Last week Jesus, in the parable of the widow and the unrighteous judge, explained to us when we should pray – constantly. Today, Jesus explains to us through another parable how we should pray. But in a more foundational sense Jesus is showing us how our relationship with the Father should be. After all, prayer is the communication in our relationship and how we talk to others is a great indicator of our relationship with them. Personal interaction, verbal and nonverbal, are inseparable actions in a relationship, and outward signs of our interior disposition.
Today’s parable leads us to some valuable realizations about both how we talk to Him (prayer) and how we act towards God’s actions to us (especially our participation in the Mass).
How we talk to Him.
Jesus gives us two examples, the first is the Pharisee, who comes not to communicate but to advertise. He comes not as a friend who desires companionship and the love that it entails; but as one who promotes his superiority. We hear ‘The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself…’ Sadly, this translation does us a disservice, it erases some of the important aspects of this parable. Since the early days of the church this line in the parable has Jesus saying: ‘The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself.’ The Pharisee is standing, (in some Spanish translations it describes his standing as standing erect, prideful) and when taken in light of his words, it indicates a conceited soul. St. Basil the Great, a father of the church who lived in the 4th century, comments on this line: ‘He says he prayed with himself, not as it were with God; for his sin of pride turned in upon himself.’ He stands in front of the altar and talks at God about himself, not with God about themselves. Though he is seemingly physically close to God (the altar in this parable); he is far removed from him in his soul. His dialogue, or rather monologue continues with how pleased he is with himself that he is so holy. St. Augustine says of this monologue: ‘He says, I am just a man; the rest of men are sinners!’ The arrogance of this monologue is stupefying, he fails to notice the plank in his eye. He spends his time patting himself on the back at the expense of the other person praying in the temple.
Again, St Augustine: ‘Examining the Pharisee’s words you find he asks nothing of God. He came up to pray. He has no wish to ask God for anything. He wishes simply to praise himself; and insult the other man praying there.’ Which brings us to the tax collector, who though standing ‘off at a distance’ physically is brought near to God with his piety. He communicates as one who holds this relationship, this companionship, in the highest of importance. He cares how he responds to God’s gift of love. He is sorrowful about how he is living this relationship and worried about how his life might affect it, but he is also comfortable in talking with God. He is humble. Even given the power that his position in society affords him, he understands the importance of his relationship with God and talks with Him and offers up his sorrow in hope that he and God can still walk together.
How do we pray?
At God or with God. Do we run through a litany of our achievements without any remorse for the judgments and actions we continually make towards others? Do we focus on our dialog with God or is it a monologue? Do we place this relationship at the top of our desires and priorities or is it just something to do?
The other aspect of our relationship is how we act towards God’s actions to us – in this particular case – how to we participate in Christ’s gift of himself in Holy Mass.
We see in the parable that the Pharisee, who is a religious leader, well versed in the Jewish religion, has come with his own agenda into sacred space where man responds to God’s loving initiatives. It is a holy space for Judaism, a place of sacrifice that is regulated by the religious practices that have evolved over almost 2 millennia. But this leader doesn’t appreciate this space and the gifts that allow him to worship – he just does his own thing. The tax collector, on the other hand, is unsure of his suitability to be there and holds himself back. But still, he throws himself, and his sorrow, at God’s mercy. In a way, he offers his contrition for this failures as sacrifice in hope that they will be accepted by God. He, in his own way, makes correct use of the religious practices.
How do we act to God’s actions, His gifts to us – the sacraments?
Have we tried to understand the reasons why things are done the way they are in Mass? Do we come before this altar, which represents Jesus; which brings forward to us the actual passion of Christ and bow in reverence to all that it stands for and all that happens on it? Do we genuflect in acknowledgment that God is residing in the Tabernacle, indeed is the first thing we do when we enter a church look for the tabernacle and see if the tabernacle light is burning? Do we reverence our God by trying to understand all that He offers us in the Sacraments? Do we hunger for a more intimate relationship with our God? Or do we come in and self-promote ourselves as the Pharisee does, or just go through the motions because that is what is expected of us?
In both interactions, how we view our relationship with one another will be seen. If my view of our religion is more about me, then that is what I will end up with – me. I will be by myself, my pride will weigh me down and keep me from rising to meet God. If my view of our religion is more about relationship with God and how I can be a better companion, then we will most assuredly meet. Or as Christ tells us in the Gospel: ‘whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’