To listen to this week’s homily, please select the audio file below:
Luke’s gospel, which we’re reading on the Sunday’s of this year, is a “gospel of prayer.” It sees prayer as central to the life of Jesus and central to our lives too.
In the gospels we’ve read the last few Sundays at Mass Jesus teaches us how to pray, but also touches on some of the difficulties we face when we pray. In last week’s gospel, the parable of the poor widow and the unjust judge, Jesus pointed to one difficulty. He tells us that we can grow tired of praying. For one reason or another, we give it up or it becomes occasional. Maybe we don’t think praying is doing any good. God isn’t listening, or we’re not good enough to speak to God. Maybe we think we can take care of ourselves. We don’t need the help of God. For these and other reasons we can lose our appreciation of prayer; we think it’s really not necessary, and we give it up.
Jesus offers the example of the poor widow who keeps knocking at the door of the unjust judge. She looks like she doesn’t have a chance in the world getting what she wants, but she doesn’t give up, she keeps going until the unjust judge gives her what’s coming to her. In the parable Jesus is also telling us: “God is the very opposite of the unjust judge. Don’t you think God, who made you and cares for you and loves you, hears your prayers? But–and here’s what’s often behind our difficulty– his answer comes on his time and now ours.
In today’s reading, the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican praying in the temple, Jesus points to another difficulty we can experience in prayer. Prayer is meant to bring us before God, but the Pharisee in today’s gospel seems more interested in himself than in God. His prayer sounds more like an exercise in positive thinking. He’s telling us how good he feels about himself.
“I’m not like the rest of humanity,” he says, as he runs through his credits. “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” He’s kept all the laws a good Jew should keep. He rates himself especially high as he looks at the publican standing at a distance, not even raising his eyes to heaven. “A disgrace!” he says to himself.
Prayer isn’t talking to yourself; it’s not speculating about life; it’s not getting away from things that bother you; it’s certainly not an exercise for feeling good about yourself. Prayer is going before God, “Our Father in heaven,” God who is beyond us, yet who invites us to come like a child, his own child, to speak to him.
Jesus says the publican–a “sinner” in Jewish public opinion at the time – prays well with his simple prayer: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” He’s heard by God and goes from the temple justified.
There’s no long analysis of himself and his sins in the publican’s prayer. He’s more intent on throwing himself on the mercy of God. Humble before God, God raises him up.
That’s what prayer is, humbly approaching God. Like Moses on Sinai, we take off our shoes before God who is all holy, but not distance. He is merciful, a God welcomes us and speaks what he wants in simple words we can understand, and gives us gifts we can’t measure.
Listen again to the words from our first reading:
The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
The one who serves God willingly is heard;
his petition reaches the heavens.
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.”
The Lord hears the cry of the poor.