How is your prayer life? How is your relationship with God in that daily conversation we call prayer? In the story of this weekend’s gospel, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we are given the third in a series of three great parables on prayer that are found in the Gospel of Luke. It says a lot, that Jesus would spend so much time teaching His disciples about prayer.
Prayer has the power to strengthen us and set our lives on fire so that we can boldly proclaim the Gospel. It can mean the difference between a life of faith and vitality or one lived in bland mediocrity.
Our prayer makes a difference in the way we live our lives, and the two of them—prayer and life—are intrinsically bound together. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, one quarter of which is dedicated to Christian prayer, says that “We pray as we live, because we live as we pray” (CCC #2725).
And in this weekend’s gospel we can see that the Pharisee isn’t doing either of those two things very well! On the outside he seems to have it all together. He begins with a prayer of thanksgiving: a good start.
But what he is thankful for is that he is “not like the rest of humanity,” or “like this tax collector.” And although it is true that he may not be “greedy, dishonest, or adulterous,” he is arrogant and self-righteous; and that’s a problem.
And the tragedy here is that the Pharisee misses the very point of why he came to the temple to begin with: to pray to God. He is so preoccupied with himself and how he measures up before the rest of humanity, and this Tax Collector, that he fails to see how he measures up before God.
How different is the prayer of the Tax Collector. He’s not looking around at anyone. In fact, he doesn’t even raise his eyes to heaven, but simply prays, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
And because of his humility, and his recognition of the need for God’s mercy, Jesus tells us he “went home justified,” while the Pharisee did not. That must be our starting point for prayer: a humble recognition of our own sinfulness and the need for God’s mercy.
The Times of London, in the early part of the twentieth century, sponsored an essay contest in which they invited several accomplished authors to respond to the question: “What is wrong with the world?” The enigmatic Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton, who himself had written an entire book on the subject, was asked to participate in the project. With perhaps the shortest essay ever written, in the response to the question “What is wrong with the world?” he won hands down with the following entry:
G. K. Chesterton
Chesterton was not being cynical or negative. He was simply being honest. He understood that the problem plaguing our world since the fall our first parents is the problem of sin. We are all caught up in that problem. Our starting point in prayer, and in life, must be a humble recognition of that fact.
When we are able to admit our sinfulness, and take accountability for our own sins before God, then we begin to see that the real power in prayer and the power in life come from God and not from us. He is the one who comes to us in the midst of our woundedness, in spite of our sins, giving us reconciliation and peace. He brings us healing and then sends us out as instruments of healing in the world we live in.
I spent six years in seminary formation, preparing for ordination to the priesthood. They were some of the most memorable and cherished years of my life. But they were also very challenging. The seminarian lives a life of intense introspection. Once a year he is required to write a self evaluation, describing his strengths and his weaknesses. The seminary faculty also evaluates him each year, pointing out the same gifts, as well as his failings and shortcomings.
I remember one time, during my first few years of formation, praying in Aquinas Chapel at Providence College. It was a cold winter afternoon. I was alone before the Blessed Sacrament and suddenly felt painfully aware of the many ways I had failed to love God and love neighbor the way Christ calls us to. As I continued to struggle through prayer, I began to see more clearly that I was not alone in that place. There was someone else there with me, who was also wounded, in His hands, and feet, and side. It dawned on me that He was not wounded so that He could thrust his hands in my face and say, “Look what you did!” No, as Isaiah the prophet had written:
He was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
In that chapel on that cold December day I wrote, on the inside cover of my Bible, the following words:
O Lord, I would give anything
Not to be wounded.
But You gave up everything
So that You could be.
And so that we
could be healed.
If it is true that “We pray as we live, because we live as we pray” (CCC #2725), we can ask ourselves once again: How is your prayer? How is your Christian life right now? Are we, like the Tax Collector, able to humbly recognize in prayer our own need for the overwhelming mercy and forgiveness of God?
How is Jesus Christ calling us—this week—to look at our wounds, in the light of His wounds, and to be healed? How are we called to then bring the Gospel message of that healing into a world that desperately needs it?