Reflections on the Readings
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time - October 24, 2010 - Year C
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
By Dennis S. Hankins
The Prayer of the Heart (Part II)
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!"
Prayer of the heart is a unifying force. It reconciles us to God and draws us closer to one another. We cannot say we love God and claim his friendship in our lives if we do not honor him in each other, like our family or the stranger sitting behind us. It is painful to hear the Pharisee pray, "I thank thee that I am not like other men." The Pharisee's prayer divides and excludes a fellow worshipper. But feel the power of forgiveness and reconciliation in the prayer of the tax collector. He expresses sorrow for not being more like God. Praying fervently he says, "God, be merciful to me a sinner." True prayer is self-effacing and rises from the heart in humble adoration of God who desires that everyone live within his mercy and love.
The word 'pharisee' means 'separated ones.' Pharisees would not even pray in close proximity to someone like a tax collector. To the Pharisees, a tax collector was just as unclean as dirty hands or unwashed utensils. To associate with someone they judged unclean was to become unclean as well. Therefore, they would not consider eating or drinking with tax collectors and other assorted sinners.
The Pharisee in today's reading thanks God he is not like other men. He's grateful that he has become, as far as he's concerned, morally perfect. He only associates with other Pharisees, he tithes and he fasts Monday and Thursday of each week. Everything this man does satisfies the law, or at least his interpretation of the law. He is, as far as he is concerned, utterly righteous.
Pharisees do everything to be seen by others. The Pharisees' priorities were greetings in public places and the best seats at dinner. Tossing a few coins to the beggars and praying in public places –– all done to be seen. Their holiness was superficial and thin, and made their prayers and almsgiving a matter of public display rather than a motivation of their heart.
According to the Pharisees, Jesus is impious and reckless. He eats with those nasty god forsaken tax collectors. He lets a woman bathe his feet. And some of his closest associates come from suspicious backgrounds, like Matthew, a former tax collector, who left that occupation to follow Jesus. You see, unlike the Pharisee, Jesus is a friend of sinners. And the tax collector who prays in today's Gospel seeks the friendship of God in his prayer when he says, "God, be merciful to me a sinner." A humble prayer, the prayer of the heart, decries its own sins, not the sins of others.
Long before I became Catholic, I grew up reading about mighty prayer warriors. My earliest memories are about the fervent and heartfelt prayers of my Pentecostal Church family. Pentecostal missionaries and evangelists told stories of mighty answers to prayer. These missionaries were touched deeply in their hearts to leave everything familiar to live among people who had never heard the name of Jesus. They learned to love, and to pray for and with people of all colors, races, faces and station. They went to the four corners of the earth, all because the prayer of their heart was, "Jesus, use me. Please, Lord do not refuse me. Surely there's a work for me to do."
St. John Vianney reminds us, "Prayer is the inner bath of love into which the soul plunges itself." Prayer is an immersion into him who is love. When we truly pray from our heart, we will love what God loves and to love as God loves. When our heart is filled with God's love, the prayer of our heart will be filled with charity for our neighbor.
God hears the cry of the lowly, the oppressed and the brokenhearted. Of the two who are in prayer at the Temple, it is the tax collector who truly prays. This outcast –– unwilling, perhaps unable, to lift his eyes to heaven –– captures the heart of God.
As we come to the altar this morning, we, like the tax collector make no special claims. "Lord, I am not worthy," is our heartfelt prayer. The Love we receive from this table is boundless and immense. In this sacred time and place, even the weakest among us has an audience with Love that doesn't judge the appearance, but the prayer of the heart.
To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.