Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year C


Robert J. Guessetto, O.S.A.
Our Lady of Good Counsel Friary
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
Psalm 34:2-3, 17-19, 23
2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:1-8

Parents raising young children know very well the challenges of guiding their little ones to be respectful and polite when asking for something. It is not always easy for children to grasp the difference between, “Give me that!” and “May I please have the ball?” Consequently, they often need to be told, “It’s how you ask for something.” Even then, we know there’s more behind those instructions than just the right words.

Jesus’ parable about the two men who went to the temple to pray has to do with how we ask for something, but in the same way it is not just a matter of the right words. It has everything to do with our attitude, everything to do with our heart.

Starting with the reading from Sirach, we know what God’s attitude is. God is attentive, he’s listening. The Most High is more than ready: He’s anxious to respond. God’s compassion and love come pouring out of the words: The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan…the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds. The prayer of the lowly is sincere, simple, expectant. It comes from a felt need. It is a prayer for mercy. God is their only hope and God hears their prayer.

The prayer of the Pharisee whom Jesus describes is radically different. He seems to have things well under control. He doesn’t need anything…or anyone. “I’m doing quite fine on my own, thank you very much.” Notable, too, is how he has distanced himself from others and dismisses their struggle: I thank God that I am not like the rest of humanity. Prayer without love is not true prayer.

Not only that, but Jesus is also warning about the dangers of a complacency, if not an arrogance that can cause us to miss our own blind spots. Without an openness to where growth is still needed in us, we can miss God’s call to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, and be more courageous in virtue and integrity.

Without this openness to further growth, the prayer of the Pharisee comes out of his surplus, not his need. It is a prayer pointing towards the recompense due him, not the mercy he critically needs. This is not what Christ modeled for us when his disciples asked, Lord, teach us to pray. In the parable, the Lord continues to teach us, helping us see that the Pharisee must combine all his genuine efforts at goodness with the more humble attitude of the tax collector.

If we want an example of this we just have to look at St. Paul. He’s not afraid to speak of his efforts and growth: I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. Yet, ever before him is the conviction not of his own righteousness, but of the Lord’s mercy and love. The Lord stood by me and gave me strength. We know of his posture before God, we know of his heart. In another place he said: All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. We can’t escape it; we are needy.

However, seeing examples of people with a deep faith or people who pray well doesn’t always convince us. We may not have the arrogance of the Pharisee, but rather a type of fatalism: “What good could prayer do?” we ask. So, hearing about people of a deep faith, we can be a bit cynical and say, “But they haven’t gone through what I’ve gone through.” Or, if not cynical, we can feel that our situation is just so particular, our disappointments and misfortune so overwhelming, that faith would be a sort of luxury. Yet, St. Paul makes us pause before saying this, and even more before believing it. Paul’s experience has a powerful ring of authenticity, of integrity. He is a credible example for us to follow. In fact, today he is writing from prison – an unjust imprisonment – and his execution is imminent. He’s known suffering and hardship. Consequently, the trust he holds on to is not that of someone who has been coddled or insulated from pain and tragedy. Paul has given a lot and has accomplished a lot, but he doesn’t doubt for a moment that he is still in need of God’s mercy. This posture of prayer makes clear who is at the center of it all. Paul does not put himself at the center, nor his suffering. Rather, Christ is always at the center. Because of this, the apostle Paul can pray for mercy and love with a sure hope: The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat, he says, and (he) will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom.

Paul turns to God in prayer as the parched earth longs for water and as the frozen earth longs for the sun’s warmth. That was the spirit behind the tax collector’s prayer, as well. It is not a pessimistic conviction, but a realistic one. With our trust in the right place – God – we are bearers, then, of a sure hope. This, then, is how we ask for what we need.