THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Sir 35:12-14, 16-18 2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18 Lk 18:9-14 – How to Pray
The Lord and the Cry of the Poor; True Religion; Humility in Approaching God; Preferential Option for the Poor. Sociological studies show many things about prayer, among them the following. This week more of us will pray than will go to work, or exercise, or have sexual relations. Many spouses readily discuss their sex lives, but have to struggle to talk about prayer.
The studies show that serious prayer usually begins after the age of about thirty, when the illusion that we are masters of our own fate fades and adults develop a deeper need to call on the Master of the Universe. The studies show further, that even on talk shows that deal with the controversial, prayer is never mentioned.
Today’s liturgy discusses some aspects of prayer and life. In the First Reading, written about 180 BC, the Book of Sirach takes up the theme. Jesus ben Sira, its author, wrote for Jews who were a minority dispersed among Gentiles, living — as many Christians do today — in an alien culture. Because the early Church adopted so many of his ideas, his book was also called Liber Ecclesiasticus, “The Book of the Church”.
Sirach said that our prayer life will inevitably be connected with i the rest of our lives. You can’t act one way and pray another. So one requirement for prayer to be acceptable to the God of justice, says Sirach, is that our lives be just — that is, righteous, upright, wholesome, virtuous (v. 12). Sirach reminds us that God knows no favourites except toward the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed (v. 13). Why them? Because they don’t have the illusion that the world turns around them. They are able to do what God wants of all of us — to concentrate on the interior disposition of the heart rather than externals. “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” as today’s Responsorial Psalm puts it, and that and this lesson from Sirach is the background of today’s Gospel.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells of the Pharisee and the tax collector (v. 9), a story that shows the way to being right with God. These two went up to what was in Luke’s Gospel a very privileged place, the Temple, to pray (v. 10), Or, as the humorist put it, “Two men went up to the Temple to pray; one did, and the other didn’t!”
The Pharisee was a good man. He came from the parisim, meaning a group separate, apart. They tried to live up to their sacred Law completely. You would like the Pharisee as your next-door neighbour. You could count on him to be honest, to respect your property, and to do everything right. Yet the people gave some of them unﬂattering nicknames — “Blood«headed Pharisees”, for example, because in their attempts to avoid looking at women in the street they bumped into walls;
“Bookkeeper Pharisees” for those who kept an exact record of their good deeds to offset their bad ones; and “Wait-A-Minute Pharisees” for those who told people wanting to speak with them to “wait a minute” while they went to perform a good deed. But the true Pharisees were called “Pharisees of Love”.
In today’s story, the righteousness of the Pharisee considerably exceeded the standards prescribed by the Mosaic Law. For instance, the Law prescribed one day of fast a year (the Day of Atonement), but he, like many Pharisees, held a complete fast, with no food or drink until after sundown, twice a week — Mondays and Thursdays. The Law commanded tithes of farm produce profits; this Pharisee tithed himself on everything.
The Pharisee of Jesus’ story attributed all his many virtues to his own merits, reminded God of all the good he was doing, and made God out to be in debt to him. He was full of himself; the key word in his prayer was “I”. And he used his prayer to speak ill of his fellow human-beings. To look down on everyone else when we are doing good, as the Pharisee did, is easy. Our society gives ample opportunity to look down — on people guilty of abortion, for instance, and on homosexuals, indulgers in sex outside marriage, street beggars, drug users, AIDS victims, drunkards. Difﬁcult though it may be to admit, there is something of the Pharisee in each of us.
Tax-collectors of that time, on the other hand, were as a group social outcasts. They were considered robbers for Rome. But the very body language of the tax collector of Jesus’ story — keeping his distance, raising his eyes to heaven, beating his breast — showed his attitude in prayer. He used for his prayer the opening verse of the Psalm composed by King David to ask God’s mercy after his adultery with Bathsheba —a prayer so simple and yet so perfect, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He knew himself.
It is as difﬁcult to know ourselves, and often as painful, as it is to peel an onion, which makes us cry. Examination of the world without is never as personally painful as examination of the world within; because of the pain involved in a life of genuine self-examination, many people steer clear of it. Yet when you are dedicated to truth, this pain seems relatively unimportant — and less and less important (and therefore less and less painful) the farther you proceed on the path of self examination.
But from childhood on, we acquire superﬁcial identities which like an onion, layer us as we become what our parents, teachers, and friends want us to be. Desperate for love and approval, we respond to other people, “Yes, I’ll bury who I really am and become who you want me to be.” But the real us doesn’t go away. It lives in the centre of our soul and pounds to get out. Then grace, often in the form of a crisis moves us to start peeling the onion, and maybe start crying. When we strip away our false identities, we are left naked until we search for, discover, and treasure our real selves — God’s idea of what he wanted us to be when he brought us into being in the ﬁrst place.
The result of Jesus’ story? He startled his audience by having the Pharisee the villain of the piece and the tax collector the hero (v. 14). The tax collector’s self-knowledge and humility brought him home in a right relationship with God.
Which of the two are we?
As a model of what both Sirach and Jesus were talking about in humbly unifying prayer life and active life, we have today’s reading from the second letter to Timothy. It presents a portrait of St Paul in prison. Paulhad been arrested before; he was aware that this time he wouldn’t come out of jail alive. Martyrdom was imminent. Paul had already offered everything he had — his money, his scholarship, his work, his time — and now he was offering all that he was — his very life. Just as after their meal the pagans offered a sacriﬁcial ritual of spilling wine upon the ground, so too Paul’s life was being poured out (v. 6). The words of the murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador are apt here: “IfI am killed, I will rise again in my people. My voice will disappear but my word, which is Christ’s, will remain.”
Paul called it the time of his departure. For Paul the tent maker, it meant taking down his earthly tent for a better place. For Paul the missioner who had often sailed the Mediterranean for Christ, it meant launching out to cross the waters of death for the haven of eternity. Death is all these things — an act of worship, a libation, an act of freedom, striking one’s tent, and a launching into eternity.
Paul could face the end with equanirnity. He expressed it in images of the athletic games. He had competed well (v. 7). Win, lose, or draw, he had done his best. That he had “ﬁnished the race” was a satisfaction. A race, like other efforts in life, is easy to begin, hard to ﬁnish. The world’s most famous race is the Marathon. At the original Marathon in 490 BC, the Greeks won a very hard victory. After the battle, a young Greek soldier ran all the way, day and night, to Athens with the news. As he finished the race and delivered his message of victory to the magistrates, he fell dead.
Like that Marathon runner, and like the competitors at the games, Paul had “kept the faith”. Now, he merited the reward of a winner. The crown he looked forward to, however, wasn’t the laurel crown (v. 8) given by men, which withered, but one given by God, which would never die. Paul knew that he was soon coming to the emperor Nero’s judgment, and he knew what that judgment would be. He hoped for a favourable verdict from God.
For both Nero’s and God’s verdicts, he waited. And he waited alone. Not one of his friends stood by him (v. 16). It was too dangerous. ’During that time Paul’s prayer contained reminiscences of the psalm—prayer that was on Jesus’ lips on the cross (Ps 22): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (v. 2), it began, and continued, “I have no one to help me” (v. 12), and “Save me from the lion’s mouth” (v. 22). Paul derived courage from the knowledge that the Lord would bring him to his heavenly kingdom (v. 18).
Each of today’s readings teaches us something about how we should pray and live —— From Sirach, that our prayer must be connected with the rest of our lives, especially our conduct toward the powerless; from Jesus, that our prayer must be humble; from Paul, staying power. A good life, like a good prayer, comes from emptying ourselves of ourselves to let God in. That means a realization of the truth of words scribbled long ago by an anonymous soldier of the Confederacy: I asked God for strength, that I might achieve — I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey. I asked for help that I might do greater things — I was given infirmity. that I might do better things. I asked for riches, that I might be happy —I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life — I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for — but everything I had hoped for. Despite myself, my prayers were answered. 1 am, among all men, most richly blessed!