I was once asked to teach a college semester course on prayer. That sounds simple enough a request to make of a priest. After all, we’re supposed to be the “pros”, experts in all things Catholic, veritable “answer machines” when it comes to most questions the average Catholic might ask.
Well, to be honest, that request to teach prayer was akin to asking me to teach higher math. I was never much good in any math past addition and subtraction. Nonetheless, as anything but an expert, I delved into the subject, with books galore and saints aplenty. Ultimately I chose the one perfect prayer my students and I could analyze: The Lord’s Prayer. Would you believe, we never quite finished that analysis when the semester ended?
This weekend features a gospel passage in which Jesus tells another one of His matchless parables that includes a key element in all real prayer: humility. The story includes an indictment of those who were “self-righteous.” That word describes a person who is “smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.” I dislike that definition, not because of any inaccuracy, but because it accurately describes me at times. Not something to brag about at all. I have this pet description of myself and most people, as having in our minds, an imaginary courtroom where we are both prosecutor and judge. We diagnose the failure of someone we know, for example, to be Christlike. Then we “pounce and pronounce” on them with a clear and harsh verdict of “guilty,” all the while hinting quite broadly that we never act that way ourselves.
This applies to celebrities, well-known politicians and their political parties, our fellow family members, the hierarchy of the Church, our pastors, and nearly anybody we care to name. And then along comes Our Lord with a devastating parable featuring a man much like ourselves who is obviously so wrong, so full of pride as to be disgusting. To top it off, he is contrasted with his opposite, a virtuous and humble man who mouths a heartfelt request of his God. Obviously, we know which man Our Lord the Storyteller favors. Listen again to that tax collector in the back of the room that could well teach a college course in prayer. He says “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Just eight words. But worth more than eighteen or eighty in describing a perfect attitude when addressing our all-holy God.
We know of the greedy practice of many a Jewish tax collector in those days, ostensibly working for the Romans but secretly working for themselves by overcharging taxpayers. The man in the parable is a wonderful exception. We admire him. We want to be like him. He would know the truth of today’s Responsorial Psalm: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” In the meantime, we trust in God to help us improve each day to be more like the person He had in mind when He created us. Of course, we have to live with people who are the opposite of that taxpayer, who seem to be everywhere.
Sometimes we delight when they get their comeuppance. Like the man in this story published in “The Los Angeles Times.” A flight cancellation had resulted in a long line of travelers trying to get booked on another flight. One man in the line grew increasingly impatient with the slow-moving line. Suddenly, he pushed his way to the front and angrily demanded a first-class ticket on the next available flight. “I’m sorry,” said the ticket agent, “but I’ll have to first take care of the people who were ahead of you in the line.” The irate man then pounded his fist on the ticket counter, saying, “Do you have any idea who I am?” Whereupon the ticket agent picked up the public address microphone and said, “Attention please! There is a gentleman at the ticket counter who does not know who he is. If there is anyone in the airport who can identify him, please come to the counter.” Hearing this, the man retreated, and the people waiting in line burst into applause.