Saturday, October 27, 2007

How to Pray

(30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

Last week we heard a parable about “the need to pray always without becoming weary.” You remember; it was the story of the persistent widow who gets a favorable decision from the unrighteous judge. So having heard about how we need to pray always, today we hear a parable about how we are to pray.

And we have a good example and a bad example. The Pharisee, as usual, is our negative example. First of all he thanks God that he’s not like other people, who are dishonest and adulterous. He even thanks God that he isn’t like the other man praying there. He knows he’s so good, and he let’s God know too, explaining how well he fasts and pays his tithes.

Not that these are bad things! If God has given us the gift of being religious, or of a desire for prayer, or of being generous, these are good things! But the problem with the Pharisee was that he appropriated these gifts to himself. Notice what the Lord says: the Pharisee spoke his prayer “to himself.” He was pleased and self-satisfied with how religious he was, as if it was his own property.

We religious people need to careful of this trap. We have the gift of faith and the gift of loving our Lord here in his Eucharist. But why us? Why does God seem to have given us the gift of faith but not others? Is it because we are better people than the unbelieving world out there? Is it because we are less of sinners than those who ignore God? On the contrary! We are greater sinners, because we do the same things and yet, because we believe God, should know better.

The righteousness and faith that we have in us is not ours—it is, in fact, the righteousness of God himself. This is the good news of this Eucharist; that we come into communion with God through Jesus Christ. Our lives become part of his, and his body becomes part of our body. That’s holy communion, and that’s how the righteousness of God comes to dwell within us.

So we never have any reason to boast in our prayer. Even that we are praying at all is the pure gift of the Holy Spirit of God praying within us. Knowing that prayer is a gift brings us to our positive example of prayer, the tax collector.

The tax collector would not even raise his face to heaven but only prays, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” This is not false humility . He is, in fact, a sinner. And he prays the only way he can, for the mercy of God.

Brothers and sisters, as Ben Sira tells us in the first reading, God knows no favorites. Even the goodness of the greatest saints is as nothing before the overflowing goodness of God. And so none of us can boast of how holy we are, how good we are, how religious we are. We all belong in the same place as the tax collector, praying simply, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

But this sense of our own unworthiness shouldn’t make us discouraged or sad. For as Ben Sira also says in the first reading, it is exactly the prayer of the oppressed and lowly that God hears. So we ought to call out, oppressed by sin as we are both individually and as a society.

It is when we are able to pray in this way, from the heart, that we will find gratitude. For it is when we recognize our need for the mercy of God that we will appreciate our faith and our salvation in Christ. The one who doesn’t need anybody doesn’t appreciate anybody.But when we realize how much we need God, that’s when we truly find faith and gratitude.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Afraid of Getting a Black Eye

(29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

Before anything else, we should note first that the parable Luke gives us today is rather humorous. Here’s this tough guy of a judge, who has no respect for anyone, even God, and this widow gets the better of him. She bothers and embarrasses him so much that he’s afraid she’s going to come give him a black eye. That’s the literal meaning of the phrase, “lest she finally come and strike me!” Can you imagine the dishonor this man feels at the prospect of being beat up by a little old lady?

But that’s the issue: honor. In the ancient world, widows were very vulnerable. That’s why, along with orphans, the prophets of the Scriptures always remind the people of God of their need to take care of them. This judge wasn’t living up to this obligation. But the widow shames him into giving her justice anyway.

So, if the persistence of this widow gets her a just decision even from this bad judge, how much more will our prayers help us to receive the justice of the one true Judge who is Justice itself, and whose honor is the joy and peace of his creation?

God’s desire is for justice and peace in our hearts, in our families, and in our world. By our persistent and faithful prayer, he will help us to accept the peace and joy he wants to give to the world. This is the point of the parable, as we heard at the beginning of the Gospel: the “necessity” to pray always, “without becoming weary.”

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Giving Thanks

(28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

These ten lepers who approach the Lord on his way to Jerusalem in the Gospel today are, in many ways, a model for our own spiritual life.

How do they begin? At first they are calling out for his pity, standing at a distance. Of course they must remain far off, because their disease is considered to be contagious. In much the same way, our own diseases of sin, selfishness and indifference keep us at a distance from God. But we too can call out from our misery, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!”

And what is Jesus’ response? He says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Now according to the Law of Israel, it was up to the priests to examine people with skin conditions and decide whether they were lepers who had to be excluded from the community. Jesus invites the ten lepers to address their situation through the ordinary practice of their religious tradition.

In the same way, when we decide that we are sick of our misery and sin and we call out to the Lord for healing, he invites us into the plain, ordinary practices of faith. He calls us to enter into the life of his church and the life of his sacraments. Sure, we can say, “I have spirituality, but I don’t need this quote-unquote ‘organized religion.’” Trouble is, when we try to live a life in the Spirit—which is what “spirituality” is supposed to mean—without a community of faith and teaching, well, we will have nobody to challenge our ideas and nobody to correct our misperceptions. And so we will eventually find out that our so-called spirituality is really just another kind of vanity and self-service.

But let’s say we have avoided this trap, this danger that the marketers of home-made “spirituality” have put before us. Instead we have called out to the Lord and have followed his call to enter into the life of his Church. Indeed, all of us who are here for Sunday Eucharist have presumably done this. Good for us, no? We’re all set, right?

Well, almost. We’ve gone as far as the nine lepers who were healed but who didn’t return to the Lord to give thanks. We must never take what we are receiving here in the Eucharist for granted. And for us who attend to our religion day after day, year after year, it’s easy to do. That’s why we should always notice that in both the first reading and the Gospel today, it is the foreigner who remembers to return and give thanks to God. Sometimes it takes the enthusiasm of the convert or of the one who has been away from the Lord to remind us how tremendous the gifts of God have been in our lives.

We have this great grace in our lives because God himself has not only invited us into it, but given us the willingness to follow and accept it. And this ought to produce a prayerful attitude of gratitude within us. In this Naaman the Syrian from the first reading is a model for us.

After he was healed by following the advice of Elisha the prophet, what is his response? He asks for the two mule-loads of earth. He does this because he will build an altar out of them, because he now realizes that there is no god but the God of that place, of the land of Israel. Naaman’s response to what the God of Israel has done for him is to assume an attitude of grateful worship.

And this is what our Mass will be if we do it well. The word “Eucharist” is derived from the Greek verb “to give thanks.” It is celebration of thanksgiving to God.

Part of the purpose of practicing our religion is to challenge us into noticing the goodness of God. And when we do, we need, like Naaman, like the lone leper in the Gospel, to return to the Lord in our heart and thank him for the healing and peace he has worked in our lives. And if we do this, we too will hear the words that Jesus offers to the leper who came back: “your faith has saved you.”

May we too begin again to return to the Lord to say, ‘thank you.’

Saturday, October 6, 2007

What Do You Get Out Of This?

(27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

One night when I was riding the subway up in Boston, during my theological studies, a man came up to me. Looking over my Franciscan habit, he asked, somewhat sarcastically I might add,

What do you get out of this?
Maybe it was because it was late and I was tired, but I responded with equal sarcasm:
I’m supposed to get something?
O.k., maybe it wasn’t my greatest moment of pastoral ministry or evangelization, but there’s some truth to it. In our consumer society, so based on individual gratification, the collecting of more and more things, thrills, pleasures, and comforts is a high value. So when the people of our time see us who try to live as disciples of the Lord, it’s natural that the first thing they should ask is, what are we ‘getting out of it?’

Even if we are supposed to get something out of this, do we deserve it? I know that in my life of trying to be a Christian, I haven’t even remotely begun to live up to the basic commandment Jesus gives, to love God with all our heart, and to love our neighbor as our own self. So what do I deserve, when I can’t even call myself the “unprofitable servant” from the gospel, who only did what he was supposed to do. I haven’t even done that! And if your life is anything like mine, you know what I’m talking about. Why should God be obliged to give us anything?

But the truth is that we get a lot out of this, not because we deserve it, but out of the overflowing goodness of God. We have received the eternal life that Jesus has won for us through his obedience to the Father. We have received forgiveness of sins, giving us the opportunity to walk in freedom from shame and guilt. And we have received the assurance that God has won the battle against violence and death, and that, for all of its despair and sin, the history of the world is going somewhere very, very good.

But because the people of our time have ceased, in large part, to be interested in spiritual things, they often fail to understand these great and deep blessings.

It’s also hard for us to understand that, though we taste these great blessings in our life of prayer and sacraments now, they are also a matter of hope for the future. Our culture doesn’t know about hope; it only knows right now. But as the prophet Habakkuk proclaims in the first reading today, the vision of God, that is, God’s dream for you and me and all of history, “presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint.” And as the prophet then says, “the just one, because of his faith,” will enjoy the promises of God.

That is what it means to have faith: to believe that God is true to his Word, and that God will accomplish what he has promised to the word. Maybe sometimes we feel like we don’t have a lot of faith, and like the apostles we pray for an increase in our faith. But often when we feel this way we don’t really want faith at all, but an increase in certainty. That’s because having utter certainty about God and his promises would relieve us of having to risk anything in giving ourselves to the Lord.

But God doesn’t give us that kind of certainty. God wants our faith instead. God wants us to take the risk of faith in giving ourselves to him, with whatever imperfect understanding we have. To take that risk makes our hearts vulnerable, and God wants us to accept the challenge of this vulnerability, because it will make us humble and open to him and to our brothers and sisters in their own sufferings and struggles.

Let us take the risk of faith, of taking God at his Word. And we don’t even need a lot of faith. Jesus assures us that just the smallest amount accomplishes wonders in this world.