Prayers to the Saints
When Moses and God met the fate of the whole world hung on a line.
The Lord has rescued the Israelites from slavery, led them through the red sea, and promised a kingdom. Meanwhile, they kicked and screamed through everything, grumbling, doubting, and rebelling openly against God. Finally, they’ve arrived to the land God prepared for them, but the Israelites don’t like it and they’re ready to give it all up. Everything now rests on one man, Moses, and on a meeting between him and God.
God begins: “How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me…I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
Moses replies: “I pray, let the power of my Lord be great, just as You have spoken, saying, ‘The Lord is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression’…Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy.”
God responds: “I have pardoned, according to your word.”
What has happened here? God, The Arbiter of Justice, declares the doom of a nation. Moses, who is called ‘the most meek man on earth,’ challenges God. Then, even more shocking, God answers back to Moses, “Thy will be done,” and the people are saved.
We see here one of the most powerful examples of a man interceding on behalf of others.
Here’s another story in the II Book of Maccabees. The Jews had fought a great battle against their enemies, and were victorious. But while the survivors were gathering their dead, they found a number of superstitious charms and idols around the necks of several slain Jews. Their leader, Judas, was grieved about this and worried for their souls. So what did they do? “[Judas] sent twelve thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead.” The scripture continues, “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins” (II Macc. 12: 43-46).
Here we see a man who not only prays for unrepentant sinners, he prays for sinners who have already gone to the grave. There’s nothing ambiguous here. The scripture commends Judas and urges us likewise to pray for the departed. Again, God accepts the prayers of one man for the salvation of many.
On an intellectual level, it’s hard to grasp why God wants us to pray for others.
Isn’t God all mighty? Doesn’t He know what’s going to happen before I say anything? Why should the prayers of a little guy like me matter? Is there anything I can do to change His plan?
We can ask these questions all day, and in the end we still won’t know how prayer works or why it matters. Instead, we only know one thing for sure: God wants us to pray for one another, and He hears our prayers.
This morning, we read from the Gospel of Matthew.
Jesus Christ set out to the city of Capernaum. Once he arrived, the crowd parted and a group approached Him, “carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed.” We don’t have the details and can only imagine the scene, but you can picture four or five men bearing on their shoulders something like a cot, and stretched out on that cot is a sick man unable to move. The gospel accounts, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven…Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” The crippled man was healed. He arose, and walked home.
There’s one little detail in this passage, which says everything about prayer.
It doesn’t mention whether the paralytic had any faith at all. Perhaps he wasn’t even aware of Jesus Christ…maybe, maybe not. What we do know is that Jesus saw THEIR faith, and that was enough to save the cripple. They bore the man’s sickness on their own shoulders, like Moses bearing the Israelites, and Judas bearing his dead soldiers. Each brought to God a man, or many men, begging the Lord to have mercy on them. God could have replied like this: “Oh, mind your own business. You might have faith, but he’s got to pull himself up by his own boots straps.” But He didn’t. On the contrary, God values our faith so highly that He heals others through it.
We get a glimpse into God’s nature in these passages.
I said before that we don’t know why God asks us to pray. We don’t. But we learn a lot about God in the fact that He asks. God loves when we love one another. He wants us to see one another, to reach out to one another, to yearn for growth and healing in one another.
Sometimes, we get a little self-righteous.
We might look around at people in our lives and think, ‘How could he do something so stupid?’ ‘Doesn’t she know better? ‘He sure has it coming for him…’ But couldn’t Moses have thought as much about the Israelites? He had poured out his heart and soul for the people, and they wanted to stone him. But rather then cursing them in a spirit of piety and self-righteousness, he begged God for their welfare. When Judas Maccabeus found the idolatrous Jews he could have scoffed and thought, ‘What fools, God knows they’ll get it.’ But instead, he fell on his knees and begged God for mercy. The friends of the paralytic could have assumed the sick man brought it upon himself, he got what was coming for him…or maybe they simply had better things to do. But instead, they picked up their suffering neighbor and brought him to Christ. In every case, God showed mercy.
There’s a pattern here. God loves love so profoundly, that heaven rejoices and miracles follow when we intercede for one another.
“If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men” (I Timothy 2:1).
In a world where we constantly feel powerless, we can be reminded that we have power in Christ. We are never helpless. We can pray. We must pray for one another.
Moreover, we learn where we can turn when we are in need. The paralytic was hopeless. On his own, he couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t lift a finger towards God. Have you ever felt that way, after failing again and again, and choking in your own existential paralysis?
Don’t despair. You have friends, if not on earth then in heaven.
In a couple weeks, we will be celebrating the Feast of All Saints. We’ll gather to thank God for the entire host of His own in heaven. The saints intercede for us, just as Revelation describes them, burning incense before the altar of God on behalf of us on earth. One day, a nun named Mother Gabriella was giving a talk on the Virgin Mary to a group of Evangelicals. At the end of the talk, a person raised her hand, and said, ‘this is all very well, but isn’t she dead?’ Gabriella looked her in the eyes and replied, “I don’t know about you, but my God is the God of the living, not the dead.” The saints are more alive than you and I, and their prayers are potent.
The day after All Saints we celebrate All Souls, to offer up prayers for our loved ones who have gone before us. They too are alive in Christ. The Orthodox Church upholds what the Church has always taught through every century, that in God there is no separation. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1), the living or sleeping that are one in Christ, interceding together for one another.
Are you weak, broken…paralyzed? Turn to your brother or sister, or to a saint in heaven, and ask for help. Death cannot stop the power of prayer.
Are your children, loved ones, and friends paralyzed by secularism and the spirit of our times? Trust God that your prayers make all the difference. Pray, like St. Monica who spent her life praying for her son Augustine. The prayers of a faithful Christian avail much, whether they bear fruits in this life or the next.
Moses, Judas Maccabeus, and the men in our Sunday Gospel had love for the paralyzed and faith in God’s mercy. God saw their love and healed the crippled. In the same way, have faith and trust in God that the prayers of His saints and ours for one another work for the salvation of us all.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.