Of all the people in here today, Who’s prayer does God listen to? … is it Father Eugene’s prayers? Is it the people sitting in the front row? The people in the back row? Is it the people who follow all the rules and DESERVE to be heard by God? Is it people who kneel to pray – or those who stand with their hands in the air? Who’s prayer does God hear best? The answer to that question is in every reading – so listen to the answer…- AND listen for where YOU are in these readings….so you can answer the real question: Does God hear MY prayer?
Before I get back to the question of whose prayers God hears, we need to talk about that one word at the end of the Gospel. Jesus used a word here which may not mean anything to us: He said the tax collector went home ‘JUSTIFIED’. What’s that mean, and why is that important? Justified means to be set right. So in this case, it means his relationship with God was set right.
Let me use an example: Deer season is upon us – and all of us hunters take out our crossbows or guns and take a few practice shots aiming directly at the center of a target. What do you do after you take a shot? You check where you hit. Then you take another shot to see where it hits – and once you realize how far off your shot is, you adjust your sights. On the side of the scope is an adjustment where you can click it a couple of times to move the scope up or down or right or left… the goal of that is so when you take a shot with the scope pointed directly at the center of the target, the arrow or bullet hits that target.
So – what if you buy the best gun and the best ammo, even buy the best targets in the world… then took your practice shot, and didn’t even LOOK at where the arrow landed? Or – what if you looked at it and said – yeah, I’m way off, but it doesn’t matter. What’s gonna happen when you take a shot at that 22 point buck that swaggers up to your deer stand? The arrow will fly past the target and the buck will get away. If we don’t look at our shot and adjust our sights, then taking practice shots is a waste of time and ammunition…and we’ll go hungry this winter.
In our spiritual life, we do the same thing… it’s called prayer. When we pray, it’s not about looking at everything that WE have done. It’s not about what sacrifices WE made or how many prayers WE did… Prayer is about looking at our shots and honestly recognizing where we are off…where we need to adjust our sights. For example, in my prayer I might walk through my day – thanking God for the blessings I received along the way – but also recognizing where I blew it. Maybe I lost my temper and said some things I shouldn’t have. Maybe I gave into temptation. Maybe God put someone in my path who needed help, but I chose to look the other way. When I see those points where my arrow missed the mark, then I need to adjust my scope. Obviously, my scope must not be pointed directly at God. Now – how do I adjust the scope? Prayer: I can’t do it alone… I must beg God for his mercy for missing the mark, then ask Him to help me readjust my sights.
Notice I said – “readjust” my sights…. “Adjust” comes from the same word that Jesus used… “Justified”. When my scope is pointed directly at God, then my scope is JUSTIFIED… it is set right… pointed in the right direction. When it points away from God, even just a little, I miss the mark… and literally, the word ‘sin’ means ‘ missed the mark’. Prayer is about adjusting our hearts to point to God. If prayer doesn’t change us, it’s not really prayer! If we’re not re-aiming our thoughts and hearts toward God, if we’re not justifying our sights… then God won’t hear our prayer because it’s not really a prayer!
Back to our question: Who’s prayer does God hear the best? We heard several answers in the readings: “he hears the cry of the oppressed”, He is “not deaf to the wail of the orphan, nor to the widow”…”The one who serves God willingly is heard”, “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds”, the one who humbles himself will be exalted, and of course, our psalm “the lord hears the cry of the poor”.
You could sum all of that up with the phrase that Jesus used in the Beatitudes… Blessed are the Poor in Spirit. See, Jesus chose his words carefully – he could have chosen a word for poor which means – someone who has a home – but has trouble making ends meet. Instead he chose the word for someone who is destitute… implying that they have no home – no job – no way to live - their only recourse is to beg. So, we could reword the psalm to say “the Lord hears the cry of the Beggars”
Think about what that means to be a beggar: you have no means to take care of yourself. You are COMPLETELY at the mercy of the person to whom you are begging. If they don’t feel gracious that day, you or your kids might go to bed hungry. From that perspective, that makes it REALLY good news that “The lord hears the cry of the beggars.”
Which takes us to the Gospel – Jesus implies that the Tax Collector’s prayer was heard. Why? First look at the Pharisee: what made his prayer NOT be heard? Was it because he sat in the front row? Because he dared to approach God without fear? Was it his words? Nothing he said was untrue… but they give us a view into his heart. See – he thought that by doing all of these RELIGIOUS things, he could earn his own salvation. That’s an important point, so don’t miss it: He thought all of his fasting and tithing and outward religiousness made him RICH in spirit, so that he already possessed the mercy of God… because he deserved it. The Pharisees were the goodest of the good people… in today’s terms, they went to church every day, they fasted twice a week (even though the requirement is only to fast on Fridays during Lent), they gave their full 10 percent to the church. If anybody DESERVED the mercy of God, these guys did. But Jesus says that his prayer wasn’t answered. Now hopefully you’re feeling the same thing his hearers did that day, “What? If THESE guys’ prayers aren’t heard, then there is NO hope for us!”
The Tax Collector, on the other hand. In today’s terms, this guy is from ISIS… the baddest of the bad. What made HIS prayer be heard? Was it because he stood at a distance? Was it because he wouldn’t raise his eyes to God? Was it his words? None of the above – although they all give us a clue about why he was heard: it’s because he was poor in spirit. He recognized that HE could do nothing to gain the favor of God. He was destitute when it came to spiritual matters, and all he could do was BEG. The lord hears the cry of the Beggar.
So each of us can enter into our own prayer every day in one of two ways – we can swagger in and list off for God all of OUR accomplishments in order to REMIND him that He OWES us something – or we can look honestly at where we’ve missed the target and recognize that we are destitute – that we are beggars… we don’t deserve our next breath! Much less, do we deserve any mercy or other favors from God.
Prayer that does not change us or re-set our sights is not prayer.