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Sunday Scripture: A lesson in prayer

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

By Father Timothy Schehr

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Sirach 35:12-18; 2 Timothy 4:6-18; Luke 18:9-14

Last week in the Gospel we heard about a judge who looked down on everyone. It seems Jesus is not yet finished making lessons from difficult people; in this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus takes on people so convinced of their own righteousness they look down on everyone else. Once again the lesson is going to be about prayer.

Jesus opens His parable by drawing our attention to two very different people making their way to the temple area to offer a pray to God. One of them is a Pharisee; the other a tax collector. The clear expectation is that the Pharisee will be the one who offers the ideal prayer. Pharisees were respected for their devotion to God. They were part of a long tradition of loyal servants to God. They rose to prominence in the difficult days of the Maccabean War when the Jewish people faced many hardships from an oppressive king who had no respect for their ways. In this climate the Pharisees distinguished themselves by standing up for the Jewish traditions. So Pharisees were held in high esteem by the people.

But this Pharisee is a bit too full of himself. Jesus gives us a clue by telling us from the start that this Pharisee “took up his position.” This seems pretty bold for someone making an appeal to God. It sounds like he already presumes he will be heard. Then Jesus tells us “he spoke this prayer to himself.” Again, not an ideal way to describe a prayer. He is supposed to be speaking to God, but it seems his prayer reaches no further than the tip of his tongue.
Jesus gives us the words of this man’s prayer. He is grateful to God, not for gifts he has received, but for the fact that he is better than everyone else. He even brings the tax collector into his prayer. He does this not to include a petition on his behalf, but to point out that the tax collector is another example of someone who does not match up to his own high moral character. The very fact that he even noticed the tax collector standing in the temple area is a pretty good clue this Pharisee is not looking up to heaven.

The tax collector is the one we expect to make the faulty prayer. But this man gets highest marks from the Lord. To begin with, he does not “take up a position” but instead stands off at a distance. He does not presume to be worthy to even enter far into the temple grounds. He keeps his head lowered and asks God to forgive his sins. All his attention is on God.
Sirach would have nodded approval at the Lord’s parable. This wise teacher makes pretty much the same point in the first reading. He assures his readers that God is not impressed with externals. A fervent prayer from the lowliest person in the kingdom will win a hearing before the court of heaven. Sirach speaks of prayer as if it were a kind of arrow piercing the clouds, hitting its mark, and not being removed until God has taken note of it. The prayer of the lowly has such an effect because it expresses total dependence on God.

Paul expresses the same attitude in his letter to Timothy. He speaks of himself as being poured out like an offering to God. He has done all he can to serve God. All he can do now is await what God has in store for those who love him. The tax collector in the Lord’s parable could not have said it any better.

Father Schehr is a faculty member at the Athenaeum of Ohio.

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