he makes his case: closer and closer, eventually climbing into his father’s arm’s, wrapping his arms around dad’s strong neck, and then leaning in to whisper into his ear. The boy’s got one thing on his mind: getting that ice cream cone! But what does dad have to gain? Ten minutes of good behavior—maybe? What the father gets is what he wants the most: to have his son draw closer and closer to him.
Jesus gives his disciples—gives us—a lesson in persevering prayer. He tells us to keep on asking, to keep on seeking, to keep on knocking past midnight, if we must. He tells us to ask the Father each day for our daily bread. But why must we be so persistent? Is it because God is stubborn? Or hard of hearing? Is heaven so far from earth that our messages rarely make it through?
Most of us approach prayer prepared to bargain. We pray as if it’s a matter of us getting through to God; in fact, prayer is really all about God getting through to us. We focus on what it is we hope to get; God is focused on to whom he can get close. We can act as if prayer is a retail transaction, but to God, it’s all about deepening a relationship.
Our patron, St. André Bessette, understood this well. Br. André used to say, “When you say to God, ‘Our Father,’ he has his ear right next to your lips.” We move in close to seal the deal—to win what we’re after—and God does the same: he longs to make us ever more his own.
How about you? Do you pray to God as the Great Auctioneer in there Sky, hoping to convince him that you're making an offer he can't refuse? Or do you pray like a child who puts full trust in his loving Father?
If you read a bit further into Genesis, you discover that Abraham did not actually win the auction: there weren't 10 innocent souls to be found, and Sodom was destroyed for its many sins. (The righteous were lead to safety before the destruction began.) But Abraham did come to know the Lord much better through their back-and-forth exchange. He discovered that God is just—not willing to sweep away the innocent right along with the guilty. And he discovered that God is also merciful—giving one opportunity after another to flee from sin, to be converted from death-dealing to live-giving ways. And Abraham discovered that God comes ever-so-close to his children—close enough to hear and respond to their every call for help.
When you pray, give up on trying to bargain with God. Instead, draw close to him, and he’ll draw close to you (James 4:8). Never tire of whispering into your Father’s ear.