The Readings for the 30th Sunday, Tempus per Annum (C1)
Oratio humiliantis se nubes penetrabit, et donec propinquet non consolabitur, et non discedet donec Altissimus aspiciat. Et Dominus non elongabit : et judicabit justos, et faciet judicium : et Fortissimus non habebit in illis patientiam, ut contribulet dorsum ipsorum. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.
These two get their own Sunday Feast in the Byzantine liturgy. We’re reminded to be not like the Pharisee and to be rather like the Tax Collector. Still, Sirach says that God listens to everyone. But he leans on the side of the weak, the poor, the orphan, the widow. We want to make sure we’re on the right side, of course, and although the Just will be heard, regardless of who they are, the poor get heard first. So, it’s entirely possible that God will hear the Pharisee in the Gospel today when he prays. But we want to be on the right side. It’s easy to see where Jesus was going: this dude was doing it right. That dude didn’t even do it. That said, a parable is not a 1:1 correspondence. It’s not a story about all Jews are bad (the Tax Collector was a Jew as well) nor is it a story about Pharisees (who were, actually, the liberal party in Judaism at this time). It’s not a story about Rabbinic Judaism, nor is it a thing about the social outcasts.
The Greek doesn’t even say that the Pharisee is praying properly: the Bad Guy is, in Jesus words, praying πρὸς ἑαυτὸν pros heauton “towards himself”. The Pharisee starts out with a traditional prayer within Judaism: “Blessed are you O Lord, Our God, King of the Universe, who has made me a man…” and then gets lost ruminating. The Pharisee is doing what many of us do when we get to Mass, really: an attempted prayer becomes a falling down a rabbit warren inside the heart, planning lunch for after, thinking about shopping lists, or what happened on the way to Church this morning. The Rosary goes from “meditating on the passion” to “thinking about that guy I hate at the office” rather suddenly. My evening prayers seem to always get taken over by thinking about moving the furniture.
The Tax Collector can’t remember liturgical prayer and says only what’s really on his heart: ἱλάσθητί μοι hilastheti moi. (This not the origin of the Jesus Prayer, which is a different verb.) Be propitious to me, or even propitiate for me. He sticks with something short and sweet. He doesn’t brag. He just asks God for help.
Honestly: we are both of these things, right? It matters not if one is a rigid Trad or a floppy Mod. One can be lost in ruminations and pride, or one can be praying from the heart. We can read from a book or make it up as we go along. But either way, if we’re’ not careful, we might find ourselves thinking “Whoa, where did she get that dress?” or “Dang, I really need to get denture tablets on the way home.”
Who or what triggers your Pharisee moments? When do you go from talking to God to talking to yourself? When do you catch yourself – or do you not? Is it a moment of lust, or of envy? Is it a moment of judgment? Do you find yourself lamenting the aging soprano that can’t keep up with her section, or does the altar server in sneakers drive you bonkers? Maybe you make it your business to know all the folks who are in cohabitations, or the same-sex couples that are actually couples. Does Father have some liturgical ticks that suck all the blood out of your face or do his homilies leave you wondering about the possibility of having him replaced by a simplex priest? When you get ready to pray is it work that you end up thinking about?
In a podcast I listen to, a priest admitted that sometimes his prayer consists of running into the chapel, placing both hands on the tabernacle, and screaming. Thus the spirit, with cries and groans, prays through us! It would seem by today’s Gospel that such a prayer is more effective than sitting with a prayerbook, finding the prayer, reading the prayer, and closing the prayerbook. I know the Pharisee is the Bad Guy: but how we end up praying like him is important. How can we pray more like the Publican?