Prayer- are you asking or basking? ( Part 2) Retreat talk to the SVD seminarians in Pune

 Prayer- are you asking or basking?  ( Part 2) Retreat talk to the SVD seminarians in Pune

What is the attitude we should have before God in prayer? Luke gives us another account of two people praying in 18:9-14. Who is he telling this parable to? To those who trusted in themselves, to those who were righteous and to those who regarded others with contempt.

So Jesus is not only narrating this parable about ‘a Pharisee’, he is narrating this to the present day audience especially when we behave like Pharisees. Jesus  is talking to ALL who fall in the above categories. So don’t be fooled by the example of the Pharisee and dismiss this as situational example lost in history. Jesus is talking about the Pharisee in all of us (Church people). Yet it is amazing that he even used a tax collector and a Pharisee in the same story for the Jews could not even imagine the two to be mentioned in the same breath. There was no doubt in the mind of the Jew that the Pharisee would be the hero of the narrative.

In Luke 5:32 Jesus said I have come not for the righteous. So it is clear that Jesus does not have some ‘gold star standard’ for those He has come or not come for. He has come to save all so all can petition him in prayer.

  What’s common between the tax collector and the Pharisee in the parable?

  1. Both went to pray

  2. Both went to temple (the same place)

  3. Both are sinners( even though the Pharisee things otherwise)

  4. Both address God

What’s different about them?

  1. One was an honest sinner. He looks to heaven, beats his breast and acknowledges the sin

  2. The other was a dishonest sinner – The Pharisee is not praying to God he is actually listing his religious achievements. Who is the centre of his prayer? It is himself! He is the object of his own worship. Four times in the parable he says “I”.

How does Jesus want us to pray?

In Matthew 6: 5-18 the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. Notice they don’t say, “Lord teach us to work miracles or how do we drive a demon out of someone?” They say, “Teach us to pray.” That should be our starting point with the Lord and with ministry. Jesus does not want us to pray like the hypocrites (scribes and Pharisees) for they loved to be seen praying in public places.  Their goal was to be seen because they use faith to drive attention to themselves. It is possible to pray and still sin at the same time when your prayer is all about yourself. So Jesus is not saying don’t pray He is saying don’t make it all about yourself and certainly not to show others.

Also note that in Matthew 6:5 Jesus does not say ‘If’ you pray he says ‘whenever’ you pray. So praying is not something we do at certain times such as in Lent or Advent or during a retreat we are called to pray at all time and in all seasons.  Prayer is not an option in our life, it is our life.

Philippians 2:5 reminds us that the way to the Father is through humility both in our life and in our prayer. The way ‘up’ is the way ‘down’ (on our knees) and down on our knees (humility) is the way up. In this context ‘self-promotion leads to demotion’. So once again like the widow and the unjust judge we see the use of contrast in this parable, this time it’s the Pharisee and the Tax collector. One was most respected the other least respected.

The Pharisee has a strange idea of prayer –

  1. He does it to show others. He is focused on the content of his prayer. He is not ‘asking’ he is ‘basking’ in his righteousness.

  2. He focuses on his external behaviour. It’s time we put the magnifying glass over our internal behaviour. This is a matter close to the heart of Jesus too, for He asks us clearly, ‘what is more important’. Is it what goes into a man or what comes out? For Jesus the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.

  3. He has a jaded view of spiritual practice. Spirituality does not give us bragging rights that is why Jesus said when you give alms and when you pray, do it in secret.

  4. He plays the comparison game.

The tax collector

  1. He really is a bad guy – let’s not romanticise him for he has a sinful streak in him.

  2. However he had a conscience that bothered him. He would not look at heaven.

  3. The tax collector knows he needs help from God and so a sign of repentance he beats his breast.

  4. Perhaps this was his first prayer, like the good thief on the cross.

  5. He is not making excuses and does not blame others for his situation

The prayer of the tax collector is the most perfect prayer of mercy ever said by a sinner for we are told that he goes home justified; he is now ‘right with God’. Justification for the Jews was to be guiltless and without sin. This is why they had sacrifices; lambs were slaughtered and blood had to be spilt for sin was a serious business and demanded no less than life. Blood was that symbol of life spilt.   The Pharisee on the other hand believed in his effort not God’s grace.  Unfortunately many of us are trying to earn grace; that which is freely given by God to us.

The end seems bizarre for the Jews, as their ‘good guy’ gets slammed and the ‘bad’ guy gets the prize. But then again pure grace never seems fair. Remember the words of the hymn amazing grace?  It says, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”.

Fr Warner D’Souza

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