The Prayer of the Exalted

the-exaltedThirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time: 10-23-16

Peace be with You,

Over the course of the last several weeks we have been receiving an education on the complex dynamics that surround our lives.  We have been called to imitate the Love which has brought us into being by being charitable to one another (e.g. the parables of the dishonest steward and Lazarus and the rich man) recognizing our reflective nature as creatures possessing the imago Dei.  Moreover, we have been asked to recognize our radical dependency upon God for our very existence, and it is based upon this recognition that we are reminded that, if we are to live life to its fullest, we must maintain open dialogue with the grounds of our being through constant prayer (e.g. the parable of the widow) that is characterized by gratitude (e.g. the parable of the 10 lepers).  This weekend, two examples are set before us that give us a glimpse of the path that lies before us.

We live in a culture of the Big Me.  From our engagement in social media, to the training we receive in our education, to the very homes we live in, the culture that surrounds us compels us to build up our self-identity.  Why?  The prevailing cultural wisdom seems to suggest that it is in this that we can find happiness.  Why else do we do anything at all if not to possess a sense of security and satisfaction?  But alas, the more we strive after the treasures held out to us as possessing the ability to bolster our self-identity and give meaning to it, the more these things (e.g. cars, money, pleasure, an illustrious career) prove themselves unable to satisfy.  And so we continually seek to prove to others that we really are happy.  A casual perusal of Facebook or Twitter demonstrates this.  We constantly put up pictures of ourselves with our latest toy, or that demonstrate our latest accomplishment, and all the smiling faces call to us to recognize something, they ask us to affirm one thing: “Do you see how happy I am?”  But in all this grand gesturing, at bottom it seems that what is really going on is a plea to answer a far different question: “Is this what it means to be happy?”

The first individual in the gospel message for today introduces us to is someone who would be very comfortable in the social media of today’s Big Me culture.  Jesus tells us of a Pharisee, who goes up to the temple to pray (or perhaps we should say, who goes up to the temple seemingly to pray) and proceeds to tell God how great he is saying, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity –greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income” (Luke 18:11-12).  First, I ask you to consider, is this not the type of monologue that pervades the majority of the posts we see on social media today?  Secondly, look at the content of the “prayer,” it includes all of the things that Jesus has been asking us to do over the last several weeks.  This man says that he is generous with what he has been given, that he is prayerful, and is, above all, thankful for what he has been given.  And yet, who among us hears this passage and is not immediately repulsed by the bombast displayed?  The question we must ask then, is where did this man go wrong?  The answer is found in how this man speaks about the other individual who has come to the temple to pray that day, a tax collector.

For the ancient Jewish community, there was perhaps no more hated individual than the tax collector.  They were seen as national traitors on two levels.  First, they collected taxes from their countrymen on behalf of Rome, the foreign occupying power.  Secondly, they were in the habit of overcharging the people whom they taxed, maintaining their own income and lifestyle in this fashion, so basically, they were thieves.  In short, tax collectors were outsiders, shunned by the rest of their community.  Evidently, this type of treatment had some effect on the tax collector we are introduced to today.  He feels this separateness, he senses that he has offended others and God in the process and so when he comes to pray he stands far off, not even wanting to be noticed, trying to avoid both the castigating glance of God and his fellow Jews, and quietly says: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).  To many of us, this type of self-deprecating talk is just as repulsive as the bombast displayed by the first, and yet, it is this prayer that Jesus holds up as an example to us.  Why?  Is it because Jesus wants to make us feel small, or worthless?  Absolutely not, but he does ask us to recognize our finitude, our smallness, our sinfulness.  Why?  Precisely because it is only in recognizing these things that a relationship with God even makes sense.

To declare oneself righteous and self-sufficient is to declare oneself as having no need of God.  What Jesus is pointing out to us is that in uttering the prayer that he did, the Pharisee has declared himself complete, we may say redeemed or saved, and if this is the case, he has no need of God.  This is precisely what Jesus is cautioning us of today.  This does not mean that we are not to do the things that the Pharisee does, far from it, we are to be gracious with what we are given, we are to be honest, faithful and thankful, because as we saw a couple of weeks ago, it is natural for one created in the image of God to be these things.  However, we must never consider ourselves as a complete project; rather we must continually, as St. Paul tells us, “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).  This means doing the things that the Pharisee says he has done but not with the idea of building ourselves up into some grand personality, as he has taken the occasion to do, but rather with a clear focus as to why it is that we do these things, i.e. to move ever closer to the God who created us.

In our second reading from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, we find the great Apostle nearing the end of his life.  Knowing that he is about to face death, he writes to his friend Timothy, in essence saying farewell.  Note the language Paul uses here.  He says that he is already being poured out like a libation (4:6), meaning that he is offering himself to God, and he speaks of this utilizing the metaphor of running a race (4:7).  In other words, he has exerted great effort in living out the faith that has been gifted to him, and because he has done this, because he has given all that he has and is in living out this faith, he approaches the end of his life with full confidence that the One he has sought unity with in all of this will award him with His presence, i.e. the fullness of life (4:8).  What’s more, he writes to Timothy that God will do so for all of those who live life in such a fashion.

My friends, the approach of Paul is the approach of the tax collector.  He is able to approach whatever awaits him in the rest of his life because he knows that “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal” (Sirach 35:21, NRSV), and that “The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens” (Sirach 35:20, NRSV).  This must be our approach as well.  We must continue to live the life of love that Jesus calls us to, not so that others may look at us and say, “Wow, what a great person, I wish I was like that!” but rather, because it is only in making ourselves small, by becoming humble, that we can stay connected to our God.  And if we do so, we can rest assured, as Paul did, that God will bring us ever closer to the glory of his kingdom (2 Tim 4:18) because he has promised us that “the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14), not because we will have become great on our own accord, but because God will be alive in us, and in this is true happiness.

Your servant in Christ,

Tony 

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