The Daily Bread, 23rd May, 2020: Not my, but Thy, will be done.
Readings: Acts 18:23-28; Psalm 46(47):2-3,8-10; John 16:23-28
The Lord Jesus in today’s Gospel, and in various parts of the long discourse which he gave to the apostles at the Last Supper, is speaking of what we call the prayer of petition, when we ask God for what we want. The prayer of petition, however, as it comes from us, has to be modelled on Christ’s own prayer of petition. What does it mean to do that?
The Letter to the Hebrews puts in the mouth of Jesus as he is coming into the world at the incarnation a line taken from one of the psalms, which reads: “Here I am, Lord. I am coming to do your will.” There is one point above all in the whole Gospel which reveals Christ’s own prayer of petition and is therefore the model of our prayer of petition. What it reveals echoes those words of the psalm. The point in question is the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Let’s recall briefly what Jesus prays during his agony. “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. If it be possible, let this chalice pass me by. Yet, let it not be as I will, but as you will.”
The first thing to note is Jesus’s confident trust in God the Father. He uses the word “Abba” which, in the Aramaic language, is the word a child uses to address its father. It is a term of deep endearment and trust, almost like “daddy” or at least, “my dearest papa, father.” That word already tells us everything about the confident trust Jesus has in the Father. Jesus knows that his Father knows what Jesus needs even before he asks. As Jesus says in the sermon on the mount, “when you pray do not babble like the pagans … your heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Hence, in imitation of Jesus, we come to our prayer of petition trusting the Father, not questioning him, not doubting him, not putting him to the test.
Jesus then continues, “for you all things are possible.” What this means is that Jesus is opening himself up and out to the full extent of the possibilities of what God the Father wants to, and can, do for him. Jesus is not “pinning the Father down” to what Jesus wants, i.e. “let this chalice pass me by”, no matter how great and serious that petition is. Instead, Jesus is putting his petition in the context of the Father’s superior understanding of what Jesus really needs and of what the Father wants for Jesus, the best possible of all things.
So, first, loving trust. Then, opening the window right out and recognising that, “for you, Father, everything is possible.” What a powerful proclamation of the omnipotence of God! The all-powerful one, the one who can do anything. You could perhaps say that, in hearing us say such things to him, God the Father’s heart will be moved to give us what we want. Speaking like this to him is almost like teasing him, tempting him in the sense of trying to “butter him up” or capture his benevolence. It’s almost like playing a game with him, laying it on thick as it were! Of course, in the mouth and intention of Jesus it is nothing of the sort, but is the proclamation of his love and reverence for the Father.
Next, Jesus says, “if it be possible …” Hence, he is not demanding that the Father do what he is told! There is no arrogance or presumption or illusion in Jesus that he knows better than the Father what he needs and wants. Rather, because Jesus trusts the Father, then Jesus’ own petition is conditional (“if it be possible …”) on what the Father wants. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “if, in your infinite wisdom and love for me; if, in your infinite understanding of me and of my needs and of all that you plan for me and for the world: if, in the context of all of that, it is possible for this trial, this suffering to pass me by, then please let that happen.”
So, again, it is a humble petition, conditioned on what the Father wants and based on a loving trust.
Now comes the most attractive thing in this prayer of petition of Jesus. He says, “Father, not as I would have it, but as you would have it.” These words of Jesus continue and complete the act of trust opened with the use of “Abba!” For he is saying that, even if this horrible trial has to be gone through, even so the Father’s will can only be better than what Jesus himself is asking for.
So, that is the model of the prayer of petition: not my will, but thine be done (“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”). This does not exclude that we express to the Father our petitions, but we must do it trusting him, knowing that he knows better than we do, knowing that his plan for us or for those we love or are around us is far greater than our plan. We put our prayer forward humbly and on condition that it is in accord with what God the Father wants, reinforcing that by saying, “not as I want, but as you want.”
The response to that prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane was what? Was it a no? Well, at one level, yes, it was a no. “It’s not possible” says the Father to Jesus, “for this chalice to pass you by. You’ve got to drink it.” Now, remember that Peter later tried to stop Jesus from being arrested in Gethsemane, but Jesus stopped him and responded to him energetically, “Am I not to drink the chalice that the Father has given me?” In other words, Jesus had accepted the Father’s decision that he had to drink the chalice of suffering. Jesus did not go in the huff. He didn’t say to the Father, “I’m not talking to you again.” He didn’t throw a tantrum or run away. Rather, he responded, “OK, Father, if that is your will for me, then, with love, with trust, with determination I will do it and I will stop anyone who tries to get in the way of it.”
So, at one level God the Father says to Jesus that he must drink the chalice of suffering. And Jesus shows the authenticity of his prayer by accepting the Father’s will. But then, of course, having drunk to the bitter end the chalice of suffering which the Father gave him, Jesus is raised from the dead. In other words, all along the Father had a greater plan for Jesus than the avoidance of suffering. His greater plan was that through the suffering, Jesus would be glorified.
Our Lady shows the same openness, trust and willingness to do what the Father wants. “Let it be done to me according to your word”, she says in Nazareth. Then, at Cana, she says to the others, “do whatever he tells you” meaning “let it be done to you as well according to his word.” As a result, She walks her way through the passion, too. But now, where is She? She is assumed into heaven and crowned with glory.
My brothers and sisters, when we make our prayer of petition, we have to watch two things. One is that heaven is not Morrisons. We don’t come to pray to God as if we were going through the shelves, picking what we want and then checking out, somehow paying God for what we get. We can’t pay God anything! Moreover, no matter what we think we need for ourselves or for our loved ones, or even for the world itself, no matter how well-intentioned we may be, however good in itself what we want may be, is not necessarily the way God sees things. The prayer of petition is not a carte blanche we have to ask for anything we like and expect to get it. On the contrary, the prayer of petition is that we give God carte blanche to give us what he wants to give us for our true good, for our true salvation. That may well mean that we must go through the very suffering we have asked to be delivered from, like Jesus in Gethsemane. But it will also mean that the outcome of it will be far more glorious than what our little minds imagined.
The second thing we need to watch is that we don’t test God. We must not go to God with our arms folded and say, “I will tell people how good you are if you give me what I demand. If I don’t get that, then, that’s it; it’s finished!” To behave that way is childish, immature, selfish, short-sighted, it’s lacking in faith and trust, it’s asking God to dance to the tune I play, it’s putting my own will and understanding above God’s will and understanding, as if somehow I knew better than God. I don’t know better than God! I never will know better than God! Which does not mean that I should not still go to him and ask – but always with the attitude of Jesus: “My dear Father!” My point of departure must be that I trust him, not that I put him to the test! Rather, I must open myself up to the Father to be put to the test by him.
So, to ask in the name of Jesus means to step inside Gethsemane. It is to step inside that pattern or dynamic of prayer that Jesus himself revealed to us at the most difficult point in his own human journey on this earth.
“Ask and you will receive”, he says. If we ask in the name of Jesus, in the way I have just explained, we will always receive. But Jesus does not say, “ask and you will receive what you ask for”: he says, “ask and you will receive” – full stop. You will receive what God wants to give you because you have trusted in him and because he knows your path and what glory he has in store for you. “Knock and the door will be opened to you”: yes, but not necessarily the door you knock on! “Seek and ye shall find”: yes, but not necessarily what you are looking for, but what the Lord wants you to find.
So, in the Spirit of Jesus of Gethsemane, of Mary of Nazareth and of Cana, and of all the great saints, let us put ourselves with great trust before our dear Abba-Father, in the name of Jesus and ask him that, if it be his will, he will grant us what we ask for – but let his, not our, will be done.
The above is slightly adapted from the homily given on Saturday 23rd May 2020 at 10am. Listen to it being delivered below: