Whatever their religion, the believers in God pray. Even Christians pray. They pray for the sick, for those without a job, for a son who got into bad company, for families with discord. They ask God for rain, blessing for the crops, and protection from misfortune. Today, this type of prayer is derided by some; it leaves others indifferent and raises many questions even in the believers. Why pray if God already knows what we need and is always willing to give us every good?
Even in the face of the most heartfelt pleas, he is often silent. He lets the events take their seemingly absurd course. Everything proceeds as if he does not exist. His inexplicable silence makes one cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:2).
The dialogue with him also assumes dramatic tones, is turned into discussion, in open dispute. Jeremiah turns to him with an almost blasphemous accusation: “Why do you deceive me and why does my spring suddenly dry up?” (Jer 15:18). “You are like the seasonal water. They were but melted ice, running from under the snow. But summer comes and the river dries under the blazing sun, no water is left. The caravans of Sheba look for them, in vain they expected, they are frustrated on arriving there (Job 6:15-20).
We would like a complacent God, who guarantees our dreams. He, instead, tries to free us from our illusions, to rescue us from misery, pettiness, vain desires, and involve us in his plans. Prayer is thus a struggle with the Lord, as sustained by Jacob, for a whole night, at the river Jabbok (Gen 32:23-33). Who surrenders to God comes out a winner.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “Our Father knows what we need.”
“For we are strangers before you, settlers only as all our ancestors were. Our days on earth pass like a shadow” (1 Chr 29:15). The lesson that Israel has assimilated from the experience of the desert is captured in the words of David; he lived in tents, homeless, asked hospitality from other peoples and often was refused (Num 20:14-21), so he has learned to appreciate the welcome.
Rashi, the famous medieval commentator of the Scriptures, reminded his people: “Even if the Egyptians threw in the Nile our newborn males, we must not forget that they welcomed us in time of need, during the famine in the time of Joseph and his brothers.”
For Christians hospitality is a reminder of their status as pilgrims in this world. But it recalls them above all that Christ came into the world as an alien: “He came to His own, yet his own people did not receive him” (Jn 1:11). Today he continues to ask for hospitality: “Look, I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my call and open the door, I will come in to you and have supper with you, and you with me” (Rev 3:20). He asks to enter into the life of every person, every society, every institution.
Jerusalem did not recognize the time and the visitation of her God (Lk 19:44). She remains always hesitant and undecided when Jesus knocks at the door. She hesitates before opening the door because she intuits that his word will eventually upset the whole house. We would prefer, that at least he would not visit some corner. We would like to reserve him for ourselves, leaving him in order according to our liking.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “A rising sun from above will come to visit us.”
To love God would not make sense for the ancient Greeks. The gods could love people: they show their preference by giving special gifts and favors. As a sign of gratitude they expected sacrifices and burnt offerings from the person they have shown favor. A reflection of this mentality is also present in some texts of the Old Testament. Through the mouth of prophet Malachi, the Lord complains of the despicable holocausts that priests offer him: “The servant respects his master… Where is the honor due to me?” (Mal 1:6). Unlike the pagan peoples, Israel loves her God. Here’s what Moses recommends to the people: “What is it that the Lord ask of you if not to love him and serve him with all your heart and with all your soul?” (Dt 10:12). Love consists in keeping the commandments (Ex 20:6) and “to follow his ways” (Dt 19:9).
Love of neighbor, above all the poor, orphan, widow, stranger, is viewed in this frame: This is practiced because it is a work pleasing to God.
The New Testament gives us the full light, one that allows us to understand what it really means to love God. The first letter of John is very explicit: “This is love: not that we loved God but that he first loved us. Dear friends, if such has been the love of God, we, too, must love one another” (1 Jn 4:10-11).
The logical leap is immediately obvious. We would expect, if God so loved us, we also ought to love him. But God does not ask anything for himself. There is only one way to respond to his love: love your brethren and not “only with words and with our lips, but in truth and in deed” (1 Jn 3:18).
To internalize the message, we repeat: “I give you a new commandment—says the Lord—that you love as I have loved you.”