Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 25, 1010 – St. John’s
For the second Sunday in a row, the Gospel reading offers us a lesson about prayer. Last week we received the assurance that if the unjust judge finally hears the plea of the widow simply to get her off his back, how much more may we expect our good God to respond in good time to our prayers. That lesson was drawn by way of contrast. Today another contrast is offered to us, this time not between a man and God but between two men who both go up to the Temple to pray. This time it’s not so much the need for persistence in praying that Jesus urges as the attitude that we ought to bring to our praying.
Two men went up to the Temple to pray, Jesus tells us in today’s parable, but only one of them returned right with God. The Pharisee’s prayer was of thanksgiving, and that’s perfectly appropriate, and we don’t have any reason to doubt that he was correct in what he said: that he avoided the sins he mentions or that he performed the works of religion. But there’s something wrong about his praying, isn’t there? St. Augustine found two things wrong with it. First, that the man didn’t appear to think he needed anything more: you’ll notice that he doesn’t ask for anything, as if he was content with what he had and was. Second, that the Pharisee’s mind isn’t entirely raised toward, focused on, God. He was looking around himself in order to compare himself with others, and not just with the greedy, the dishonest, the adulterous, but also with that specific tax-collector back there, that guy whose regular contact with Gentiles by itself makes him unholy, that guy back there, the one bent over, as he should be. “Convinced of his own righteousness,” St. Luke says, he “despises everyone else.” What an awful indictment–that one’s praying should be a moment of pride, an occasion of sin!
And there the tax-collector is, indeed bent over, not daring to look up to God, and honest about himself, aware of his need, he prays very simply: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner!” He thought he was far off, Augustine said, but God was near to him; he wouldn’t look up toward God, but God was looking toward him. He utters the simplest of prayers, one spoken from the heart. Perhaps it inspired the Jesus Prayer, also known as the “Prayer of the Heart,” that is so strong in the spirituality of Eastern Orthodox Christianity: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It’s often said repetitively, like the Hail Mary of our Rosary. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Two attitudes of prayer, of praying, then. Why is one’s attitude important? Because it’s a basic matter of honesty, of sincerity, in our praying. Praying is raising our minds and hearts to God, it is a kind of conversation with God. What is more important than honesty in our relationships? In fact, if there is something about which we can’t be honest, it’s a fairly good sign that there’s something wrong with a relationship. So what does our praying reveal about our relationship with God, and about how we view it? We could ask some basic questions: What is our image of the God to whom we are praying? Are we praying to an angry God? To a General Patton? To a Judge? To a Father? To a Mother? What is the basic attitude that leads us to pray? Simple obedience–we’ve been told to pray? Fear? Need? (What kinds of need?) Repentance? Gratitude? Is there anything spontaneous about our praying? Or is it all rote-praying and role-playing? Do we ever put down the prayer-book and simply speak to God, heart to heart? Is our praying ever joyful? When do we pray? How often? Where? Do we offer God anything more than the scraps of our day? (Karl Rahner)
(One of the great things about the Psalms is that they illustrate or exemplify almost all of those images of God and of ourselves I’ve just mentioned. “Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me,” says the poet of Psalm 131:2. Like a weaned child, not hungry for the breast, but content simply to sit with the mother. A beautiful prayer of contentment, of deep communion, in the Lord.)
As with the two men in Jesus’ parable, our praying is an index of our Christianity. I don’t mean here Christianity in general, as described or prescribed in books. I mean my Christianity and your Christianity, yours and mine individually: how well we have appropriated the Gospel, how deeply it affects our lives, what resonance it has in our whole being. Prayer is one of the ways in which we can test how real our Christianity is. One of my mentors, Bernard Lonergan, was a great philosopher and theologian. When he celebrated his fiftieth anniversary as a Jesuit, he said he was most grateful to the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, for one thing: that they had taught him to pray. That’s what Jesus is doing for us today.