17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
28 July 2013
Importune is a word that generally appears in Sunday crossword puzzles, biblical commentaries and the kind of speech that the Cartwright boys on the Ponderosa would have called high faluttin’. It is not used very often in conversation but, in this case, it is the ideal word to describe the interpersonal dynamics in the first reading and Gospel.
The verb to importune means: to beset with insistent or repeated requests, to annoy, to vex, to ask for urgently or repeatedly. The adjective importunate means troublesomely urgent or persistent in requesting or entreating. Some days it seems as if the sole function of a three year-old is to importune. Can I have it? What is that? Can I have a cookie? Why does . . .? Every parent on earth has either given in at least a few times simply to stop the persistent requests for a Happy Meal or has said "Because! That's why" despite having sworn never ever to say that. The picture of human nature underlying the first reading is fascinating. The dialogue between Abraham and God suggests an aggressive poker hand: Raise. Call. Raise. Call. Abraham raises God calls. Abraham raises again. Abraham goes all in.
In commenting on this passage The Jewish Study Bible notes “Recognizing the sovereignty of God and his own subordinate status, Abraham speaks with great deference and scrupulously avoids chutzpah.” I’m not so sure that Abraham avoids chutzpah. Challenging God six times to decrease the critical number of innocent men needed to save the city from 50 down to 10 seems almost paradigmatic of chutzpah. But perhaps not. I’ll leave the fine points of defining chutzpah to the Yiddish experts. The action in the Gospel is something of a contrast to the negotiations detailed in Genesis.
In his commentary on the Gospel, Luke Timothy Johnson notes that “Luke understands God’s way of giving as exceeding that between friends.” While our dialogue with God is conducted, for the most part, within the confines of human vocabulary and concepts, it does not—or should not—necessarily follow the conventions of typical human-to-human social intercourse or conversation. Importune and chutzpah really have no place when one considers prayer. Can there ever be too much prayer? Can one ever annoy God with prayer? These questions could send a group of systematic theologians into a tizzy of speculation and pondering if not outright hostility toward each other. In the real world answer is quite simple. No. There can never be too much prayer. No one can weary God with prayer.
Luke’s Gospel narrative is, like Abraham’s dialogue with God, typically human. It would require no effort to act out this scene for a movie, to play it out on a stage. The story is rich with human detail from the locked door and the comfort of being snugly in bed to the desperation of the one who is importuning his neighbor. Please. I must offer my guest something. Just a few loaves of bread. Please.
The message is simple; persistence pays off. If a friend can be moved to respond through another’s importuning how much more will God respond? How will He respond? When we knock, when we ask, when we search—what should we expect?
We should expect what we need. Not always exactly what we ask for but what we need. Johnson introduces a fascinating point in his discussion of Luke’s version of the Our Father, a stripped down version compared with Matthew’s. The two versions share one phrase: Give us this day our daily bread. The word used here, epiousios, is not found anywhere in Greek literature. The translation depends on the shaky grounds of etymology and context. There are four options for the translation: supernatural bread, which is described as the least likely, daily which is the usual translation, future which, to my mind, seems the most human, suggesting that we want to be certain of a steady supply, and finally, necessary. This fourth makes a lot of sense. Do we have faith sufficient to trust that God will grant us what is necessary?
Grant us what we need.
Is there a better request with which to importune God?
Grant us what we need.
So that we can say with the psalmist,
"I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
with all my heart
For you have heard the words
of my mouth . . .
When I called you answered me
you built up strength within me."
I haven't gone on a vacation during the summer more than twice in the past 30 years. Traffic. Heat. Humidity. Crowds. Swarms of children. Traffic. Traffic. Traffic. And road construction. Tuesday I went to see my sister and a long-time family friend who spent the week in Ogunquit, ME. Lovely town. But, the traffic resembled a two-lane version of the D. C. Beltway. No trouble getting into town. I left Weston at 6:30 and got there a bit after 8:00 (coffee stop added ten minutes). Driving through the town beyond mid-morning however, was a study in stop and go, mostly stop. We drove to LL Bean in Freeport, ME, about 50 miles north. No problem once we got out of Ogunquit. Getting out of town and then back to the hotel was a study in frustration. I went on a photo expedition around 2 PM. Stopped traffic everywhere crawling toward the beach. Way too many people and cars crammed into a small space. The only thing missing was the heat and humidity. It was overcast and cool. Hit some heavy rain on the way back to Boston that evening. But, it was a photographically successful trip.
The room opened out to the beach. The beach was at low tide and empty when I arrived.
Lounge chairs at the hotel overlooking the beach in the early AM.
By about 1:00 PM the ocean was at high tide. The beach was jammed.
Lifeguards on duty.
The town has a small strip of stores. Happily, few of them use the affectation of "Shoppe" (pronounced Shoppy. None seemed to use the annoying Ye Olde Shoppe). No one shooed me away as I took photos.
The only adjective to describe these lollipops is lurid.
The blown glass bulbs suggested so many mini-hot air balloons without gondolas.
A blown glass sun catcher. Lovely. Expensive.
Wind chimes. It is amazing what people will buy when on vacation.
Some sea kayaks were stored in the bushes. The color caught my eye.
The Blue Door.
Patriotism. Not terribly fashionable among the Hollywood and literati crowds but nice to see.
A cool day at the beach.
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD