We had the first in a two-part Gospel mini-series on prayer last week as we heard Jesus instruct us, and those hearers a long time ago, to not be shy in prayer and to not lose heart. In reality, are we shy in our prayer sometimes? Yes. And do we lose heart sometimes? Again, yes.
Another word for not being shy is persistence.
I cited a very successful college basketball coach, Jim Valvano, as an example of persistence. Coach Valvano died in 1993 after a long struggle with a rare form of cancer. His valiant fight and determination to find a cure for cancer has led to the creation of the V Foundation. The philosophy of the foundation and tag line are the words of the persistent coach himself, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”
Jim Valvano’s physical heart stopped beating when cancer took him, but his heart continues to beat in the ongoing mission of the foundation. He also had a philosophy of life indicating his passionate heart. Prayer, like relationships, is always most powerful when it is about the heart. The second part of the Jesus instruction on prayer from the parable of the persistent widow is to not lose heart. Valvano’s philosophy from his heart was, “Laugh, think and cry every day.” I simply want to add to the legendary coach’s philosophy—laugh, think, cry and pray every day.
This week we hear another parable on prayer. This one compares the prayer of two people: a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. The Pharisee’s prayer starts with him, then he tells God a bunch of things that God already knows, then continues in a selfish way in comparing him to others, specifically to the tax collector who is at the back of the temple. The Pharisee has taken his place in the front of the temple so that others may see him praying. He is a selfish show off, and this is reinforced by the first word out of his mouth in his so-called prayer. The word is “I.”
When he observed one of us five boys acting selfishly, my father would say, “If you took the word ‘I’ out of your vocabulary, you would be speechless.” If the “I” were absent from the Pharisee’s prayer, there would be no prayer.
The Tax Collector on the other hand begins his prayer with God. He does not tell God things; he asks God for something very important: mercy. His prayer is from his heart. It is simple and humble.
At times, we can all get wrapped up in the things that overwhelm us, and perhaps finding ourselves telling God a bunch of things that God already knows when we pray. We might even compare ourselves to others and give thanks that we are not like them. Let us not fall into the pattern that the Pharisee is in—starting our prayer with “I” and concentrating on being seen when we pray. This type of prayer is from the head, not the heart.
At times, we all need a dose of humility so let us take stock regularly of our need for God’s mercy. This humbling venture is a part of the beginning of every Mass. It is called the Penitential Rite and is a series of three requests, two to the Lord and one to Christ. Together we ask, Lord have Mercy, Christ have Mercy and Lord have Mercy. When this is taken seriously and comes from our heart, it levels the playing field of the Mass and reminds us that we are always in need of God’s mercy, perhaps, most importantly, when we are not aware of our need for it.
The Tax Collector in the parable is very aware of his need for God’s mercy. In fact, he humbles himself so significantly that it overwhelms him, and thus dominates how he sees and identifies himself, namely, as a sinner.
Let us all try to start our prayer with God and humbly pray from our hearts.
We have the longest running Job Support program in the northwest suburbs here at Holy Family. Every Saturday morning a large group of people gather in our building to network and assist those either under-employed or unemployed. Please contact Sue Geegan at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.