Oct 26, 2013

30th Sunday: How God will listen

"Two people went up to the temple area to pray."

Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18
2 Tm 4: 6-8, 16-18
Lk 18: 9-14

With Halloween and the celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day on the horizon, the basic lesson on practical prayer in today’s readings is helpful.  In its beginning, Halloween was a religious holiday in which Christians would prepare for the Eve of all the holy ones.  Sadly, in its present secular, non-religious context, it has lost all religious significance.

Yet, we learn from the Saints and from our brothers and sisters who have left this life bound for eternity in God’s mercy, we know that prayer is powerful and an essential life blood to holiness.  Even Jesus prayed and the Apostles inquired of the Lord might help them to pray.  The countless Saints before us and now among us, teach us that communication with God (prayer) is not an option if one desires to be a true Christian disciple. So, many people pray; that’s a given. Still the readings today offer us the essential answer to the question: “How must I pray for God to hear me?”

In this first reading from Sirach we hear that God is a “God of justice, who knows no favorites . . . who hears to cry of the oppressed . . . is not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow . . . The one who serves God willingly is heard . . .”

God cares about the social order of things.  How we live together in community and how we include or exclude the poor and disadvantaged makes a difference in the eyes of our just God and whether our pleas for help, our prayers, will be accepted by Him. Enter the Pharisee and tax collector of the Gospel parable.

Right away the passage begins as Luke sets up the point of the story: “Those convinced of their own self-righteousness (Pharisee) and despised everyone else (tax collectors and all sinners).”

It’s interesting the Pharisee finds his position for prayer in the Temple. Apparently, being a man of his stature and righteous state, very much at home in the Temple, that his position was for public visibility.  The Pharisee stood for prayer so that others could see him easily and as Jesus states, “spoke this prayer to himself.”  Himself?  What happened to God? The implication may well be that God is not even listening. Or if he is, he isn’t pleased about what he hears.  

So, goes his “prayer to himself.”  “I” thank you that “I” am not like the rest of humanity.” Then he proceeds to tell God what humanity is like as if God is clueless:  “greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.” (That bum behind me in case you didn’t notice him.)

Then the accomplishments: “I” fast . . . “I” pay tithes.”  What a good boy I am, God. Finally, after using the pronoun “I” four times and passing judgment on humanity and in particular that greedy tax collector whose posture is one of deep repentance: hands crossed, head bowed, standing off at a distance, likely in some hidden recess of the Temple as he beat his breast.

But, truth be told, the Pharisee is honest about his life.  He is not greedy, dishonest or adulteress.  He is a perfect Jew in a sense as he does all the right things and so rightly feels justified before God.  Yet, his prayer remains empty because though he may be correct, he has done it all for the wrong reasons.  Their egos have become enlarged, their motivations were shallow, and their self-image is so filled with self that God has been pushed out as a spectator not a participant.

By stark contrast, the tax collector in the posture of humility simply prays: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” He knows he’s done wrong and has come to repentance.  He is the example of how our prayers will be heard by God.  It’s clear this is no self-serving prayer, no prayer “to himself” but a cry for mercy and trust in a God who forgives.  I think God heard this prayer loud and clear.

Jesus offers two extreme examples again about our disposition in prayer.  Whether we stand, kneel, or sit in prayer is less important than how we approach God. We must be like the tax collector whose entire approach was that of the prodigal son who came to his senses, returned to his father, and begged mercy.

How do you pray?  Our posture is important and helpful but a prayer from the heart that is simple and sincere opens the ears of God and always gets his attention.  Is God a participant in your prayer or merely a spectator?

In our celebration of the Eucharist we hear words of pleading, humility, mercy: “Accept, O Lord . . . Grant us, almighty God . . . May your grace, O Lord, we pray . . . we dare to say . . . Lord, have mercy. . . Lord, I am not worthy . . .”  Our liturgy is filled with right position before God, that of creatures before their creator who recognize their own weakness. 

Take some time to pray more this week.  Try keeping your prayer simple, not lengthy or wordy.  Begin by asking for mercy the same way we do each Sunday when the Church gathers.  As Pope Francis so recently said about himself: “I am a sinner.” Such an approach to God is the way to be heard. 

(Psalm 51, an excerpt)

"Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me."
And now we begin to pray . . .