Ecclesiasticus 35:12-14, 16-19, 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18, Luke 18:9-14
The Prayer that touches the Heart of God
I remembered in 2019 when I was working in a parish and also incharge of a school. The priest I was working with asked me to help him organise the school. I accepted to do it with all my whole heart, especially for the academic, spiritual and moral growth of the students. In those days, I warned my students that if I ever see them fighting or quarrelling among themselves, then I would punish them severely.
I created a scene where students see each other as a blood brother and sister. One day, one of the students in the lower classes broke my rule. He was trying to fight another student, who never cared to retaliate. The students came to him and reminded him what I said and in fact, they told him that he has to consider himself as a dead person already, because I would punish him. But when this was happening, I didn’t know.
This young student became afraid and immediately came to me with tears , crying profusely. At first I was a bit bemused, He came to my office, cried and begged for forgiveness over something I didn’t know about. Then, I began to ask him what the matter was. He was now the person that reported himself with a broken heart. Instead of flogging him, I was the one consoling him. I was deeply touched by that gesture.
Immediately I read the readings of today, I remembered what David said about God in Psalm 51:16-17. David says “ For You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; You take no pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise”.
The prayer that touches the heart of God is a prayer that comes from a sincere, humble and broken spirit. This is the difference between the prayer of the tax collector and the pharisees.
Our prayers become more effective and more acceptable when it comes from the heart. The prayer of the broken spirit is never despised. This is not when we pray only for wonders and miracles.
This is not when we pray so that people will clap for us or see us as prayer warriors. The prayer that touches the heart of God is the prayer that comes from within. It is the prayer that comes from the one who sees himself as nothing but God as everything that He has. The prayer that touches the heart of God is the prayer that comes from a humble spirit.
This is when we sincerely, intimately and wholeheartedly pour ourselves before Him.
The Tax Collector and the Pharisee
In the gospel, Jesus tells a parable about the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector. These two people’s backgrounds are different. People’s conceptions of them are different. Their approach to prayers are different and their prayers are also different.
So, this is an encounter of two different individuals with different mindsets.
In the gospel, Luke tells us that Jesus tells the parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else.
Therefore, this parable deals with our approach to prayer, the right attitude to prayer, and pride and humility.
This parable teaches us that the way we approach God, our conception of ourselves before God and what we utter in the presence of God are very important. The prayer that touches the heart of God is not the prayer that is surrounded with pride. God wants us to see less ourselves whenever we come to His presence. Let us analyse the background and approaches of these two types of people.
1.The Tax Collector.
In the gospel,Jesus uses the imagery of the tax collector because of the way the people despise the tax collectors in his own time.
The tax collectors are seen as the worst sinners. So, many times the Pharisees and the scribes have accused Jesus of eating and intermingling with the tax collectors. Let me make it simple. The tax collectors are like the politicians of today.
When the Romans invaded the Jews, they set up a tax collecting system that leveraged Jews to collect taxes on their own people. After collecting the taxes, the collection was sent to Rome. So, what the tax collectors do is that they add their own profits when they are collecting the taxes.
Sometimes, they will keep an additional amount from what they collected. This leads to tax collectors getting rich by effectively stealing from their own people. So, they were seen as corrupt people and deeply hated by the people.
Everybody knows them as sinners. So, we imagine the scenario when you see a prostitute in a prayer ground. You would say things like “what is this person doing here?” for us the prayers of such kind of people will never touch heaven. This is exactly,what played out when the pharisee saw the tax collector praying.
2. The Pharisee.
The Pharisee was a respected, religious member of the Jewish community. They are normally leading figures when it comes to the religious aspect of the society.
So, the Pharisees are versed when it comes to keeping God’s laws. People know them as those who pray long prayers, They love acting religiously in public (Luke 20:47).
The Pharisee here represent those who only pray to be seen.Instead of sincerely praying to God from the deepest part of their heart, they dramatise in the form of prayer just to garner attention. They shout on top of their voices, so that people will see them as the prayer warriors of all time. This is not the type of prayer that God wants.
The Prayer of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
1.In the parable, Jesus says that the Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.”
Then, The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Jesus says “This man, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted”.’
2. Before we analyse the prayers of these two individuals, we have to reiterate that among these two, the prayer of the one who is considered acceptable and model in the society is not the prayer accepted by God.
This is not because of anything but because He is not praying the right way. Therefore, what this teaches us is that no matter who we are or how close we think we are to God, we have to approach Him always in the right manner and pray to him in the right manner.
3.The Pharisee did not actually pray. The pharisee was busy praising himself and that is why His prayer was not answered. But the tax collector actually prayed for himself and He got what he asked for. When we sincerely and humbly come to His presence, God always accepts us.
Secondly, Instead of taking time to examine his life, conscience and weaknesses, he spent time poking at the tax-collector’s faults.
He tries to make himself look good before God. for him, he has counted himself worthy more than the tax collector. Therefore, he is praying his self righteousness. Jesus despised all kinds of self-righteous attitudes and behaviors.
Therefore, this means that we must always seek and depend on the mercy of God. We cannot save ourselves by our own good deeds rather than by totally depending on God’s mercy. This is why in every Holy Mass, we must first of all examine our conscience and pray for God’s mercy before other things follow.
All through the bible,I have not seen anyone who asks God to have mercy on Him or her and God forsakes the person.It is impossible. But you would see many who were brought down because of their pride. Humility leads to victory.
4. The pharisee was busy reminding God how righteous he was while the tax collector was busy reminding God how sinful He is.
The pharisee reminded God like most of us do how He fasts twice a week; and His pay tithes often. In essence, he has already considered himself worthy of God’s promises. But the tax collectors considered himself unworthy of God’s love and promises, that is why He stayed very far.
Jesus says that he stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven. Then he was beating his breast and crying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
The Prayer that touches the heart of God is the prayer of one who is truly sorry for His sins. It is the prayer of someone who knows that the fasting and prayers that he does are ways of coming close to God and endearing Himself to God. They are not ways to command God to do what He wants.
5.When we look at the picture of these two men, we may be tempted to align ourselves with the tax collector. We may even conclude that God is commending a sinful life, No. Rather, what God needs from us is a sincere life of devotion. It is not a prayer life to advertise what we do. It is not a prayer life of eye service.
We have to understand that what Jesus condemns in the Pharisee is not his righteousness but his self-righteousness; and what Jesus commends in the tax collector, is not that he is a sinner but that he is a repentant sinner who is crying to God for mercy.
God does not despise the cry of mercy. The prayer of a broken spirit is what God wants. Therefore, what these parables teach us is that when we come in God’s presence, we do not do as if we merit anything.
We do not pray as if we deserve what we are praying for because we fasted and prayed , No, God wants us to see ourselves as undeserving of what we are seeking for. This is the type of prayer that touches the heart of God.
6. Finally, in the prayer of the Pharisees, what we see is arrogance, pride, vainglory etc. What we can see is someone who takes pleasure in glorifying himself. But the prayer of the tax collector is coloured with humility, love and deep trust in God’s mercy.
A prayer backed with faith and humility pierces the heavens. What can we then learn from these? Let us analyse.
1.The Prayer of A Humble Man pierces the clouds
In the gospel, the tax collector could not even come close to the altar. He considered himself so unworthy. His prayer was coloured in humility and Jesus acclaims that this is the right attitude to prayer. Such a prayer backed with humility always touches the heart of God.
In Luke 5:1-11, during the miracle of the Great Catch of Fish. It happened that Peter and His companions had been fishing all through the night and caught nothing.
But while he was coming out of the boat, Jesus instructed him to launch out into the deep, that he would catch a great fish. Let us be real here. Peter would have said no to Jesus.
Peter is a professional fisherman, Jesus is not. In terms of experience, Peter had better experience than Jesus. He would have laughed at Jesus for telling a whole professional fisherman what to do. But guess what, Peter thought low of himself. He thought high of Jesus and obeyed in humility. Then there was a great catch. James 4:6 says that God always shows favour to the humble.
Peter’s promotion was in his humility. When we swallow our pride and come in God’s presence, when we humble ourselves to do what God expects us to do, when we start to give every glory to God, and begin to see more of God than advertising our pride, God will lift us up. When we walk in humility, we will see the great haul of fish. Like Peter, your promotion, your healing, your breakthrough, is in your humility.
2. In the first reading, the author of Ecclesiasticus says that the prayer of the humble man pierces the clouds. The prayer of the humble man does not rest till it reaches its goal. And God can never be slow, nor will he delay to intervene on their behalf.
Jesus humbled himself and became obedient”. It doesn’t say he was obedient because he was so strong-willed, Jesus had to humble himself. Without humility, Jesus would not have gone to the cross”.
It was his humility that led him through. In His humility he said , “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing”. Only the virtue of humility will help us accept the will of God. It is this virtue that will help us carry our crosses without losing faith. Humility will put our pride in check.
2. God also rewards Our attitudes before Him.
How we approach God in prayer is very important.Let us always go to God in prayer with our whole heart. Let us pour our life before Him. He will surely reward our faithfulness. In the second reading, Paul affirms that he has poured away his life as a libation.
In the time of His suffering, every one of them deserted him, yet He did not lose faith. He remained strong in the Lord in humility.
Paul affirms that God stood by Him and gave him so much power, He rescued him from the lion’s mouth. He ran the race to the finish and kept the faith; all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for Him.
So, God rewards us when we remain faithful. He is also a just God. In the gospel, both the pharisees and the tax collectors received their rewards.
Therefore, when we pray just to exhibit our praying skills, ;let us not forget that we also are receiving our rewards.
In Matthew 6:5-8, Jesus says, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men … but when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your father who is unseen, for your father who sees in secret will reward you in secret.
In Matthew 6:1, Jesus says Be careful not to perform your righteous acts before men to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
So, when we pray just for the sake of the drama, when you speak in tongues just to show people you are now a speaking in tongues expert, let us not forget that we have already received our reward, which may amount even to condemnation from God. The first reading says that the Lord is a judge who is no respecter of personages.
3.The Prayer of the Injured Party.
In the first reading , the author of Ecclesiastes instructs that God listens to the plea of the injured party always. He does not ignore the cry of the oppressed. He does not ignore the orphan’s supplication.
This is what the first reading is trying to portray with the prayers of the orphans and widows. Their tears and pains come from a heart broken with misery, oppressions and challenges
He always hearkens to the tears and the cry of a widow’s as she pours out her story. In Psalm 9:9, the bible says that the Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed. Here in Psalm 10:18, It says that the Lord does justice for the fatherless and the oppressed.
In Psalm 103:6, It says that the Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. We have to understand that the prayer and tears of the oppressed will always boomerang. God hearkens to their cry. Also, this is when we see God as the only one that we have in the times of challenges, oppression and betrayal. He hearkens to the tears that sees Him as the only source of solace and defence in the time of trouble.
4.The Prayer of Mercy.
In the gospel, the prayer of the tax collector is that of mercy and forgiveness. There is no person in the bible who has ever sought for mercy and was forsaken.
Let us start from the prayer of the prodigal son, the repentant thief, the blind Bartimaeus and the Canaanite woman etc.
These people sought for the mercy of God and through the mercy of God they received abundant gifts and miracles from God. The prayer “Lord have mercy on me” uttered with a sincere heart and broken spirit is more efficacious than one hour shouting on the top of our voices just to create attention.
A quiet moment with God in which you are deeply communicating with God and solemnly attached to Him in the spirit is more efficacious than speaking in tongues just to show people that we are very powerful.
God needs more of our intimacy than outward and dramatic show in the form of prayer. The first reading says that “The man who with his whole heart serves God will be accepted,his petitions will carry to the clouds.
Therefore, Whenever we approach the presence of God , let us always seek His mercy. The prayer of mercy also touches the heart of God.
1. I take permission to shift a little from today’s message. From the background of the Pharisees, we would expect that the Pharisees should in all means be an exemplar of the model of prayer life. We expect the Pharisee to be the prime example of what we would look like.
Nobody in Jesus’ day would expect a tax collector to be the example for anything good. They see them as the corrupt of the corrupt.
So, the tax collector who betrayed his own people for money can never be the prime example to follow. But the tax collector became the model because he repented. My point here is that nobody knows tomorrow.
The Pharisees looked down on the tax collector. The people we look down on today, are not what they will be forever. God can still change their lives.
Also, let us not allow the mistakes of the past to over shadow us. Like the tax collector, the moment we repent and change from our past behaviours will be the moment we shall discover that God has been waiting for us all these years to return to Him. God still loves you. He only wants us to make a return like the tax collector.
2 . Today, Jesus wants to teach us the importance of praying with the right attitude. This parable is aimed at many of us who think they are very righteous and look down on others.it is aimed at many who see or brand themselves as second gods. It is also warning to many of us who see themselves as “after God na me”. It is also a warning to christians who see themselves as sinless and to many who have lost their faith in God because they prayed and fasted and there was no answer.
God demands sincere love and relationship with Him. God demands that we approach Him always with humility, love and brokenness of heart. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).
3. Do you know that the tax-collector could have also focused on the sins of the Pharisee but He didn’t. In many places in the bible, Jesus accuses the pharisees. The tax collector would have done the same. Instead he focused on his own sin before God and that made his prayer pleasing to God.
He focuses on his weakness and how to save himself and he was saved. Do you know that many times, our problem is the inability to look into ourselves and correct the things that we are not doing well.
Do you agree with me that many problems that arise either in the family or between friends or associates is the inability to look into themselves and find out what both are not doing well and correct them.
The Pharisees came to God’s presence to seek a solution for his problem. He forgot this and focused on another person’s weakness, hence the Pharisees remained how he is. In the same way, until we come together and examine ourselves and find out what the both parties did not and have not done well, and correct it. We will remain as we are.
4. Finally, the tax-collector’s humble prayer won him God’s favour. The tax-collector came before God empty-handed but left the presence of God fully handed.
When we come to His presence, we have to drop whatever we think we are or that we have acquired. We have to come to him like the dust we are. When God sees our nothingness before Him, He will surely uplift us.
A man came to Buddha with an offering of flowers in his hands. Buddha looked at him and said, “Drop it!” he could not believe he was being asked to drop the flowers. But then it occurred to him that he was probably being invited to drop the flowers he had in his left hand, since to offer something with one’s left hand was considered impolite.
So he dropped the flowers that his left hand held. Still Buddha said, “Drop it!” This time he dropped all the flowers and stood empty handed before Buddha, who once again said with a smile, “Drop it!” Perplexed, the man asked, “What is it I am supposed to drop?” “Not the flowers, son, but the one who brought them,” was Buddha’s reply. Thus, Buddha was calling all devotees to come before God poor in spirit, divorced from oneself, and not to come like the proud Pharisee of the Gospel, who stood before God as an “I” specialist, singing his own praises.
LET US ALWAYS REMAIN HUMBLE,FAITHFUL AND SINCERE IN OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD.
May God bless you and give you the grace to remain close to Him. AMen