Man Dressing in Mirror, Joseph Christian Leyendecker, 20th c.

Translation of the Epistle for the Fifth Sunday after Easter

Dearly beloved, be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves, For if a man be a hearer of the word and not a doer, he shall be compared to a man beholding his own countenance in a glass: for he beheld himself and went his way, and presently forgot what manner of man he was. But he that hath looked into the perfect law of liberty and hath continued therein, not becoming a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work: this man shall be blessed in his deed. And if any man think himself to be religious, not bridling his tongue but deceiving his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Religion clean and undefiled before God and the Father is this: To visit the fatherless and widows in their tribulation, and to keep one’s self unspotted from this world.

Continuation of the Holy Gospel According to St. John

At that time Jesus saith to His disciples: Amen, amen, I say to you: if you ask the Father any thing in My name, He will give it to you. Hitherto you have not asked any thing in my name: Ask, and you shall receive, that your joy may be full. These things I have spoken to you in proverbs. The hour cometh when I will no more speak to you in proverbs, but I will show you plainly of the Father. In that day you shall ask in My name; and I say not to you that I will ask the Father for you: for the Father Himself loveth you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came out from God. I came forth from the Father and am come into the world; again I leave the world and I go to the Father. His disciples say to Him: Behold, now Thou speakest plainly and speakest no proverb. Now we know that Thou knowest all things and Thou needest not that any man should ask of Thee: by this we believe that Thou camest forth from God.

The Saving Words of the Gospel

If you ask the Father anything in My Name, He shall give it to you.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Transcription of Sermon

What does this mean: “If we ask anything in Our Lord’s name to the Father, that He will give it to us.” St. Thomas, when he comments on this passage, says that there are actually seven conditions for this. So, it’s not simply a superstitious or magical understanding of the name of Jesus that is used, but there are certain conditions. And he tells us, Thomas says, and cites scripture to back up his points, obviously.

He says, in the first instance we ought to ask for spiritual goods and not temporal goods. And, if we do ask for temporal goods, they should be in the order of a spiritual good.

Second, he says, we have to persevere in prayer. So, it’s not enough to just say it once when we’re asking for something, but Our Lord wants to sometimes drag something out of us. We think we’re dragging something out of Him by asking, but, actually, it’s the other way around where He is trying to extract something out of us which is a deeper configuration with Him above all through trust. And so, perseverance in prayer is the second condition that Thomas Aquinas lays down.

The third, he says, is in harmony with others. And then, he cites what Our Lord says in Matthew 18. He says, “If two of you agree upon anything to ask, My Father will hear you.” And so, what He is referring to here is that we are a Mystical Body of Christ. And so, all of the baptized, we form a Mystical Body when we are not only united through grace but united in a common endeavor, praying together for something to Our Lord that is worthy that this has a leverage that we wouldn’t have if we were simple monads.

He also says that the fourth condition is that whatever we ask for should arise out of our hearts that are filled with filial and trusting affection like a child before the best of fathers. We can contrast that to asking Our Lord for something and saying, “I wonder if he’ll give it to me.” But this absolute trust, this absolute trust, is something that He has a hard time saying no to.

And notice when Thomas lays out these seven points, it’s not enough to have one of them, we ought to have all of them.

The fifth is whatever we ask for should be done with piety. In other words, with humility. Piety is an interesting word in Latin. Pietas is not the notion that we have in English of piety. Piety is, in English, you know, we think of this as the virtue of piety which has to do with devotion and in the order of the virtue of religion, but pietas in Latin is something… is a virtue that orders our relationships with those above us and those below us. And so, piety then… that was… remember, and if you read Greek literature, in Homer one of the greatest sins, the unforgivable sins, was the sin against piety. So, to be disrespectful of one’s parents. Why? Because we owe them piety. Piety is a filial devotion to those above us, but for those below us, it has to do with a paternal or maternal solicitude. So, notice how this piety goes in different directions, and it orders relationships.

When we use the Holy Name of Jesus, we should also remember what it means, right? What does the Holy Name mean? God saves, Yahweh saves. God Saves. Yahweh saves. And so, whatever we ask, ought to be in the order of salvation and not… Well, when I was a kid, I remember, you know, I was kind of fascinated with Hogan’s Heroes and… I had an army helmet collection and I used to really covet Colonel Klink’s World War I helmet on his desk, and I thought that would be… that would be like pièce de résistance for my army helmet collection. If I could have Colonel Klink’s World War I German helmet that would be… I would be the happiest army helmet collector on the block. Well, I reminded Our Lord that anything we ask in Jesus’ name we’ll get. So, I said the formula, and said, “I hope to see, I expect to see, that helmet on my desk tomorrow morning. Thank you.” And in the morning, there it wasn’t.

Well, that obviously was not in the order of salvation or even sanctification. So, Our Lord, for some reason, didn’t jump through that hoop even though I used this seemingly magical formula.

But that’s the problem. If we use the Holy Name like magic, we get taken to the cleaners. If you remember in Acts 19, the Sons of Sceva, those seven itinerant exorcists, they used the Holy Name in a superstitious way. They’re trying to exorcize this demon out of a possessed man, and they said, “In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, we cast you out.” And Satan laughed at them and said, “Jesus we know, Paul we’ve heard of, but who are you?” And then took them to the cleaners, and they all got beat up. Why? Because they were using the Name like a charm in a superstitious magical way.

Thomas says this for the sixth condition that it should be over an appropriate amount of time. So, Our Lord is trying to not make us exercise patience but trust. And… but you know trust doesn’t stay in one place; it’s either growing or it’s decreasing. And so, the idea is that as we continue in deepening our relationship with Our Lord that our trust is growing. And then, he says, when it’s the right time and we’ve achieved a degree of filial devotion to Our Lord, He’ll grant us what we need.

And then, the seventh condition is, he says, we ought to be always, no matter what we ask for, asking for our own salvation and sanctification. And this raises the question, though, that many people ask, “Why doesn’t God give me what I ask Him, especially if I’ve asked Him using the Holy Name of Jesus?” And St Augustine, who is very playful with language, if you’ve ever read him, he says, “Why? Why doesn’t God give us all the time what we ask for?” And he says, “aut male, aut mali, aut mala.” So, he takes this word, aut male, either male… Either we ask poorly, badly. Mali, either we’re bad. Or, mala, we ask for bad things. So, either we ask poorly, we’re bad, or we ask for bad things. That’s why God says, “No.”

So, what does it mean to ask badly? Well perhaps in our petitions we’re distracted, or perhaps we approach God with a superficial attitude; one that isn’t humble, one that isn’t truly pious, one that isn’t in a habitual state of repentance and conversion, recognizing oneself as debtor, not as if God owed us anything. I’ve had people tell me they were angry with God because, “I asked Him for something, and He didn’t give it to me.” I said, “Okay, well you look at the crucifix and tell Our Lord that after going to death for you and opening up the Gates of Heaven for you, that He still owes you something. You go tell Him that. See if it’s convincing to Him and to you.” He doesn’t owe us anything. When we come to Him as if He owes us something, wouldn’t it really be against everything good if He just gave it to us? Because then, we would be confirmed in that error of thinking that this is the way it works: “I can be a slacker in my relationship with Our Lord, and He still gives me what I want. I must be okay.” And so, how would it serve Our Lord’s purposes to bless a bad attitude? It doesn’t, obviously. It certainly doesn’t help us.

Perhaps, another reason in asking badly is we’re too attached to the object we’re asking for more than the will of God itself. Sometimes people threaten God with a faith crisis: “If you don’t give me what I want, then I’m not going to believe in you.” Well, that’s already symptomatic of a very, very very poor relationship with Our Lord.

Augustine says, “aut mali”, or maybe we’re bad.” In other words, we’re in need of conversion, or perhaps we’re mediocre and not fervent in our relationship with Him. How would that help us to be confirmed in our mediocrity if Our Lord just gave us what we asked for? If He just gave us what we asked for, maybe we would be happy with those temporal goods at the cost of a relationship with Him. So, obviously, there’s a pedagogical reason behind all of this. Sometimes we can be just too attached to the thing that we’re asking for and Our Lord doesn’t give it to us so that we are more attached to Him.

Maybe we see Our Lord as a function, one who is supposed to get me stuff. He’s my supplier. Well, when we start to manipulate Our Lord in order to get something less than Him, that’s not a healthy relationship to have. Sometimes people can do this in prayer, right? They want to have consolation. They want all sorts of warm and fuzzies. They want to feel good in prayer and Our Lord says, “Well, no, because that’s not me.” Our Lord can’t be felt. He’s not a feeling. He’s not a consolation. And to want to instrumentalize God, in order to get something that is not God, is not going to help us at all, much to the contrary.

Aut mala, or perhaps we ask for bad things. What does this mean? Well, maybe they’re not necessarily evil in themselves. Well, nothing is evil by nature, we know that from St. Thomas, right? Evil is a lack of a good that ought to be there. So, Augustine, when he explains this, he uses this example of a four-year-old. Well, there’s a four-year-old who asks his dad for his birthday, “I want a sword.” He’s like, “Well, a four-year-old with a sword is not a good idea. Maybe when you’re 16, kid, then I’ll get you a sword.” Or a four-year-old that wants a horse. These are the two examples he uses, a sword and a horse. That’s probably not what people in Milwaukee would ask for as children, but that’s his world. A horse or a sword, those are the two things that four-year-olds ask for in Northern Africa, I guess. And he says, “Well, not a bad thing to ask for, but not at four-year-old.” So often what Our Lord is saying is, “Okay, it’s not a bad thing, but not yet.” You’ve got to kind of grow into it.”

Ultimately, all of this is turning towards our relationship with Our Lord. The things that I asked for, that are said, the things that I ought to ask for, says Augustine, are contained in the seven petitions of the Our Father. Everything that we need is contained within the Our Father, says Augustine. And it would be interesting, and good homework for you this week, to go over each petition of the Our Father and see how many temporal needs there fit into that. And whatever temporal needs there are, they ought to be in function of salvation and sanctification. 

And that’s ultimately all we need. This life is very short, it’s kind of a training ground for eternal life. The time we have here is the time that Providence allows us to know Our Lord and knowing Him, loving Him, and in doing so serving Him and configuring our wills with His. So ultimately, we’re asking for His will to be done in our lives.

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

— Fr. Ermatinger