A story is told of a young boy kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament .This is his prayer. ‘Lord, I need food today for myself and for my younger brother. Please give me $20.’ The person praying near him heard his plea, so she fished out $10 dollar note from her pocket and dropped it in front of the boy. When the boy saw the money, he picked it up and without looking even at the person who gave it to him to show gratitude at least he went on with his prayer: ‘Lord, thank you for the money, but next time you’d better give it to me directly because if you give it through another person like the one beside me because she’d took half of it, and she only gave me $10 when I asked you for $20.’
This is just a snippet of how our prayer life can sometimes be like. We sometimes pray and when our prayers are not answered the way we want, we tend to blame ourselves (that we are not praying for the right thing, or not in the right time), or we put the blame to other people even, like the little boy in the story, or at times we would tend to blame God saying: ‘God doesn’t listen to my prayers.’
How about us: How’s our predisposition or attitudes before or when we pray?
Jesus in our gospel today, is telling us some of the commendable attitudes we must develop in our life especially in our prayers.
One, is that we accept who we are, faults and all, before God. Praying is being true to ourselves and to who we are before. This must be the basic attitude, a basic pre-disposition of our hearts when we pray. This is the attitude that Jesus would say in the gospel that is ‘at rights with God’ or makes us ‘go home justified.’ This is the attitude shown by the tax collector. And it is worth imitating and developing in our selves especially in our prayer life. But we need to be very careful if we tend to identify ourselves completely to the tax-collector in the parable. Some of us Catholics might even justify our favourite place to sit in the Church which is at the very back of the Church at Mass, or even standing sometimes, because the tax-collector had done this, and he went home at rights with God. We need to understand that in Jesus’ time tax collectors are considered traitors by the Jews. See, the Jews believed only in one God as we do. So their loyalty should have been to this only one and true God. However, the tax collectors, i.e. living among the Jewish community, were working not for God, but for the Roman Government. The taxes they collected were for the Romans, for their projects, for their policies, to build a temple for their own gods and goddesses. So we can sympathize with the Jews if they had a certain unholy revulsion against them. So identifying ourselves with the tax-collector in the gospel today might put us into a questionable ground or loyalty. And this is not the point Jesus wanted to make by telling us the parable. Jesus is telling us rather that in terms of prayer, the tax collector has taught us a valuable lesson. He acknowledged his weaknesses, his limitations before God and his being a sinner. He didn’t even have a personal prayer on his own even. He only used the text from the Psalm 51: ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ He was true to himself. He didn’t pretend to someone virtuous before God.
Two, praying is emptying ourselves for God to fill in. The Pharisee in the gospel however is doing the opposite. He is too focused on his achievements or ‘good works’ to the extent of thinking of himself as superior over another. We heard in the gospel that he mentions himself ‘I’ six times while the tax-collector refers only ‘once’ to himself and that’s when he is ‘pleading for God’s mercy.’ Experience could tell us that we can’t fill up a glass full of water. If we continue pouring in, it just spills over and thus wasted. The same thing could be said in our prayers. If we are too focused on ourselves, we lose the connection. Experience can tell us about this too. Certainly many of us might have had a call from telemarketer before especially in the late afternoon of early evenings. I don’t know about you, but I’m sorry to disappoint you, I can’t listen to people that go on and on about their products and not even willing to listen what I have to say. So what I’ve done few times before, I hanged up because there is no real conversation happening there. With regards to prayer, I’m not saying that if we go on and on and on, God would hang up on us. Certainly not. He is always there listening to us and what we have to say. However, as Fr Pat O’Sullivan, S.J., would always say: ‘Prayer is a relationship,’ and no personal relationship can flourish with only one doing the talking all the time. Thus, if we really want to have a real and personal relationship with God, let us also listen to him and what he has to say in our prayers and meditations. So in our prayers, let us strive not to be like the Pharisee who is too full of himself, as if whatever he has done is all his doing, and by doing that he is not allowing God to be real and active in his life.
Three, praying is humbling ourselves before God. The prayer of the humble ‘pierces the clouds’ as we have heard in our First reading today. Praying is not bragging ourselves before God, but acknowledging that all that we have received are God’s gifts for us. This is the difference between the prayer of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. One is bragging and the other is really praying. Furthermore, Sirach, the name of the author of Ecclesiasticus which we have heard today is also saying to about a much deeper message, and that is our prayer life should inevitably be connected to the rest of our lives.
So once again, we are asked: How’s our prayer life? How’s our life of faith in general? If our prayers are not answered yet, it might be worth asking: ‘Why, or what, or how do I pray?’ But then again, it’s a journey in faith and a call to relationship with God, so like St Paul, ‘let us strive to fight a good fight to the end, to run the race to the finish, and to keep up the faith’ that we have. Amen.