It has become a truism that whenever pious hypocrites want to avoid actually doing something they know they should do but don’t want to do they offer…
Thoughts and prayers are the #1 Republican Rite Christian prophylactic against ever actually using their immense power to change things to, you know, change things. It is the code language of Conservative Christians signaling their unwavering commitment to inaction and the sure and certain guarantee that they will double down in their efforts to make no effort whatsoever to alter the statisical certainty that, by 12/31/20, another 40,000 Americans will be dead from gun violence. It is prayer offered in order to sterilize obedience to the fifth commandment, prayer offered in the same spirit in which Judas kissed Jesus, prayer as blasphemy.
Jesus pegged this baloney in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’ (Mt 7:21–23).
Prayer is intended as prelude to, not prophylaxis against, action. Pope Francis, with typical succinctness, sums up the incarnational Catholic understanding of prayer when he says, “You pray for the hungry and then you feed them. That is how prayer works.”
Some people ask, “Why bother with the prayer part and not just cut straight to the feeding people part?” I think Jesus’ reply “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” is a pretty good answer.
People want More. They cannot be restrained from desiring it. Once the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is satisfied, telling people to ignore their desire for the Transcendent is a fool’s errand, because those desires cannot be denied. Some people can muscle all that down and satisfy themselves that earth is enough. But even most people who claim they don’t believe in the supernatural cannot be restrained from trying to fill the hole with nearly anything anyway.
What Jesus promises us is that he himself is the bread for that hunger. He does not pit prayer against action as the hypocrites do. But neither does he pretend that filling earthly needs will ever satisfy us. In the end, it must be the mission of Christians to fill both sorts of needs, neither spiritualizing our obligation to the least of these into phony excuses for being cheapskates, nor in seeking a People’s Democratic Republic of Heaven which reduces the gospel to a mere NGO.