I had cause a few days ago to remember that it all belongs to God. All of it. Which is what I think this particular conversation between Jesus and his verbal sparring partners points us to.
This is how this came to be.
I had agreed to be interviewed for a research project on petitionary prayer. The project’s purpose is to “understand people’s beliefs and practices regarding petitionary prayer, a type of prayer where people ask God or other supernatural beings to make events occur.” The study is being conducted by a sociologist at our local university.
Shelby, his young graduate student showed up in my office on Tuesday afternoon toting consent forms and a ream of questions. We settled in for a long conversation. At the end of two hours, I was exhausted. I found that I had been forced to articulate parts of my faith journey which I have long taken for granted.
Again and again I was asked if it was ‘appropriate or not’ to pray for certain things. This is what especially surprised me: more often than not I found myself realizing that most of these were things for which I could not necessarily remember praying. For instance, I know with great certainty that I have never prayed for a good parking place. Or that a mortgage application be approved. Or that I get into the college of my choice. Or what car I should purchase. Or that there be enough money in the bank to get through the month. Indeed, when asked about praying for a parking place I replied that I would be better off praying for one at some distance as I can usually benefit from the extra steps. But I’m fairly certain it never occurred to me to pray for that either!
Of course, this is a study about petitionary prayer. If called upon to quantify my prayers, I would say that I do spend time thanking and lamenting and thinking out loud in conversation with God. I do spend time being still and simply listening.
Either way, even with regard to those things for which we do ask, I want to say it’s not because I don’t think God cares about these things… but in some ways I do wonder. At least not for me. I am a person in good health and of great privilege. I have never had to worry that there would be enough to feed me and those I love, that there would not be enough in my checking account to pay the mortgage, or that I won’t be mobile enough to get from one place to another. Surely God has heard my pleas, no matter how small my need — but in a world filled with so much more profound pain — certainly God has more to worry about than where I park my car!
At the same time, I do regularly find myself praying for the healing of others. This I believe God cares about — that God only wants wholeness for all of us. Still, the older I get and the more I witness and experience, the more deeply I am aware that our time as we know it here is relatively brief. What comes next will be much more expansive. And while I know God cares about what happens here and now? God has the long view and that view is so much bigger than mine.
Whatever else may be so, two hours with a young graduate student has me remembering that it all belongs to God and I am considering again what it is I ask for and why. Without a doubt, my meandering conversation surely extends to the very practical question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians in today’s Gospel. While we are told that their query was meant to entrap Jesus, his response turns it on its head to have us thinking about things that surely matter. About what belongs to whom and why.
Indeed, again and again in my conversation with Shelby the other day I found myself thinking about when and where such petitions for God’s help do seem appropriate. While not for me, per se, perhaps they are for others. And while not for me, even the very questions posed pushed me to think about what my response should be in this world where both sides of the coin do ultimately belong to God.
I, for one, have never been turned down for a mortgage. Others have — perhaps because they don’t have the proper credentials to qualify. But if the system is stacked against them, is prayer then appropriate? More than that, is my own action to change that system appropriate? And then might I not be in conversation with God about that instead?
I, for one, was accepted at the college of my choice. Everything in my life to that moment had paved my way to make that not only possible, but likely. Should I not be working to ensure this is so for others, too? Perhaps I should be asking God to help me shape a world where children are read to and learning is encouraged and resources are available so that all might be educated to their highest degree of capability.
And I, for one, have never been challenged by health so that I cannot park some distance from my destination and do just fine. To pray for a nearby parking place would seem selfish in the extreme: especially when so many others could benefit from the same. But perhaps my prayer should be that I be part of making the way clear so all people have access to what I so easily enjoy.
And at least for these three examples? My prayer has me intersecting with ‘that which belongs to the emperor,’ doesn’t it? At least that’s where I find myself landing now when I think about my own journey to a greater clarity about what I do believe in these last days. Indeed, as long as we recall that while the emperor’s image is on the coin, in the first creation account in Genesis 1 (see Genesis 1:27) we hear that God’s image is imprinted on all of us. This being so, then even that which has the emperor’s image on it, also has God’s image on it, right?
When asked what I do pray for, I had to say that when I pray for myself it is normally for calm and wisdom. Because in this world God made and God loves — in this world where it all belongs to God, it is my deep sense that God has already provided the answers to much of what I would think to pray for. This being so, it seems to me that my praying truly should be in behalf of those for whom this may not be the case. For that matter, so should my doing. And I don’t know how to do that without believing that God is also deeply invested in what ‘the emperor’ does. And so then must I be as well. What do you think?
- I would invite you to take the same ‘prayer’ inventory which I did this last week. I found the challenge to be worthwhile in clarifying my belief about prayer, about God, and about my place in the world — even in relationship to the ’emperor. So what is it that you pray for? Why? Is there anything you think it is inappropriate to pray for? Why or why not?
- Jesus does not reference the first creation account when he replies to the question posed to him. Do you think it’s reasonable or fair that my memory went there? Why or why not?