Parents raising young children know very well the challenges
of guiding their little ones to be respectful and polite when
asking for something. It is not always easy for children to grasp
the difference between, “GIVE me that”, and “May
I please have the ball”. Consequently, they often need to
be told, “It’s HOW you ask for something”. Even
then, we know there’s more behind those instructions than
just the right words.
Jesus’ parable about the two men who went to the temple
to pray has to do with how we ask for something, but in the same
way it is not just a matter of the right words. It has everything
to do with our attitude; everything to do with our heart.
Starting with the reading from Sirach, we know what God’s
attitude is. God is attentive, he’s listening. The Most
High is more than ready; he’s anxious to respond. God’s
compassion and love come pouring out of the words: The Lord is
not deaf to the wail of the orphan … the prayer of the lowly
pierces the clouds. The prayer of the lowly is sincere, simple,
expectant; it comes from a felt need, it is a prayer for mercy.
God is their only hope and God hears their prayer.
The prayer of the Pharisee whom Jesus describes is radically different.
He seems to have things quite well under control. He doesn’t
seem to need anything, or … anyone. “I’m doing
quite fine on my own, thank you very much”. Notable, too,
is how he has distanced himself from others and dismisses their
struggle: I thank God that I am not like the rest of humanity.
Prayer without love is not true prayer.
Not only that, but Jesus seems to be also warning about the dangers
of a complacency, if not an arrogance that can cause us to miss
our own blind spots. Without an openness to where growth is still
needed in us, we can miss God’s call to go the extra mile,
turn the other cheek or be more courageous in virtue and integrity.
Without this openness to further growth, the prayer of the Pharisee
comes out of his surplus, not his need; it is a prayer pointing
towards the recompense due him, not the mercy he critically needs.
This is not what Christ modeled for us when his disciples asked,
Lord, teach us to pray. In the parable, the Lord continues to
teach us, helping us see that the Pharisee must combine all his
genuine efforts at goodness with the more humble attitude of the
If we want an example of this we just have to look at St. Paul.
He’s not afraid to speak of his efforts and growth: I have
competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.
Yet, ever before him is the conviction not of his own righteousness,
but of the Lord’s mercy and love. The Lord stood by me and
gave me strength. We know of his posture before God, we know of
his heart. In another place he said: All have sinned and are deprived
of the glory of God. We can’t escape it; we are needy.
However, seeing examples of people with a deep faith or people
who pray well doesn’t always convince us. We may not have
the arrogance of the Pharisee, but rather a type of fatalism –
what good could prayer do - we ask. So, hearing about people of
a deep faith, we can be a bit cynical and say, But they haven’t
gone through what I’ve gone through. Or, if not cynical,
we can feel that our situation is just so particular, our disappointments
and misfortune so overwhelming that faith would be a sort of luxury.
Yet, St. Paul makes us pause before saying this, and even more
before believing it. Paul’s experience has a powerful ring
of authenticity, of integrity. He is a credible example for us
to follow. In fact, today he is writing from prison – an
unjust imprisonment – and his execution is imminent. He’s
known suffering and hardship. Consequently, the trust he holds
on to is not that of someone who has been coddled or insulated
from pain and tragedy. Paul has given a lot and has accomplished
a lot, but he doesn’t doubt for a moment that he is still
in need of God’s mercy. This posture of prayer makes clear
who is at the center of it all. Paul does not put himself at the
center, nor his suffering. Rather, Christ is always at the center.
Because of this, the apostle Paul can pray for mercy and love
with a sure hope: The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat,
he says, and (he) will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.
Paul turns to God in prayer as the parched earth longs for water
and as the frozen earth longs for the sun’s warmth. That
was the spirit behind the tax collector’s prayer, as well.
It is not a pessimistic conviction, but a realistic one. With
our trust in the right place – God – we are bearers,
then, of a sure hope. This, then, is HOW we ask for what we need.