Reflection for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)
Rev. Fr. Bonnie Nkem Anusiem Ph.D.
“The common mistakes couples make in marriage” is part of the course content of my class for people intending to marry in the Church. One of the questions I usually ask the male partners is, “what would you do when your wife tells you that she has a headache?” Almost all of them answered that they would provide medication.
I will usually react by saying that as helpful and sensitive as the answer is, it is the wrong thing to do! Of course, they will ask why and how? I would respond this way: “If she needed medication, she would say; besides, she is more likely to have access to that medication than you.”
The simple thing she needed was attention, not medication! “I have a headache” could mean so many things to her. So, if your wife says she has a headache, she is seeking attention, so ask her what she needs precisely, and you will get an answer.
Attention is a fundamental human need, and not getting it could be problematic. There seems to be in each one of us (even animals) this organic craving for attention. The cry of a baby, the meow of a cat, the bark of a dog, and the train of a peacock are all indices of attention. Even the outright dislike for attention, as some claim, is an attention index in a reverse form. Who doesn’t enjoy attention? Even God does, and that is the focus of this reflection.
Prayer is Seeking God’s Attention
There are many definitions of prayer, but the most popular says, “prayer is our communication with God.” Beyond the communication foreground, what we do in prayer is seek God’s attention. The Book of Psalms (105:4) says, “look to the Lord and His strength; seek His face always.” And the Prophecy of Jeremiah (29:13) says, “You will seek Me and find Me if you seek me with all your heart.”
The First Reading from the Book of Sirach (35:12-14, 16-18) tells us that the Lord is a God of justice who knows no favorites. However, He pays special attention to the weak and oppressed when they cry out to Him. The passage concludes by saying that the lowly (humble) prayer pierces the clouds. It does not rest until it reaches its goal. We shall come back to this closing statement.
Praying to God vs. Praying to Oneself
In the Gospel Reading (Luke 18:9-14), our Lord Jesus Christ gives us a very interesting parable about two individuals who went up to the temple area to pray. One was a Pharisee (a religious fanatic), and the other was a tax collector (a sinner).
Considering their spiritual and moral backgrounds, one would think that the Pharisee would have a great time with God in prayer, unlike the tax collector, the sinner. But Jesus shocked his listener when he zoomed into their prayer patterns and the consequent results of their encounters. We shall learn how your prayer disposition determines your results.
In the parable, Jesus tells us that the Pharisee took his position. That means he has a designated place, probably in the front axis, and he prayed to himself standing there. Looking at the content of his prayer, we discover that he was reciting his righteous deeds to God: “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”. What a prayer, folks!
In contrast, the tax collector took a rear position and, with intentional penitence and humility, said a very short but powerful prayer, “O God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Our Lord gave the results of their prayers: that the tax collector went home justified but not the tax collector. So, Justification comes from God; you cannot justify yourself.
Moving Forward: Courting God’s Attention in Prayer
Praying to God has nothing much to do with who or what you are; it has more to do with your attitude or approach to God. God is not obliged to give you attention in prayer because you have a high position in the Church. God pays attention to those who come with the right dispositions, and we shall see them below.
Sincere Penitence: The first and only thing the tax collector did was to acknowledge his sinfulness before God sincerely. He didn’t even dare to look up to heaven in his deep penitence.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, gave himself exceptional leverage over the rest of humanity. He forgot that our righteousness is like a filthy rag before God (Isaiah 64:4). And that Psalm (130: 3) says, “if God should mark our iniquities, who could stand.” There is a great benefit for us to come to God with the disposition of sinners, and that is what we all are.
Humility: Notice that in the parable, our Lord Jesus Christ analyzed the prayer postures of the two individuals, indicating their humility quotients. The Pharisee had an exclusively self-exalting place in the temple areas, and he lacked humility. The tax collector, in contrast, took a humble position and made a short but impactful prayer to God.
God is constantly attracted to the humble, and they never stumble. Recall that the First Reading tells us that the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds. Even our Jesus, the Son of God, humbled himself, taking the place of a servant (Philippians 2:7-8). The easiest way to fall is to be prideful before God (Proverbs 16:18), but the humble always wins.
Righteousness: God is righteous, and it follows that He is constantly attracted to the righteous. David says in Psalms (34:15) that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and His ears are attentive to their cry. In his letter, St. James (5:16b) tells us that the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
The Book of Psalm (24:3) tells us that only the one with clean hands and a pure heart shall climb the mountain of the Lord and stand in His holy place. Righteousness is a spiritual currency that can attract and retain divine attention. God rewards the righteous with great benefits as He also fights their battles.
As we continue our faith journey, let us remember that God should be our audience in prayer. So, do not pray to make yourself feel good about what you think you are. Do not pray to impress or suppress others. We are invited to pray to God with sincere penitence, humility, and righteousness, and we shall get his attention.