Sunday, October 27, 2019

Prayer That Presumes Too Much; Prayer That Presumes Too Little

"Oh God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity ..."

(Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on October 27, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Sirach 35:12-18; Psalm 34:2-23; 2 Timothy 4:6-18; Luke 18:9-14.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirtieth Sunday 2019]

Prayer that presumes too much.

Prayer that presumes too little.

Both are common—and both are wrong!

The Pharisee in today’s Gospel parable from Luke 18 presumed too much when he said, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”

For example, he presumed that because he did “religious things” he was thereby pleasing to the Lord.  That was a rash presumption on his part!  You can perform religious actions from the time you get up until the time you go to bed and still be in the state of mortal sin; you can fast and pay tithes—as this man did—for all the wrong reasons. 

And since he gave no indication in his prayer that he was aware of his own need for forgiveness, this Pharisee may have presumed that God would automatically forgive him of his sins, since he was such a great Pharisee and performed all these wonderful, holy actions! 

To presume that God will forgive us whether or not we repent and confess our sins is perhaps the most dangerous presumption of all.  And it’s one that’s clearly condemned in Scripture.  As Sirach 5:5 says, “Of forgiveness be not overconfident, adding sin upon sin.”

This Pharisee also presumed to know those who were with God and those who were against God.  He thought he could clearly distinguish one group from the other.  In his mind, of course, he was in the good group, and all those “greedy, dishonest and adulterous” folks—like the tax collector—were in the other.  If we presume that we can clearly distinguish who is with God and who isn’t—who is in the state of grace and who isn’t—we are presuming to know the “heart” of another person, and that is impossible!  Only God knows the heart, which is why Jesus tells us in Luke 6:37 not to “judge.”  Judging, by the way, in this sense has nothing to do with calling sin “sin”: that we should do; that we must do!  But we can never know with absolute certitude how culpable another person is for the sins they commit.  The tone of his prayer indicates that this Pharisee thought he knew the “culpability level” of other people—and that was a prideful presumption on his part; that was an act of “judging.”

Here’s a challenging question: Has this type of presumption been present in any of your prayers since September 11, 2001?  Have you presumed to know the “culpability level” of Osama bin Laden and his terrorist friends, some of whom unfortunately are still around today?  Hopefully not.  We know that what terrorists do is evil; we know that what they do is to be condemned in the strongest terms; and we know that IF they’re fully culpable for their terrorist activities they’re in grave danger of losing their immortal souls.  But that’s as far as we can go in terms of our knowledge—and our prayers should humbly reflect that fact.  If they don’t, then we are no better than the Pharisee of this parable.

The prayer of the Pharisee is a prayer that presumes too much, and it’s wrong.  But equally wrong is the prayer that presumes too little.

The person who prays but thinks, “God really doesn’t love me”; the person who prays but says to himself, “What I’ve done is so horrible that God couldn’t possibly forgive me”; the person who prays but doesn’t believe God can change him for the better or supply his needs; the person who prays but doesn’t believe that God can work miracles; the person who prays but doesn’t think that God can heal his marriage or family; the person who prays but doesn’t think that God can help him to forgive others—these are all people who are presuming too little when they pray!  Because the fact is, God does love us; he does forgive; he can change us and supply our needs; he does work miracles; he does heal relationships, and he does have the power to help us forgive (after all, God the Son even forgave his own murderers!). 

Which brings us to a man who did presume all these things when he prayed: the tax collector in today’s Gospel parable.  His prayer, though extremely short, says and implies a lot: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  This man knew his unworthiness, but he also believed strongly in God’s love and mercy: that’s clear from the words of the prayer.  He knew God could forgive him; he was convinced that God wanted to forgive him; and he believed God would forgive him if he turned to the Lord with a repentant heart.  And God did!  As Jesus said, this man—who presumed what he should have presumed—“went home justified”, while the Pharisee—who had presumed too much—did not.

The example to be followed here, my brothers and sisters, should be obvious.

Oh Lord, help us to be like this tax collector—always—whenever we come to you in prayer.