The readings of today, especially the first reading, (Sirach 35:12-14,16-19), and the Gospel, (LK 18:9-14), continued the last week’s theme of prayer. While the previous Sunday’s readings invited us to be persistent in our prayers and never lose heart, today’s readings summon us to an introspective awareness of our attitudes while at prayer.
The first reading reiterated that God is not a respecter of personages. While human beings may be influenced by external appearances like dressing, wealth, height, beauty, title, race and one’s occupation, the Lord looks at the heart. We recall that when Samuel was sent by God to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s children to become the king of Israel, once his (Samuel’s) eyes caught sight of Eliab, the eldest son of Jesse, he said in his mind, surely the Lord’s anointed was here. However, the Lord informed him to “take no notice of his appearance and his height” for he was not the chosen one, because while human beings look at appearances, “the Lord looks at the heart”, (1 Sam 16: 4-7). It was David, the youngest son and the shepherd who became the chosen one, (1 Sam 16:11-13).
Anyone who serves the Lord with his/her heart is acceptable to the Lord, whether rich or poor. Thus, the prayer of the humble person pierces the clouds, that is, arises to God like incense, (Ps 141:2). We recall that in Acts of the Apostles, when St Peter visited the house of Cornelius a Roman Centurion, he and his companions were still dilly-dallying whether to baptise them because they were not Jews. However, while Peter was still given instructions to Cornelius and his household about the Good news of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit descended upon him and the members of his family, and Peter immediately gave order for them to be baptised as he came to the awareness of the implication of the revelation that God is impartial, and therefore, “in all nations he listens to everyone who fears God and does good”, (Acts 10:34-47).
In the Gospel, two people went to the Temple to pray. Luke’s Gospel more than any other Gospel documented instances where prayer occurred. Jesus prayed at his baptism (Lk 3:21-22); He prayed all night before selecting his apostles, (Lk 6:12). As his disciples watched him (Jesus) pray, they were inspired to pray themselves, so they asked him to teach them how to pray, and he taught them the ‘Our Father’ prayer, (Lk 6:12). Luke’s Gospel also recorded instances where people spontaneously burst into songs of praise. When Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, as they exchange greetings, Mary sang the ‘Magnificat’, (Lk 1:46-55), in honour of God who is always faithful to His promises. Zachariah sang the ‘Benedictus’, (Lk 1:67-79), in thanksgiving to God who had blessed him and Elizabeth with the birth of John the Baptist. During the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the old man Simeon sang ‘Nunc Dimittis’, (Lk 2:22-32), in praise of God who had made it possible for him to behold the saviour of the world before his (Simeon’s) death.
The two people who had gone to the Temple to pray were a Pharisee and a tax collector (publican). Both were hard working men. The Pharisee fasted twice a week and paid tithe on his income, however, he had a serious vice that beclouded his motives – pride and arrogance. Though he offered his prayer to God, his prayer was none-the-less full of self-accolades, self-righteousness and putting others down. He failed to acknowledge in his prayer that for the grace of God, he would not have been able to do the good things he did which included not being greedy, unjust, and being faithful to his wife. On the other hand, the publican did not give excuses for his sins. He reverently struck his chest as he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. Jesus said that the tax collector went home aright with God, but not the Pharisee. For anyone who humbles oneself will be exalted, but the one who exalts oneself will be humbled.
St Paul had warned us that everyone had sinned and had lost the glory of God (Rom 3:21-23), hence, no one can claim that he/she has no sin. It is only Jesus, who is like us in all things but sin (Heb 4:15), who has restored us to wholeness by suffering and dying on the cross for our sanctification. Let us then like the tax collector acknowledge our sins as we pour out our hearts to the Lord and we shall experience the healing power of forgiveness.
Fr Chinua Okeke CSSp