19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A. - August 13, 2023

 

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A. - August 13, 2023

1Kings 19: 9a, 11-13a; Romans 9: 1-5; Matthew 14: 22-23

 

Theme: The Importance of Prayer

We hear so much turmoil in the international and national news. Many people around the world and in our own country are dying because of civil war, natural disasters, or hunger. We also face so much turmoil in our own lives. Many families struggle with financial problems, illnesses, and surgeries. Parents witness the failures of their children, couples see their marriages turning into a nightmare, and young adults lose hope. All these trials leave us confused and downcast. In this situation, what do we need to do? Are we going to give up our faith in God? The Bible readings today exhort us to turn to God in prayer and focus on his call. In our first reading, Elijah looked for God when Queen Jezebel tried to kill him. The Gospel passage presents us with Jesus praying alone to his Father on the mountain and Peter praying to Jesus when he was in trouble of sinking. Saint Paul, in our second reading, is concerned about his fellow Jews because they do not believe in Jesus. He wishes or prays that they come to accept Jesus in their lives. While we pray for ourselves to stay connected to God in the midst of all trials that we face, let us also pray for all those who lose their faith and those who have not believed in Jesus yet.

The first reading is the story of Elijah who went to meet God at the mountain of Horeb. It is important to know the full context of this story to better understand it. Note that Elijah was a prophet of God in the time of Queen Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. Jezebel was a worshiper of the pagan god Baal. There was a competition between the prophets of Baal and Elijah to find out whose God was a true God. The competition consisted of the prophets of Baal calling upon their god to send fire to consume the animal prepared for sacrifice. Elijah had to do the same. The god of the prophets Baal did not react, but the God of Elijah sent the fire and consumed everything. Because of this victory, Elijah slaughtered all 450 prophets of Baal in the Wadi Kishon. (See 1 Kings 18: 21-46). When Queen Jezebel heard that Elijah killed the prophets of Baal, she vowed to kill him. So, Elijah ran all the way to Beersheba, more than a hundred miles, to save his life. He experienced extreme suffering in the wilderness, leading him even to pray for his death. God strengthened him with miraculous food brought by an angel. Then Elijah walked for forty days and forty nights to the mountain Horeb to meet with God. When he arrived at Horeb, God asks him what he was doing there. In his response, Elijah complained about how the people of Israel had abandoned the covenant, sinned, and killed God’s prophets. He told God that he was the only prophet who remained (he did not know that God spared more prophets), and they were trying to kill him as well (see 1 Kings 19: 1-8). Our first reading story picks up from here.

God tells Elijah to go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord to meet with him who will be passing by (v. 11). Note that Elijah is devastated. The dramatic and miraculous victory when God sent fire and consumed the burnt offering in front of the prophets of Baal did not produce the fruits that he wanted. It did not lead the people of Israel to repentance. And now they tried to kill him because he is the prophet. Elijah is physically, emotionally, and even spiritually exhausted. He is ready to give up. However, he turns to God in prayer, seeking inspiration on what to do next. Sometimes, you and I find ourselves in dark moments in which we do not see how to find solutions. We face difficulties that devastate us and push us to give up our faith in God. Let us learn from Elijah. Let us always turn to God and seek his divine inspiration and strength. Prayer brings us physical, emotional, and spiritual strengths. Prayer may not remove our crosses, but it gives us the necessary courage and energy that we need to carry them.

As the Lord has recommended him, Elijah is outside and stands on the mountain waiting for God’s presence to pass by. The narrator reports that there was first a strong and violent wind, next, an earthquake, and after a fire but the Lord was not in any of them. Note that Elijah is conscious of standing in the tradition of Moses who is the first of Israel’s great prophets. He stands at the same mountain where Moses stood many years before him. With Moses, strong wind, earthquake, and fire were associated with God’s appearance (see Exodus 19: 16-18). In seeing and experiencing these great natural phenomena, Elijah expects to find God there. Not a long time ago, he already experienced God in a spectacular way in the competition of sending fire with the prophets of Baal. However, this time, God’s presence is not in these dramatic signs but rather in a “tiny whispering sound” with no drama. This teaches us that when we face our dark moments, we should not necessarily expect God to intervene dramatically. God’s presence is there when we pray to him at Mass, in personal prayer and meditation as Jesus shows us an example in our Gospel passage.

Matthew tells us in today’s Gospel that Jesus went up to the mountain by himself to pray. I would rather say that he returns to the mountain to resume his prayer. If we go back to vv. 3-12 of this chapter 14, we will see Matthew recount the death of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. When Jesus heard about it, he withdrew in a boat to an isolated place to pray to God (v. 13). As a human, he was distressed by the loss of his cousin and the one who prepared the people spiritually for his arrival in the world. He needed private time to mourn and pray.  However, his prayer time was interrupted by thousands of people who followed him because they needed to hear the Word of God. Although he needed that time for himself to mourn and pray, his heart was moved with pity for the crowds. He stopped his private time to minister to those people. He cured the sick, taught them the Word of God, and in the evening fed them with miraculous food (see vv. 14-21). Today’s Gospel story now picks up from here. Jesus dismisses everyone including his disciples (v. 22), went back to the mountain, and resumed his prayer time that was interrupted previously.

Notice, Jesus’ ministering to the people does not stop him from spending time with his Father in prayer. Our Lord teaches us the importance of prayer. Amid our daily business (even though they are very important), we cannot neglect our prayer time. There is nothing that can justify us missing Sunday Masses and personal prayers (except for serious illness and very serious bad weather). Many Christians today try to find excuses just to miss Masses or Church activities. For instance, some Christians still use COVID-19 as an excuse to not come to Church, but they go shopping and to restaurants. Others say that they cannot come to Church because they use weekends to visit their loved ones and relax as they work hard on weekdays. In all this, Jesus teaches us that there is nothing more important than the time that we spend with our Lord in prayer.

The disciples were in a boat in the middle of the water. Jesus joins them during the fourth watch of the night walking on the water.  The “fourth watch of the night” means that it was still dark. And this darkness alludes to the spiritual darkness which is their lack of faith which prevents them from recognizing the presence of Jesus but confuse him with a ghost.  This part of the gospel teaches us that no matter what we face, we need to know that God is not far from us. He is close and in our hearts. Good prayer starts with the belief that God Is present in our midst. Recognizing God’s presence is the key to successful prayer. This is what God asked Elijah to do in our first reading story. Before he met God in prayer, Elijah stood outside at the mountain to first recognize the presence of God who was about to pass by. We too need to recognize God’s presence when we pray. At Mass, our Lord is present in the Scripture readings, the Holy Communion that we receive, the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle, through the priest who says Mass, and in the faithful assembly. We are called to recognize his presence first before we pray to him.

Peter makes a request to make sure that it is really Jesus. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (V, 28). Like Elijah who wanted to see God’s presence in a spectacular way (strong wind, earthquake, and fire), here Peter conditions his faith with a demonstration: he wants also to walk on the water like Jesus before he believes that it is Jesus, not a ghost. Many of us today also condition our Christian faith with miracles. We want God to imperatively grant us what we need to prove to us that he is really God. Likewise, many Christians leave the Catholic Church because they think that here God does not work. They go to different churches looking for a miraculous and spectacular God. in the story of Elijah, in our first reading, we learn that God showed himself to Elijah, not in the drama, but in the tiny whispering sound.

Peter’s request is granted. Jesus orders him to do so. Matthew reports that Peter walked on the water a little. He started sinking just when he saw how strong the wind was and became frightened (see vv. 29-30). First, the strong wind that frightens Peter and causes him to sink represents the turmoil that is going on in this world in our lives. When we focus more on how people are being killed by wars, natural disasters, and hunger; when we see families struggling with financial problems, illnesses, and surgeries; when we think about parents who witness the failures of their children, couples seeing their marriages turning into a nightmare, and young adults lose hope, when we see all these trials and let them leave us confused and downcast, we question the existence of God’s presence in our midst. At that time, we sink like Peter. The lesson here is that we should look at all our trials with faith and hope. Problems that we face cannot prevent us from recognizing the presence of God and his love for us.

Second, the boat tossed by the waves represents the Church. The sea is the world, and the waves and strong wind stand for the challenges and trials that we face. It means we, Christians, are in the Church that is in the middle of this world with all the challenges and problems that are trying to toss our Church. These problems include sexual abuse by the clergy, the closing of parishes due to a lack of finance and lack of priests, and Christians who leave the church (especially young adults) due to a lack of strong discipleship. Like the disciples, let us cry to Jesus to come to save us.

Paul, in our second reading, teaches us that we should not pray only for ourselves but also for all Christians who have left the Church and many people in our societies, neighborhoods, and families who have not yet believed in Jesus. In the passage that we heard in our second reading, Paul is worried about his fellow Israelites for their failure to recognize and accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah. He says, “For I could wish that myself were accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kin according to the flesh.” (v. 3, NABRE). This shows his great sorrow and constant anguish in his heart for them. Notice, in the list of the seven privileges that God has given to the chosen people (theirs the adoption, glory, covenants, giving of the law, the worship, promises, and patriarchs), Paul adds the eighth one, which is the sending of Christ who is the preeminent descendent of the patriarchs. This is to convince his countrypeople to join the Church of Jesus. Around us, there are many people who still do not believe in Jesus and do not come to Church. Let us be the “Paul” of today, be concerned about them, pray for them, and reach out to them by inviting them to believe in Jesus and join/rejoin the Church.

The liturgy of this Mass teaches us to recognize God’s presence in our midst, not necessarily in drama, but in simple and little events in our lives. Also, we are called to be the men and women of prayer and invite others to do the same. Amen.

Rev. Leon Ngandu, SVD

 

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