Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church Norman, OK
Sirach 35,12-14 + Psalm 34 + 2 Timothy 4, 6-8, 16-18 + Luke 18, 9-14
For several Sundays we have listened in to Jesus instructing his disciples through various stories and parables in response to their request: “Lord, Teach us to Pray.” Of course, the instruction is for all disciples, and still is. Today is the final instruction, and he places the examples in the Temple. The location itself has something to say. The Pharisee belonged there which is probably why he was up front. That tax collector, because he was working for the Romans and considered a traitor, was not exactly “in” the Temple. He would have had to stay outside in some other courtyard, at some distance. So the set-up invites us to begin thinking about these polar opposites, and then join in the surprise at the end when the justification of one is affirmed and the other is left out. It’s all backwards, and to “get” the story, we have to set aside our prejudice against Pharisees, and our tendency to champion the under-dog. What Jesus says about the two of them does not make sense at all, and it should not make sense to any of us who are here, in church, with our tithe, with our long record of being faithful, and true, prayerful, and sincere. In fact, we need to put ourselves in that Pharisees’ shoes. If there were Pharisees in the crowd that day listening they would have had every reason to shout: “What?” “What are you saying?” “We have done everything you asked of us! We kept the rules! We listened to what you said! What do you mean that guy went home justified?” With that reaction, they have revealed a lot about themselves and even more about their relationship with God.
At this point, it is time to connect the dots, so to speak. It’s time to look more deeply into what justification consists of, where is comes from, and then wonder about whether or not it’s even worth it to pray: at least pray as we may have been praying.
If all you consider here is the words of their prayers, there is nothing better or worse about either one of the prayers these men are offering to God. Both have a relationship with God which is ultimately what prayer is all about. Both of them are honest and sincere. What’s different about them is their frame of mind. The mind, the thinking, the perception of reality in which the Pharisee functions is the problem. He does not have the mind of God. He does not connect with God or relate to God in the way God wants us to. His claim on “justification” comes from what he has done, it does not come from his relationship with God. His whole relationship with God is based on obligations and rules. In contrast, the Tax Collector has a totally different relationship with God. It is his relationship that is preferred. Prayer is all about relationship.
What we are all invited to learn from this instruction of Jesus is that our dialogue with God must be about what is on our minds and where we are in our lives. The way we live our lives day in and day out reveals the truth about us. Our failures, our sins, our imperfections are always with us. Can you hear that in the prayer of the tax gatherer? God loves us just the way we are. Yet we often think that what we do or what say will change the way God sees us. It does not. It cannot because God already has loved us. We can’t get more. So doing good things to get God’s favor or earn some heavenly points betrays something very fundamental: a deep doubt that God loves us. The good things we do, how we pray, and how we live with one another must spring from a real and personal conviction, or from faith, the belief that we are loved by God.
We come to prayer in faith with different motivations and different needs, but the highest motivation is pure love. Without that, our prayer is shallow and self-serving. All our actions and decisions, all that we say and do must come from our love of God. Otherwise, our actions are just self-serving and useless. What this parable teaches us about prayer is that is far better to simply come before God just as we are and simply ask for understanding and mercy. Our past as a church is full of great and noble men and women who were the most broken and the most vulnerable who found divine favor through their simple humility and honesty.
These people do not look upon others. Hear that in the prayer of the Pharisee. These humble and honest people of love, in their relationship with God, become the best channel of God’s love, God’s Justice, and God’s mercy because they share what they have found, they imitate what they have seen, and they give back to God the love they have discovered in their faith. These are people of Joy and people of Hope. These are the people who go home justified not because of what they have done or for that matter how they have prayed, but because of how they lived and how they have loved.