30th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

There is certainly a wild contrast between the people at prayer as described by Jesus.  The Pharisee pray-brags from a prominent place in the Temple about his accomplishments while thanking God he is not “like the rest of humanity” especially the forlorn tax collector.  I am not worried we would act like that.  As a matter of fact, I have never seen anyone act like that (outside of seminary).  A more important question is whether or not we can be like the tax collector, who refuses to raise his eyes and only prays, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  Can we be small enough, aware enough and humble enough to pray as simply and sincerely as that?

I think one of the obstacles we have in praying as the tax collector is comfortability. Our access and success does not make it easy to connect to our brokenness.   Let’s face it, you pray a lot differently for a promotion at work or success at school than you do for food when there is none and safety for your children in a dangerous setting.  Comfortability allows us to imagine greener pastures without being aware of the grace we need to get there.

Instead, we need to be desperate for God to hear us, crying out for God who hears the cry of the poor.  We need to connect to hymns that signal that hunger.  You may know that I am not a big fan of “Amazing Grace” but you can hear the joy of a sinner who knows he has been heard. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”  There is a great African-American Gospel hymn called “Standin’ in the need of Prayer.”

I’ve been down so long – Standin’ in the need of prayer

I know I been wrong – Standin’ in the need of prayer.

 

Wherever we are and whatever we have attained, we are standing in the need of prayer.  When we are not, we have lost something.  I know the danger zone for me. I call it “A little pride goeth before the little fall.” It often starts by thinking I have done a couple of good homilies in a row.  Then maybe a successful counseling session and a great event at the parish and I am feeling pretty good about myself.  Then I know the other shoe is about to drop not because of the law of averages or Karma, but simply due to the fact that I had given myself credit for what properly belongs to God.  And believe me, you would much rather be graced by the blessing of God than the blessing of Bob.  Inevitably, something will happen – a careless word, a missed opportunity, and I will recognize that I have strayed from my mission – to reflect the glory of God.  Then prayer must become real, honest and hard.

Think back to the arrogant Pharisee.  Jesus insists he did not go home justified, for how can God make the self-righteous righteous?  Instead we can seek to have the attitude of the tax collector – the same attitude of Pope Francis who when asked to describe himself chose four words, “I am a sinner.”  It seems to me that the more we can share with God our smallness, our fears and our sins, the more we are opening the door to the sunlight of mercy.  The weaker we are, the more we invite God’s strength, the more shadows we acknowledge, we invite God’s light, the more anxiety we feel bring forth God’s peace.  Let us find our smallness and know God’s generous love. Let us never be afraid to bring all before God so we can utter that perfect prayer – “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

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