The theme of the readings today is prayer. From the Old Testament reading, we are comforted to know that all prayers reach the ears of the Almighty. St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy demonstrates how prayer must be at the center of the disciple’s life. In the gospel from Luke today, Jesus warns us about the posture and the perspective that our prayers should take.
I’d like us to think about three aspects of our prayer lives which these scriptures bring to our attention. The first word is perseverance, or we might say persistence. From the book of Sirach we see that, “the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds, nor will it withdraw till the most high responds.” We are told that the widow’s cry is heard. We are told that the Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan.
These words should be a comfort to us when what we have to say to God is a lot of complaining and grumbling. It is okay to complain to God. He can hear it. In fact, if you look at some of the most famous Psalms, there is plenty of complaining. It is Psalm 22 that Jesus recites from the cross on Good Friday, which starts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So when our hearts are heavy or bitter, and we wonder if God can even hear us, let’s take comfort in the Psalm his Son prayed on the Cross. He heard his Son, he hears the widow’s cry, and he hears us when we pray.
So we should persevere knowing that it’s okay to complain. Our complaining should always be grounded in trust in God’s justice. From the Book of Sirach we read that the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds, that it reaches its goal, and it will not withdraw until the Most High responds and judges justly. Sometimes our prayers will not be answered exactly as we hope because the Most High knows what is truly just – what is true justice – much better than we do. We must offer all our prayers trusting in His justice.
We should also persevere through the dry spells in our prayer lives. If our complaint is something along the lines of, “God you’re so far from me,” well at least we’re praying. Every Christian will experience periods of spiritual desolation, when he feels alone or removed from God. During these times of spiritual dryness, the Evil One will tempt us to turn away from God, but our persistence in prayer will help us stay close to God even when we don’t feel His presence. Part of the meaning of the word ‘perseverance’ is to keep on going when the going gets tough. Our prayer lives should be marked by persistence and perseverance.
From the gospel story, we are given a sharp contrast in the proper posture or perspective that we should maintain in prayer. And I don’t mean kneeling or standing. The Pharisee in the story is contrasted with the tax collector. When we run into a Pharisee in the gospel, we are tempted to think that there is never anything good about a Pharisee. And indeed, in this story the Pharisee’s prayer seems to be a long list of his own goodness, and a comparison with the sinfulness of everybody else. Sometimes it’s hard for us to remember that the Pharisees were faithful followers of the religion handed down to them from Abraham and Moses. They were good guys. But this Pharisee in this story, a devout an observant Jew, has adopted a posture in his prayers that Jesus contrasts with the posture of the tax collector.
The Pharisee’s prayer does not sound like a person who sees himself as a sinner. He sounds like a man full of pride who is not looking up to heaven but looking from side to side at his fellow human beings. His prayer is a prayer of thanks that he is not like the rest of humanity. He lists his good record of stewardship and fidelity. And these are indeed good things. But they lose their goodness when we pull them out to compare them to other people. Even when our prayer is one of thanksgiving, posture and perspective are important. Why are we giving thanks, and to whom?
Jesus contrasts the posture of the Pharisee with the posture of the tax collector. The tax collector would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but he beat his breast as he prayed. And his prayer was a simple one: “oh God, be merciful to me a sinner.” We don’t know if he had a good record of stewardship, because the tax collector knew that the most important part of his prayer was to acknowledge himself as a sinner. Where the Pharisee seemed to think he could work his way into Heaven, the tax collector knew nobody can, but anybody can be saved if he accepts the gift of salvation in the Cross. Where the Pharisee had a horizontal perspective — looking to his left and to his right and comparing himself with those he saw — the tax collector had a vertical perspective — rightly seeing himself relative to his Creator and his God. Remembering to look up to God rather than to look at our neighbor is an important aspect of our prayer lives.
The third aspect of our prayer lives is that they should culminate in praise of God, who made us, who saved us, and who loves us. We may start complaining like the widow in the book of Sirach, but we should end our prayer praising our God. That Psalm 22 which Jesus recited from the cross ends as a hymn of praise and victory to God. Psalm 51, the famous song of contrition written by King David, ends as a hymn of praise to God. In his second letter to Timothy, St. Paul describes how his life of ministry was poured out like a libation, and he knows he is near the end. He has endured trials and tribulations, but he has kept the faith. He has persevered through the dry spells and the controversies. He concludes his life story with praise to God, as he says, “to him be glory for ever and ever amen.”
You and I will have difficult periods in our lives, when it is not easy to pray. The whole Church has and will experience periods where God seems so far away. We must persevere in our prayers, knowing we are free to complain as long as we keep talking to God.
When we talk to God, we must never lose our heads and think we are better than anyone else talking to God. Even if we are good Catholics who are faithful stewards of what God has entrusted to us, we should always have the words of the tax collector at the front of our minds: we are sinners dependent on God’s mercy. No matter what our prayer starts like, we should always bring our minds and hearts back to the reality of God’s love for us: He loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son to die on a Cross for our sins. And we should be filled with praise for a God who loves us like that.