Sunday, October 24, 2010

Article: The Heart of God's Will

The heart of God's will

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Like most of you, I've said a lot of prayers in my life. I've prayed for health, healing, guidance, jobs, money, relationships, security, happiness, baseball games, football games, parking places - I could go on and on and on. It has struck me over the past few years how much of my prayer life is driven by fear, and how the majority of prayers are really little more than spiritualized worrying - about myself.

I've prayed a lot for myself, but I'm not sure I've ever prayed to myself. In today's Gospel reading, Jesus tells a story about a man who does just that.

"Two people went up to the temple area to pray," Jesus says, "one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, '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.'"

Now, the Pharisee doesn't actually address his prayer to himself. Jesus seems to suggest that the content of the prayer indicates that his prayer is mainly intended to flatter himself with his own piety.

Meanwhile, "the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'" The tax collector is heard by God, but the Pharisee is not.

While I have never addressed a prayer to myself either, today's reading makes me wonder if my prayers are any more sincere than the Pharisee's. Like the tax collector, I come to God in need and not as an act of spiritual theater, but at the same time I am often focused on asking God to implement my wishes and present a laundry list of requests rather than simply surrender to God's love and mercy.

"Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted," Jesus concludes. Perhaps the issue for the Pharisee isn't so much that he prayed pretty much to hear his own voice, but that he comes to God having already met his own needs and wants only to promote himself. He exalts himself and that, according to Jesus, is all that he's going to get from his prayers. The tax collector, on the other hand, comes to God in a state of need and dependence on God for any kind of spiritual peace.

"The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal," we're told in today's first reading from Sirach. This is the truth that plays out in Jesus' story.

I suppose when I reflect on my own prayer life, I come to God with the same kind of desperation and dependence as the tax collector, but I'm normally focused on what I want for myself and others. The tax collector, on the other hand, plugs directly into the heart of God's will - to show mercy and compassion on those who genuinely crave it. Those prayers will always pierce the clouds and reach their intended audience.

Bill Peatman writes from Napa. He may be reached at

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