17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

"Too late have I loved you"
(Readings: Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:12-14; Luke 11:1-13)
Introduction to Mass
In the gospel reading today Jesus gives his followers some advice on what to ask for when they pray and he tells them that if God doesn't answer straight away, if he doesn't make himself known straight away, they have to keep asking, and keep searching, so as to find him.
To begin Mass we think of the times when we haven't given enough attention to prayer and we ask God for give us the perseverance Jesus talks about.
"Ask, and it will be given to you," says Jesus. "Search, and you will find."
I remember having a conversation with someone who was a member of one of the evangelical churches, which tended to be very literal in its reading of the Bible, and it was his opinion that, if our faith was strong enough, God would do anything we asked. His example was, even if we asked God for something like a sports car, we would get it, as long as we had enough faith.
I thought - and I still think - that there's a problem with that. God isn't a sort of fairy godmother figure, granting our wishes whenever we make them and whatever they consist of. Faith in God isn't any kind of irrational belief or a belief in magic.
The God that we're invited to believe in has a particular character and that character has been revealed to us in the Bible. Part of God's character is revealed in that first reading this Sunday: he's offended by human beings' obstinacy in sin, but - more importantly - he's patient and compassionate, and he's more concerned to give us opportunities to turn back to him than to condemn us or punish us.
So the God that Christians have faith has very definite, recognisable features. And that determines what he will and won't do, when we pray to him and ask him for things.
Put it another way. God can't give us anything that's not consistent with his own nature and his own purposes. All our prayers to God are meant to be against the background of what Saint Paul talks about in the second reading.
When we're baptised as disciples of Christ there's a whole set of motives and values, based on self-interest, that we're supposed to be dead to. Now we're brought to life in Christ, in Paul's language, and when that happens our values and motives are the values and motives of the Kingdom.
If we look at the things that Jesus tells his followers to pray for in response to their request, "teach us how to pray", we can see that none of them are selfish things or things that only benefit themselves. Christ tells his followers to pray that God's Kingdom will come; that they'll be forgiven their sins - that they'll learn the quality of forgiveness themselves towards other people.
It's no good asking God to satisfy our greed, or our ambition, or our desire for revenge, or whatever, because those aren't the sort of requests that God is ever going to say "yes" to. The only thing God can offer us or give us is more of himself. "How much more," says Christ, "will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him".
In other words what God gives to people who pray to him is the Spirit of his own nature, his own character. And if we let the Holy Spirit work on us, what we want out of life - and what we ask for in prayer - changes.
Then Jesus gives a second piece of advice to his disciples. He doesn't just tell us what to ask for when we pray, he tells us to be persistent as well.
It's not that God makes it difficult for us to find him. The fault is on our side. A lot of the time, we're not interested enough to bother, or we choose to give our time and our attention to other things. So Christ's advice is, "keep asking, keep searching, - because the one who searches always finds".
That seems to me to be timely advice in our present circumstances. In the past Catholics inherited their faith from the previous generation with fewer questions and doubts. Now, the situation is much more confused and shifting.
Young people especially - many of them, anyway - are reluctant or find it difficult to arrive at any kind of fixed set of beliefs and principles. Many aspects of the Christian faith seem difficult to take seriously - at least, until they're looked at in greater depth. Today, in our secularised culture, if people come to accept the gospel message at all, it's often after a long search, with many diversions and wrong turnings.
They're not the only ones of course and it's not the first time that's happened. If we had to find someone to be the patron saint of restless searchers for the truth, it would have to be Saint Augustine. When he was young Augustine spent his time following his own interests, on the whole, doing what he wanted and leading a self-indulgent way of life.
But all the time it seems that below the surface he was searching for deeper truth and meaning. Below the surface of his pleasure-seeking way of life the seeds of spiritual life were slowly taking root in him, and when God finally got a hold of him he was overcome with a great sense of having wasted so much time.
The way he described that realisation was in a heartfelt and poetic prayer where he says to God, "Too late have I loved you" - or, in a slightly more modern translation, - "Lord, I've been too slow to love you. You were within me, but I stayed outside. You were with me already, but I was far from you. The things of this world kept me away from you."
God was always available to him, always waiting for him - but, Augustine said, for a long time he preferred other things instead, all sorts of distractions and substitutes.
To a greater or lesser extent, we're all like that. We waste time on things that have got nothing to do with God, and often we're slow to come to him. Some people grind to a halt in their spiritual journey and their vocation to know God.
But if we have the persistence that Jesus recommends, if we get into the habit of praying regularly, we'll be like Augustine. We'll find that there isn't enough time to get to know God, and what he's like and to be drawn into the mystery of his life.
So those are the two main points I would take from the readings we've got this Sunday.
When we turn to God in prayer he extends his Spirit to us. He draws us under his influence, and re-makes us in the pattern of his divine holiness.
But then, Jesus is saying, that doesn't usually happen overnight - and it doesn't happen without us wanting it and actively reaching for it. We have to be persistent in our search for God - for truth, for right values, for holiness of life - and as long as we don't give up in that search, God will eventually "answer the door" to us and give us the share in his divine life that he passionately wants us to have.