“The humble man’s prayer pierces the clouds.” Great words from our 1st Reading (Ecclesiasticus 35:12-19) that seem to link beautifully with Jesus’ story in our Gospel today. (Luke 18:9-14) There we hear of those two men praying, and Jesus tells us that priding ourselves on being good and perfect is not the way to approach God. Far better simply to say, in all humility, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” I say “seem” to link with our Gospel because sadly, if we read to the end of that Old Testament Reading, we see how disappointing it is; as it degenerates into just the kind of attitude that Jesus was attacking, because there the humble man is also sadly described as virtuous.
This particular Book was written very late by Old Testament standards, probably less than 200 years before the birth of Jesus, which is why some Christians chucked it out of the Old Testament in the 16thC, and put it in a separate book called “The Apocrypha”. It is however full of much wise stuff on how to live a good life in the sight of God, and that God loves all of us, not just important people : as we heard, “The Lord is no respecter of personages.”
The problem is, as I hope we all know, that this kind of good talk can lead to the idea that following God is principally about being good, being perfect. Now Jesus certainly wants us to aim high in this respect, but as his story today shows, he’s keen to stress that being loved by God does NOT depend on us being good. This is why he has such conflicts with that group of Jews called Pharisees who, like some Christians today, turn religion into moralism.
Jesus shows us a different way, thank goodness, and his teaching links more clearly to much older stories from the Old Testament. Jacob, who lies to his father to get his brother’s inheritance, and yet running away guilty, is given a vision of heaven, which we call Jacob’s Ladder. Joseph’s brothers, that most know from the musical “The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat”, who sell their brother into slavery, and yet in the end, through tears of repentance, become the beloved ancestors of the People of Israel. And then there are the People of Israel themselves a few generations later, led through the desert by Moses, constantly failing to trust in God, and moaning like mad about everything. Sounds a bit like us doesn’t it!
Yes, God may get exasperated with them, as he does with us modern humans, as we continue to kill one another, leave our fellow humans poor and hungry, and generally fail to be as kind as we could be. But although all this saddens God, he does not cease to love us. Think too of the great King David, another hero from the Old Testament who uses his power to steal another man’s wife, and then arranges for the man to be killed in battle. Yet David too in his sorrow for his failings is loved by God.
This indeed is how we all learn to be good. Children learn to be good because they know their parents love them. If their parents didn’t love them, there would be no point in trying to be good; and it is the same with us in our relationship with God. That is why Jesus teaches us to speak to God as a Father, not just as an impersonal force. Of course he doesn’tt mean that God is literally an old Daddy sitting up in the sky, for the power underlying the Universe is way beyond that. Yet that power, coming to us in the man Jesus, teaches us that we must relate to him as if he were a loving parent, because to view God that way changes everything.
We must therefore ask ourselves today what our relationship with God is like. Do we have at least some sense of God as a loving power watching over us, or is our religion simply a matter of outward observances, be they coming to Mass, attending a Baptism, or just trying to be good? If we do not know God in that personal way, we need to speak to him as if he were. Many non-believers, and many who have come to Mass for years, have come to a deep faith simply by saying, often with tears and in desperation as the man in the Gospel – “God, if you are there, please help me to realise this.” – and for them the world has changed. This is something all of us need to do regularly. This is what true prayer is, so that our faith is a living growing thing of the heart, and not some dull meaningless routine.