Perfecting Prayer

Fr. Nathaniel Dreyer, IVE
Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Today’s Gospel presents us with Christ in Cana in Galilee, and a royal official who comes to asks for a miracle on behalf of his son. Yet Jesus gives the man a surprising response, and the official repeats his request, which is then answered. There’s a lot we could say about this passage, but one of the most beautiful teachings, and most pertinent to this Lenten season, is about prayer. John gives us two insights into the official’s prayer, two elements that need to be corrected, and then shows us how Christ responds to sincere and humble prayer.

Regarding the official’s prayer we should first notice that the official had some faith. Biblical scholars differ about how far away Capernaum was from Cana, but most agree that it was about 20 to 25 miles.[1] In other words, this official came that far simply to see a carpenter; obviously he thought that Christ was someone special. However, that faith was not yet perfect, and there are two words that John uses to indicate this. First, when the official first “asks” Jesus to come, John uses the verb ἐρωτάω (ero-táh-o), which means to ask, but “on special footing”; it is a request from a “preferred position” meaning that it should receive special consideration because of the special relationship involved.[2] Given that the official probably doesn’t know Jesus personally, we could infer that the official thinks he deserves some special treatment because of his status. However, God gives freely, not because of what position a person holds, or because they’ve been good all their lives, but because He loves us, and wants the best for us.

We can’t claim any particular merit that warrants God answering our prayers: He answers, either in accord with what we ask or not, but always in accord with our good and His will, because He loves us. In the first reading, we heard some beautiful words from the Prophet Isaiah about what God wants to give us: “There shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create; for I create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight; I will rejoice in Jerusalem and exult in my people.” All of this, though, is freely given. It’s not something that we’re owed, or that God has to give us. No, He gives it to us because He loves us. As children of God, and even more as His priests and spouses, we can ask for things on special footing, but always remembering that it is God’s generosity that answers, and not any particular merit of ours.

Secondly, the petition is strangely distant. In the first request, the official asks Christ to heal his υἱός (hwee-os’), the more formal word for son.[3] When Christ makes the remark about faith, the official attitude shifts and becomes more personal: he asks Christ to heal his παιδίον (paidion), the diminutive form of child, meaning, his little one.[4]

The official who came to Jesus certainly had faith in Christ’s ability to heal his child; however, the official wanted the healing on his terms, and Jesus gives him the opportunity to perfect his faith. As religious, our lives are full of prayer, but often we need to remind ourselves that God wants us to really ask Him for these things. In his first letter to Timothy (1 Tm 2:1) Saint Paul asks that “supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone.” That word for supplications, δέησις (deh’-ay-sis), is very strong, and means a “heart-felt petition, arising out of deep personal need (a sense of lack, want), a felt need that is personal and urgent.”[5]

Prayer cannot be sincere in the abstract; we must deeply feel what it is we are asking for and feel the urgency with which we must ask it. We can ask ourselves: how much do we trust that God hears and answers our prayers? Is our prayer personal and sincere, and filled with a sense of urgency? When we pray for others, do we take on their needs as though they were our own?

Today, through the intercession of Mary, Model of Prayer, let us ask for the grace to truly pray with deep faith that God wants to give us what we need.

[1] Cf. Barclay’s commentary, which gives “almost twenty,” The Pulpit Commentary between twenty and twenty-five.

[2] HELPS Word-studies 2065: erótaó

[3] Cf. The Pulpit Commentary on this passage.

[4] HELPS Word-studies: 3813 paidíon

[5] HELPS Word-studies: 1162 déēsis



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