The English poet, John Milton, once wrote in his poem on blindness that those serve who only stand and wait. Waiting is a way of relating. Lack of patience can spice up the serving for sure. Hopkins, the Jesuit poet, wrote that patience is a hard thing to pray for.
In waiting for somebody to come or do something with or for me, I find that I am forced to meet myself and that waiting is a kind of serving a self that needs some calming.
These days of preparing to assist at the Eucharist, we might pray with the invitations that impatience offers us to meet the more demanding and expectational side of ourselves. As it says in the prophet Isaiah, chapter 30, God waits to be gracious to you. We can pray with the little opportunities to wait and be served by time.
The books within the Hebrew Scriptures known as “Wisdom Literature” often personify human aspects of the mysterious God. In the First Reading from Sirach, God is pictured as having ears and someone who does not play favorites. God does, however, tend to listen attentively to the poor, the orphan, the widow, and all who are lowly and oppressed. These prayers have a quite direct line up to heaven and into God’s ears.
One other group whose petitions are heard are those who willingly serve God. God seems to be quite like us. We are good to those who are good to us, who attend to our needs. As with the readings from last weekend’s liturgy, prayer can seem to be centered around getting what we want while giving the impression that everything God gives us is gift. This reading is poetically simple and charming, but does form God into our image and likeness a bit too much.
This reading does raise the question about to whom does God listen and to what kind of petitions. God is seen as being of “justice”, impartial, but leans listeningly toward those who may have been listening religiously to God during their lives. Again we are confronted with the mysterious nature of God about Whom there is always wonder and few answers.
Today’s Gospel follows immediately the story we heard last Sunday about the widow who pounded on the judge’s door until he finally gave in to her request. It was a story about persevering in prayer.
We hear the second little parable about prayer today. It has to do with just who has the correct tickets, who has the credentials. As per usual the parables are aimed directly at the always-hovering Pharisees. They have ancient tickets and Jesus seems to be passing out new and improved ways of “getting in”.
Two qualities of those to whom the parable is offered are “those who are convinced of their own righteousness”, and consequently “despise everyone else.” The Pharisees are the first group and the tax collector is the second despised group. Two go up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee hugs himself securely that he has been doing just exactly what is required to “get in”. He prays to himself, because he is interested in serving himself. He finds security in his having performed well in religious matters. For him, God is the Great Approver and religion is a transaction based on pleasing. If there is someone you want to please, it should be God, he thinks and lives.
He enjoys his sense that he is not like the rest of humanity and especially like the dude over there against whom, the Pharisee judges himself as “safe!” The “dude” has taken his place in the back. He possesses four characteristics of humility: distance, eyes cast down, beats his breast, and states his truth to God. I do know why the Pharisee came to pray to himself in the temple. I do wonder why the tax collector would go to pray. Perhaps the collection business was not going well. Maybe he was getting tired of self hatred. Perhaps the temple was the only safe place for someone such as he. Jesus allows that the collector has hit the jackpot. He collects honor instead of shame. His honest declaration of his truth frees him to receive what and Who Jesus is.
There is a popular means of finding our identity. We can accumulate ourselves by possessing material goods and or, such as the Pharisees, spiritual accomplishments. This is the first step though. We then measure what we have or have done against what others have or have done. Comparing is one way which the Pharisee does in exalting himself by shaming the tax-man. It is good to remember that a Jew collecting taxes for the Roman imperial powers presently at that time dominating Israel, renders him a traitor and more than a religious sinner. He is a national disgrace.
Jesus, in relating this little story, is giving a teaching about prayer, but also about the ways of the Kingdom of God and who will belong, who will enter - who will have the proper tickets. Identity in the Kingdom is not achieved, accumulated, nor is it a winning prize. Identity is received through the saving relationship which Jesus offers all. The Pharisee’s hands were full of his practices. The tax-collector received what self-righteous virtue could not achieve.
This is not a story endorsing false humility nor comparing ourselves so we can feel spiritually inferior. We come to our places of prayer, not to win or achieve holiness, nor to buy the right tickets. We come to pray, because we are honored by the saving love of Jesus and sent “home” justified by that love. We do not beat our breasts or beat up ourselves. Jesus exalts us, because we have humbly accepted who we are and who He is!
“We will rejoice at the victory of God and make our boast in His great Name.” Ps. 20, 6
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