“How To” & “How Not To” Pray

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Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

When I first set out learning about prayer, I encountered a lot of material on what to say. “Now I lay me down to sleep …” Then there are the standard prayers: Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Bless us O Lord, Act of Contrition, Prayer to my Guardian Angel … and then from going to mass: the I Confess, the Glory to God, the Nicene Creed … There seems to be no shortage of what I might say when I call upon God in prayer. And that’s just what I can rattle off without even thinking. Oh, did I just say that? It’s almost like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, or the Gettysburg Address, or the Preamble to the Constitution. Almost. Of course, prayer is completely different. The arrangement of words, the rhythm, the comforting images that sometimes fill my mind of shepherd and sheep in wide verdant pastures, of grapevines and wheat fields ripe for harvest, of angels bathed in ethereal light ascending and descending upon the throne of God, all make for an emotionally satisfying experience of prayer. The big difference is my unshakable belief that there is indeed Someone out there listening to what I have to say. Or not. Maybe I just like to hear the sound of my own voice. I know I’ve done that. I’ve said a whole lot of what I thought was prayer without actually saying much. O God this, O God that, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. In Jesus’ name. Amen. But since I pray quietly in my heart more often, the ultimate prize is the comfort and calm that washes over me after I accomplish a task I’ve been assured should bring me comfort and calm. So, mission accomplished. Now there’s fifteen minutes of my life I’m never getting back.

You know I’m kidding, right? No, I’m not. And when I say I’m not kidding, I’m really admitting to myself there’s so much more to prayer than telling God a bunch of things God already knows. There is one passage in all of sacred scripture where Jesus instructs his disciples what to say when they pray. It’s the Our Father. We know it by heart. At least a couple of times each year we even attempt to pray it in languages other than our own. Some of us do anyway. A few just can’t be bothered. If English was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for them.

When Jesus told the crowd the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple, his listeners were expecting him to point out how one of them was doing it right, and the other was doing it wrong. The Pharisee, whose name has since become synonymous with hypocrisy, arrogance, and a disturbing compulsion with the exact observance of the law, was in Jesus’ day the embodiment of a model citizen and a faithful Jew. The Pharisees studied the mind of God in sacred scripture. They were familiar with the stories of their ancestors in the faith. They observed with ardent devotion the precepts of the Law of Moses, which formed the core of Israel’s identity. So when the man began delivering his status report standing in the presence of God with both feet firmly planted, attired in his Sabbath best, smug and self-assured, he was aiming for a gold star. He knew what he had to do, and he did it … unlike that filthy tax collector lurking in the shadows, deserving of nothing but contempt for his lifestyle and his choices. But God knew that, better even than himself. He was here to tell God how great he was doing, and that God should be so proud of him. You and I know our willingness to show mom and dad that report card depended largely on how well we did. Only straight A students didn’t have to come up with excuses to explain their academic performance. Just the look of pride in mom and dad’s eyes was all we needed. And we would return to our play knowing all was right in the world.

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But Jesus didn’t take his listeners where they were hoping he would. In contrast, the tax collector “stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’” Now there’s a typical F student finally forced to face the music. He knew he was a disappointment. There was no one else to blame but himself. Straight A students know he wouldn’t be in this predicament if he had just applied himself harder, if he had turned his homework in on time, if he had the right attitude. This failure was immensely unacceptable and totally preventable. Go up to your room, young man, and think about what you’ve done. And you’ll thank me later, but you’re also grounded for the next three weeks.

Then Jesus dropped the bomb. He said the man went home justified. And his listeners were stunned in disbelief. What was the meaning of this madness? How does the tax collector get away with failing at everything, and still be justified in the eyes of God? Was Jesus saying we shouldn’t bother being good? If God was unconcerned whether or not we observed the precepts of the law, what’s the point?

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If like Jesus’ listeners we were hoping for a comparison between the Pharisee who did everything right and the tax collector who did everything wrong so we could walk away assured we were on the right side of the issue, this parable may just leave us confused. What exactly did it mean that the tax collector went home justified? Many of Jesus’ listeners understood justification as the right relationship between oneself and God, between oneself and one’s neighbor, between oneself and the world. If everyone did what was expected of them, there would be balance and order in the universe. They knew from observing the Law of Moses what justification entailed. How could anyone be justified who did not observe the Law?

It seems Jesus is offering us a new perspective. Justification does not result from the exact observance of the Law. It might help, but it is ultimately not what God had in mind. Instead God is more concerned with how we treat one another, how we respect and use the blessings of creation, how we acknowledge and receive God in our lives, by admitting our sinfulness, by reforming our evil ways, by adjusting our attitude. God is not petty like we are. God is patient and forgiving, so we should be too. God is attentive to the poor, the vulnerable, the neglected and despised, those who hurt, those for whom no one cares, those we are inclined to ignore, mistreat, or even actively harm because it makes perfect sense to us. Isn’t that where we put people we don’t like? I don’t have to list them for you because we might be on each other’s list. What it boils down to is this. We call on God in the manner that makes the most sense to us. If we are concerned with the exact observance of the Law, maybe it is because we think it is important to God. If we are concerned with the way we treat one another, maybe we think that is important to God. So when you talk to God, do you bring up things that matter to God, or things that matter to you? Gold stars are a dime a dozen.

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Rolo B Castillo © 2013