I am sure that all of us at one time or another in our prayer life have wondered whether or not God is listening to our prayer. As we lift up our hearts, our needs, our praises and our whole lives to God we may for a moment ask ourselves if anyone is really present to receive our offering. For some this question may not really matter as they are intent on just getting through their prayer ritual and moving on to something else. For others who have understood prayer as a dialogue with God, the experience of someone listening to our deepest yearnings and sharing in our most significant experiences is vitally important. The silence of God can be very disconcerting. It is much like that moment in a telephone conversation when we pause suddenly to ask, “Are you still there?” We fear that our connection may not be a good one and that our call has been dropped and so we ask, “Can you hear me now?”
For several weeks now, in our gospel readings of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, Jesus has been teaching us about prayer. We heard that our prayers must be offered in faith, that we need at least that mustard seed of faith. We heard then that our faith in prayer must lead us to gratitude and thankfulness for all that God has gifted us with. Then last week we heard that our prayer must be persistent and we must pray always and never grow weary. Our persistence in prayer is a sign of our faith. Today Jesus addresses the question of whether our prayer is heard and received by God. The first reading today from Sirach assures us that God hears the cry of the oppressed, that the Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan and that the one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds…” Our psalm response assures us that, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” Our gospel parable implies that whether or not our prayer is heard depends largely on who we understand ourselves to be in offering our prayer. Are we the Pharisee who offers his prayer insisting on his own righteousness and addressing himself in prayer, putting on display his pride or are we the poor tax collector who offers a simple prayer of humility asking for God’s mercy.
Within all of us there is both the self-righteous Pharisee and the humble Publican who knows his unworthiness to make any request of the Lord. The spiritual writers would name our Pharisee self the “false self” which we create in our own pride. The false self is an illusion that we have created in our pride and self-love that is self-satisfied and that feels that God is obligated to listen to us because we have worked so hard to gain his favor. The Publican self is more akin to our true self that realizes in humility that we have fallen far short of who we were created to be, that we have been untrue to our own inmost truth, that we are living a lie and that we desperately need God’s mercy to lift us up. Thomas Merton mentions a passage from Dostoievski’s, The Brothers Karamazov, that highlights this “eternal conflict” within the Christian life: “The conflict between the rigid, authoritarian, self-righteous, ascetic Therapont, who delivers himself from the world by sheer effort, and then feels qualified to call down curses upon it; and the Staretz, Zossima, the kind, compassionate man of prayer who identifies himself with the sinful and suffering world in order to call down God’s blessings upon it.” Merton says, “For that very reason the dimensions of prayer in solitude are those of man’s ordinary anguish, his self-searching, his moments of nausea at his own vanity, falsity and capacity for betrayal. Far from establishing one in unassailable narcissistic security, the way of prayer brings us face to face with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone and to enjoy the “consolation of prayer” for its own sake. This “self” is pure illusion, and ultimately he who lives for and by such an illusion must end either in disgust or in madness.”
“The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” God doesn’t have much patience for the self-righteous who exalt themselves in their pride and who despise those who are less worthy than themselves and condemn them. God hears the prayers of the humble, who know their poverty, their sin, their need for God’s mercy and who feel a sense of solidarity with sinful humanity and are able to call down God’s blessings. Jesus teaches us today that our prayer must be humble and simple. To open a window to heaven where our prayers may ascend to our Lord we must first open a window in our own hearts where his grace and mercy may penetrate to the depths of our being and illuminate the dark places of our own true self and heal us of our brokenness. Once we have embraced our poverty then we can ask God to enrich us in his mercy and know in confidence that he will hear the cry of the poor.