Return to sender

To whom do you pray? You may answer, “Why God, of course!” or perhaps, “Jesus Christ.” But is that truly whom you are addressing? The Gospel for a recent daily Mass caught my attention with a double meaning that made me ponder how I pray.

It’s a story we’ve heard many times over of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple. “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself…” (Luke 18:11) When I first read it, I was assuming it meant that he was praying silently, that he didn’t speak out loud, but rather spoke his prayer interiorly. I think that is a valid understanding and could be one way of interpreting the story, but I don’t think it’s the only way to understand it. Even though the Pharisee does say, “O God, I thank you…,” the prayer he continues with is not a prayer of thanksgiving, but rather an inventory of how he perceives his superiority. While I do believe that God hears every prayer, there are some that He listens and reacts to and some He just allows to float on by. 

Prayer is meant to be a conversation with God. It’s a way we learn to prioritize what’s important. We praise God, we acknowledge our deficiencies, we thank Him for His blessings, and seek His assistance for ourselves and others. This is the way Jesus taught us in the Our Father. However, the Pharisee was so enamored of himself, that rather than giving God the praise, he was giving himself the praise, in the space of one sentence, he uses the word ‘I’ four times! “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income,” is not a prayer of thanksgiving for what God has given Him, but sounds like a justification as to why He expects God to listen to Him. He assumes it is his own effort that allows him to fast and tithe, when in reality, it is God’s blessings that allow him to be able to fast and His generosity to tithe. 

We can play Monday morning quarterback to a 2,000 year old Gospel story and say how wrong the Pharisee was, but back in those days, the Pharisees were looked upon well. They were assumed to be close to God because of their prayers and knowledge of Scripture. But knowing it and living it are two different things. 

It may be a subtle thing, but I think the bigger impact is the tax collector. Tax collectors were Jews who would collect the Roman taxes. They were not paid, but rather had to take their payment from the people. Can you imagine someone collecting a percentage of your earnings for the government and asking you to chip in a bit more for their own living? Tax collectors routinely charged the people more money than the tax and then kept the difference, sometimes at exorbitant rates. Tax collectors were not very welcomed in Jewish society. Yet the most marvelous thing for this tax collector is that he went to the Temple to pray. He went to God and he admitted his sin. He took a step closer to God and closer to being spiritually healed. While it is only a story that Jesus told, I wonder about how the story would unfold for that tax collector. Was he able to do his job without extorting money from his countrymen? Did he find another occupation that allowed him to live an honest life? He obviously wanted to correct his relationship with God, to the point of publicly seeking God in the Temple, a very bold step indeed!

When we put God at the center of our life, our way of praying evolves. We acknowledge His providence in every aspect of our lives. We look to Him for guidance and strength. We realize our lives are not about us but about the relationships where He has placed us. It’s less about me and my needs, but about God and what can I do for others through His grace and blessings. Let our prayer language indicate our reliance on God, otherwise we are just praying to ourselves. 

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