Preparing for Sunday anticipating this day.Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
Psalms 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23
Second Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
We all have had experiences of talking to someone whom we thought was listening to us, but alas, their minds were occupied with something less important. The big question for us is whether God listens to our prayers. Why don’t we get what we ask for, especially when we pray for somebody else’s needs?
There is a person who is convinced that if she has a health problem and calls me to ask for my prayers that God listens to my pleading for her more than if she, herself, prays. This places a tremendous pressure on my reputation, but so far, she is quite healthy and meanwhile I’ve got a bad cold. What are we doing when we do something called “prayer?”
Today’s readings give us some ideas about our verbal and non-verbal relationship with this mysterious God. We begin with the realization that on the interpersonal level we tend to feel closer to those persons who consistently respond to our requests in a positive way. God does not seem consistent in our regard. We can have a bit of a “gumball machine” image of God. We put in our need, surrounded by intensity and faith, then put out our hands to get it. If it arrives, well, then there is a God and if not, well, there begins a distancing.
We hear in the First Reading from the Book of Sirach about how God does not play favorites in the area of listening to prayers. However, “He hears the cry of the oppressed.” “The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan.” God hears the complaint of the widow. The ones who serve God have their prayers heard, the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds, and “the Lord will not delay.” God does not have favorites when listening to prayers, but there do seem to be some exceptions.
The Gospel has the second parable which Jesus began in last-Sunday’s Gospel. The opening sentence sets the scene and tone. The first parable was addressed to the Apostles encouraging them to pray during the coming difficulties of His life and their own. This second parable is directed towards the Pharisees who trusted in their own piety as holiness. The two men of the parable are both praying in the temple area. The first, guess who, a Pharisee “spoke this prayer to himself.” He addresses God, but literally is speaking to and about his pious actions, expecting a blue ribbon. He thanks God that he is not like other human beings, even though he is. He has put himself above his need for God which is basically un-human. He has completed the moral and ritual laws, but so as to feel good about himself. There is no “cry,” “wail,” or “petition” in his speaking to and about himself.
The “tax collector” is always the worst of characters in the Gospels. They are Jews who are employed by Rome to squeeze his fellow Jews to support the foreign empire dominating their country. He tells his truth addressing God directly, “O god, be merciful to me a sinner.” Truth met truth; the sinner met himself and God met him.
The invitation to pray is an invitation to be honest. The object of prayer is to leave prayer having received our truth and ourselves more peacefully. The fruit of praying is our relationship with God lived out in the open. The tax collector went home “justified,” meaning square with God and himself.
Humbling ourselves does not mean saying negative things; it means telling the truth. Exalting ourselves means pretending that we have no need of God except congratulations. It seems that we are so frightened of praying humbly with the gifts which God has already given us, unasked for. It is easier to be negative and call that humility.
There is no doubt that we need mercy and we are sinners, but that is not our essential definition. We can pick on ourselves and call that prayer when done in church or on our knees. I would call that praying to and about myself and I have done that. Prayer is not something we do, but more, we receive. The tax collector received himself and went out whole. Prayer is not asking, but basking. Prayer is a preparation for prayerfulness in which we live more gently, more as a sacrament, and more like human beings are meant to live.
The prayer that remains unheard is God’s prayer over and within us.
We fail to listen, because we have something less important on our minds,
our failures and our inferiority. This listening to God’s prayer
over us results in our asking less and receiving those gifts around us
more gratefully. We are like the rest of humanity; we have even more
needs than we know, but God does and loves us into gentleness.
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