When pagans wanted something, they always turned to their gods. The pagan gods, of course, were fickle. It was very easy to fall out of favor with them, which meant disaster. So, the pagans would present their petition to the god or goddess they thought was most interested in the thing that they wanted, along with an appropriate sacrifice and formula of prayer. It was a way of stroking the ego of the deity, currying favor, offering bribes. If you were fortunate, the god/goddess would smile upon you and grant you what you wanted.
In today’s Gospel, Christ Jesus exhorts His disciples to turn to the Lord for their needs. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door with be opened to you.” He is telling us that it is a good thing, and pleasing to God, when we ask Him for assistance, even very specific assistance. If intercessory prayer didn’t really have any effect, the Lord Jesus would not tell us to do it. It’s mysterious, but intercessory prayer works. Somehow, the Lord invites us into the unfolding of His providence in a real way. But how is this different from the relationship between the pagans and their idols? The pagan system treated their gods as divine vending machines. They wanted something, so they did what they believed the deity liked in order to persuade it to answer their request – like putting a coin in a slot. Our Lord is very different from the idols. He is not fickle or vindictive or cruel. He loves us, and wants to give us good things. That’s why, when He answers our prayers, He sometimes says, “no.” We do not see the whole picture as He does. We do not know ourselves as well as He knows us. Sometimes the things we think we need are not the things we really need, and do not lend themselves to our sanctification. And that’s why, as we grow in our prayer lives and relationship with the Lord, our ultimate petition should become: “Thy will be done.” This petition is always granted, and when we include it among our petitions we essentially ask Him that our wills be conformed to His, and that all we desire for ourselves be only that which He desires for us. When we learn to petition the Lord in this way, it is not only the circumstances around us that we ask to be changed. More importantly, we thus beseech the Lord He conform us more closely to Him by the asking.