How are we to pray?

Al Cariño, OMI
Editor: Mindanao Cross
Reproduced with Permission

30th Sunday in ordinary times

“How am I to pray?” is a question often asked of priests. In a parable (Lk. 18: 9–17), Jesus teaches us how to pray by showing us how two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector, prayed.

While the Pharisee started his prayer “with head unbowed,” the tax collector “would not even raise his eyes to heaven.” Their posture reminds us of the story of a haughty lawyer who asked an old farmer, “Why don't you hold up your head in the world as I do? I bow my head to no one.” The farmer answered, “Sir, see that field of grain? Only those heads that are empty stand upright. Those that are well-filled bow low.” So first and foremost, we are to approach prayer in a spirit of humility. This the tax collector did but the Pharisee did not.

The Pharisees were not bad people. They dedicated themselves to the law and were sincere in their religious observance. They were esteemed by the people for their zeal.

Jesus in the parable did not condemn the Pharisee for his life–style and religious observance; He condemned him for his self–righteous attitude as reflected in his prayer: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector....” Obviously, the Pharisee was extolling himself before God. Though there was no rule to fast twice a week, he did. And he gave ten percent on his “whole income” instead of only on some farm products as the law required. Worse, he extolled himself at the expense of the tax collector. In this regard, how right Mahatma Gandhi who said, “It has always been a mystery to me how men feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow beings.”

The tax collectors on the other hand were despised not only for collecting taxes for the Roman but also for adding to the prescribed tax on each one, pocketing the difference. In the parable, the tax collector approached God beating his breast, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Acknowledging his sinfulness in the face of his dishonesty born out of greed, he threw himself totally before God's mercy.

At the end of their prayer, the tax collector “went home justified,” —- God had reconciled him to Himself — but not the Pharisee. And Jesus told us why: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” How right Sirach was when he said in the first reading (Sir. 35:15-22), “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal.” What was tragic in the Pharisee's prayer was the implied belief that he no longer needed God's mercy because his good works would force God to reward him.

In many ways, we behave like the Pharisee. When we do good works, we expect that they are to be credited to us. Sometimes in an outburst of piety, we pray for the “conversion of sinners,” but with ourselves excluded of course! As if we are not sinners ourselves! When we talk, say, about a single mother, we do so derisively, saying, “She deserves what she gets,” instead of giving her our understanding and help. Or when we see a public sinner receiving Holy Communion, we inwardly remark, “A dog eventually returns to eat his vomit,” instead of thanking God for the grace of his conversion.

Why do we act this way? Because like the Pharisee we want to be always considered better than others and we accomplish this by putting others down. Unfortunately, we reflect this attitude in our prayer as the Pharisee did.

Jesus is teaching us to follow the example of the tax collector in life as well as in our prayer. He wants us to acknowledge that everything we are and have came from God. And if we fall into sin, it is not solely because of human weakness but also because of our failure to run to God for help. One holy person, on seeing someone enslaved by his lust, exclaimed, “But for the grace of God, there go I.” In other words, we are saved not because of our own merit but because of God's mercy. This is what the Pharisee and we often forget but which the prayer of the tax collector was able to capture. Thus even if He only asked for mercy, he ended up justified before God.

How are we to pray? First, we approach God with all humility. Then we attribute to Him whatever good we have done, thanking Him for giving us the grace to do so. As to our sins, we are to place ourselves completely in His mercy which is His alone to dispense and which we can never merit.

Though we are often like the Pharisee in our speech, good works and even in our prayer, it is not too late to change. With the tax collector as our model, we can begin by making his prayer our own: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Then we will not only receive God's mercy; we will also end up justified before Him.