Sunday, October 23, 2016

Prayer and Comparisons

We see Jesus telling parables throughout the gospels, so an important key for understanding the parables is to pay attention to who they're addressed to. When Jesus addresses a parable to the crowds, it's usually meant to comfort and bring hope, and on the other hand when Jesus addresses a parable to the Pharisees, it's usually meant as a form of judgment. Paying attention to who Jesus is talking to usually is an easy clue to understanding the point of a parable. Our parable today is sort of a catch-all. It opens by saying, "Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else." So this parable is simply addressed to anyone that needs it: whether you're a pharisee, a tax collector, or just one of the crowd, if you're convinced of your own righteousness, then this parable is for you.

Now in this parable, the Pharisee is the bad guy and the tax collector is the good guy. We've heard these stories so much we're use to that scenario, and in case there was any doubt about it, Jesus makes it clear at the end that the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, went home justified. But this would have astonished Jesus's audience: Pharisees were supposed to be the holy ones while tax collectors were the bad guys. They were generally Jews who were working for the Roman authorities, so the other Jews really didn't like them. But Jesus loves to reverse roles in the parables, and make the bad guy into the good guy.

So when we look closely at the parable, we find that each of us have a bit of the attitude of the Pharisee, but we want to have the attitude of the tax collector. So first we start with the Pharisee, and we see that the gospel gives us some interesting notes about this Pharisee. First, the gospel tells us that he spoke his prayer to himself. So from the get-go, the Pharisee gets it wrong. The object of his prayer is himself, not God. And then he turns his attention from himself, but he still doesn't turn to God, he turns to the rest of humanity. He says "I'm glad I'm not like everybody else," and then he proceeds to list their sins, "greedy, dishonest, adulterous," and then he singles out the tax collector. After this, he lists how great he is with his fasting and tithing. Rather than focusing on God while he's in the temple, he's focusing on himself and others.

But in Jesus' great reversal, the tax collector gets it right. He stands far off, wont even lift his eyes, beats his breast as a sign of repentance, and asks for mercy. This guy recognizes what he needs. This guy has real faith. This guy has a real relationship with God.

For ourselves, prayers is what makes our relationship with God. Prayer isn't optional as Christians, prayer is required. So we want to be sure we get prayer right. I don't think many of us pray as blatantly bad as the Pharisee in the parable, but I bet bits and pieces of his attitude sneak into our prayer. It's far too easy to focus on myself or others when I go to prayer. It's really easy to focus on what I've done right or on what others have done wrong. It's far too easy to fall into comparisons when I go to prayer.

The danger with comparisons, the danger with the Pharisee's attitude, is that is sets the wrong bar as the standard for our Christian life. When I compare myself to others, whether I think I'm so much better or so much worse than them, then I miss what's supposed to be my standard of Christian excellence, and that standard is God. That's what the tax collector got right. He didn't compare himself to others. His only standard of behaviour was God's law, and when he used that as his benchmark, he couldn't help buy cry out, "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

Because the truth is, both of them were sinners, but only one recognized it. The Pharisee was not nearly as justified as he made himself out to be, he was a sinner as well but he was blind to that fact because he used other people as standard. But Jesus said at another spot in the gospel, "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." So that's our marching order. That's what we're striving for. And when we look at God's perfection, we can't help but say, "Be merciful to me, a sinner." And when we ask for that in prayer, God can't help but respond. A cry for mercy is simply irresistible to God's heart. When we ask for mercy because of our sins, God gives it. He offers his forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession, and he offers his grace so that we can eventually avoid those sins in the first place.

So when you pray, let the focus of your prayer be on God alone. Certainly ask for what you need, certainly pray for others, but be very careful of comparisons and prideful attitudes that sometimes sneak their way into our prayers. Let prayer be the lifeblood of your relationship with God, and let that relationship become stronger each and every day. In our prayer, his grace and forgiveness is strong enough to overcome any trial, it's even strong enough to bring us to eternal life.

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