Let us ponder upon a detail that may escape our attention at the first reading of today’s gospel passage. The Lord passes by, and as He walks along, two blind people start following Him, crying, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” Then what happens? Look at the text in front of you.1 What happens next? Nothing! That’s right. Nothing. The blind men follow and all along keep shouting, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” And what does the Lord do? Does He stop to ask them what did they want? Does He heal them? No! Instead, He keeps going, as if He had heard nothing, as if they didn’t exist.
This must have been disheartening to the blind. After all, they were well aware of the miracles He had performed, the last of which was the raising of a young girl from the dead! Certainly He could restore their eyesight! If only they could get His attention. Is it possible that He had not heard them? “Son of David, Messiah, the Anointed of God, we believe in You; we know that you are the One announced by the prophets. You came to restore the Kingdom of David, a Kingdom of peace and justice and everlasting joy. We believe in You! You can make us well. We believe it with our whole heart. But, why don’t You stop, Lord? Why do You ignore our pleas?”
The blind men can barely keep up with the crowd following the Lord. Their shouts are drowned in the noise of the multitude, and thinking… “Oh well. What’s the use? For a moment there was a ray of hope. [Then reality sinks in.] I guess you hear of miracles happening to other people. If they happen… Who can you believe? The crowds are impressionable. They make up stories. But…, no! Why give up? We are not going to give up. Besides what have we got to lose? At the most, the people instead of the “Two Blind Men”, they will call us the “Two Foolish Blind Men”. It’s OK. We can live with that. But for now let us see if we can catch up with Him.”
Imagine the crowd in the house and outside the house. The two blind men are not deterred. They reach for the impossible. You didn’t have to be a doctor to know that blindness is not curable. Everyone knew that. That’s precisely why they make their way through the crowd, slowly and with difficulty, because there was no other hope, they believed that what was impossible for men is possible for God. This is His arena. His turf. His field of expertise. When all else fails, when the human means are exhausted—it is then when the Lord acts.
The Chananaean woman also “ignored”
And so it happens, my dear brothers and sisters, the Lord does not respond immediately to our requests and pleas either. He seems to ignore them, like He did with the pleas of the two blind men and like He did with the Chananaean woman. Do you recall her story? It is narrated in the 15th chapter of the gospel according to St. Matthew.
“Son of David!” she also cried out, “have mercy on me.” (Mt. 15:23)
And the evangelist observes: “But Jesus did not say a word to her”. So much so, that the disciples, obviously annoyed by her cries, go to their Master and “beg” Him. What do they beg Him: To heal her possessed daughter? No! But to send her away!
The fruit of prayer needs to mature
- When you plant your garden do you wait with a stopwatch to pick the produce?
- When you plant a vineyard do you hang around to taste the first grapes on the spot?
- And when you plant an olive tree, how many years go by before you see the first olive?
Why doesn’t the Lord answer our prayers?
“O Lord, we came to know You as a compassionate Lord, full of mercy and love and pity for us, always ready to respond to our petitions, to our sincere and warm cries of supplication to Your goodness. You taught us to pray with confidence and trust to You. We do! So why does nothing happen when we cry unto You? Why are we totally ignored by You?”
Such, my dear Christians, could be our thoughts and attitude, whenever we pray, but our prayers seem to remain unanswered. What are we to think? Isn’t true that the Lord said:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened”? (Mt. 7:7-8)
And what of this other promise by the Lord:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name He will give you… Ask and you will receive, that your joy may be full”? (John 16:23.24)
Don’t these promises of the Lord smack against our personal experience that our prayers are not answered? What’s the explanation?
He answers, when and how He knows
What we should say in the first place, my dear Christians, is that there are no unanswered prayers. The Lord acts even when it seems to us that He is not doing anything. The Lord is faithful to His promises and to His words. He urges us to communicate with Him through prayer, without hesitation and without doubt. So if He isn’t going to fulfill our petitions, why would He urge us to pray?
We should also clarify that our petitions are fulfilled, but neither when we want nor in the way we want. We are always in a hurry. We want God to answer pronto, instantaneously. But let’s see now. When you plant your garden do you wait with a stopwatch to pick the produce? When you plant a vineyard do you hang around to taste the first grapes on the spot? And when you plant an olive tree, how many years go by before you see the first olive? There are occasions when we need to wait. The fruit of prayer needs to mature. This is what St. James tells us:
“See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient” (James 5:7-8).
When it seems as if the Lord doesn’t hear us, but ignores us, He must have His reasons. The silence on His part must have a purpose. In his First Universal Letter the Chief of the Apostles addresses to all of us these words:
“Be glad about this,2 even though it may now be necessary for you to be sad for a while because of the many kinds of trials you suffer. Their purpose is to prove that your faith is genuine. Even gold, which can be destroyed, is tested by fire; and so your faith, which is much more precious than gold, must also be tested, so that it may endure” (1 Pet. 1:6-7)
Example of Saint Monica
How many examples from the lives of the Saints, and our own experience confirm that God answers our prayers, when we offer them with fervor, with trust, with patience! Saint Monica was praying for her child gone astray. There, on the pier of Carthage, she was praying to God not to allow her child to leave and go to Italy, a land full of temptations and corruption. But her child leaves. The agony and strife of the mother reaches a climax. It appears her prayer is not heard. But God had answered, not the way she wanted, but as He knew. God’s wisdom and love guided the young man to Milan, where he would meet the holy Bishop Ambrose. There he is attracted by his sermons. He is shaken, he repents and receives holy baptism and begins a new life, becoming St. Augustine, a great saint. He writes in his Confessions:
“You refused, my God, what she was then asking You, because You wanted to give her what she was always asking You.”
I know that my pious mother was praying to God hard, not to let me go back to the same land—Italy—where, I had told her, I was going to study to become a Roman Catholic priest. Again, God didn’t seem to hear her fervent petition. To Italy I went and for four years I was studying to be a priest. Then, just before I was going to take the permanent vows and become a monk, I left the Roman Catholic Church and reentered the Orthodox Church. Bishop Maximos of Pittsburgh, then an Archimandrite in Rome, received me back. I am firmly convinced that the prayers of my mother were instrumental in my return. Twenty years later God would lead me to be a priest, what I wanted to be, only this time in the true Church of Christ.
When an acquaintance recently learned of the calamities that had befallen our family, made the remark: “Oh I’m sorry to hear of it. Is this going to influence adversely your ministry?” In other words he was saying, “How can you be effective when God does not respond to your prayers to heal your son? And why did God allow your second son to die of SIDS at the age of not quite three months old? How can you bring the petitions of others before God when God does not respond to your own petitions?” I couldn’t believe in my ears—actually I could, because it was coming from a Protestant, with the Old Testament, Jewish notion that “You suffer proportionately to your sins”. What a myopic view! How selfish! It is a view that makes God our servant, a Genie ready to fulfill our every wish. The Lord said:
“[If] as bad as you are, you know how to give good things to your children, how much more… will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Mt. 7:11)
There are no unanswered prayers
St. Varsanouphios says:
“When we pray and God delays in hearing our prayer, He does this for our benefit, so as to teach us longsuffering; wherefore we need not become downcast, saying: ‘We prayed and were not heard.’ God knows what is profitable for a man. Rejoice in the Lord and leave off your care.” (Guidance Toward Spiritual Life, p. 49)
So you see, my friends, not only there are no unanswered prayers, but the Lord responds the best way possible, though not always clear to us. Therefore what we need to do on our part is to pray with immovable faith and confidence in the Lord, that whatever we ask in His name, especially concerning our salvation and our spiritual progress will be heard and it will be given to us. If we only had that kind of faith, my dear Christians, which trusts in the Lord despite all the evidence to the contrary! If we could only have a heart that is not easily scandalized and disappointed! If only our trust in God were so firm that no adversity, no setback could possibly dissuade us from keeping our trust in Him!
Yet, what do we see in our life? Oftentimes every little mishap and misfortune that falls on us brings about our indignation. “How can God allow this to happen to me? Look how the ungodly go on enjoying themselves, while I who am a good person, suffer in this life.” Thus we are judging God, because we call ourselves innocent and claim we suffer undeservedly. But look how the psalmist recognizes his sinful condition:
“So You are right in judging me; You are justified in condemning me” (Ps. 51:4).
We must exercise patience
How great is our presumption! We really have guts! Instead of exercising the virtue of patience, we protest. We are trying to second-guess God, to make Him act “here and now”. We demand quick action—or else! To those, however, who combine humility and faith, who endure, persevere, hope and trust in the Lord, He will sooner or later come to their rescue.
My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we need to learn, and if there is need, learn “the hard way”. Learn through pain and suffering. Learn to persevere, to insist, to struggle and to
“glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces patience” (Rom. 5:3-4),
which makes us similar to God.
“May God, the source of patience and encouragement, enable you to have the same point of view among yourselves by following the example of Christ Jesus, so that all of you together may praise with one voice the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5-6).
Fr. E.H./1996 (Rev. 2001, 2017)
- When he entered the house, the blind men came to him…
- i.e. possessing the blessings God reserves for those who trust and hope in Him