30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sir 35: 12-14,16-18
2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18
It matters how you talk to people, doesn’t it?
Someone introduced me to a man the other day at a party. At first he seemed an interesting sort, and I was asking him about himself. He was more than willing to comply. But after a few minutes I started feeling uneasy, because of the way he was talking about himself. Especially his accomplishments. The more he talked the more the conversation became more and more one sided. He wasn’t outright boasting, but he wasn’t actually being humble either. I could tell he had a healthy dose of ego, and it turned me off to him. After we parted, I realized that he had never asked me anything about myself. I was doing all the asking and all the listening, and he was doing all the talking. And you know, I don’t really remember what he said.
Oh, no, wait a minute. That was me.
It’s easy to talk about ourselves, isn’t it? And the people we like to talk to the most are the ones who are interested in us. It’s easy to find ourselves talking more and more about ourselves and our accomplishments when someone is encouraging us to do so. How often have you walked away from a conversation and thought, “I really don’t know much more about that person. I did all the talking.”
I don’t think that’s boasting, necessarily. It’s natural. Our favorite subject is ourselves. It’s easy to get carried away about ourselves. Most of us are not egotists, but we all know some people who are. They are just as annoying as the tax collector in today’s parable.
There are some people who never really listen to you, they are just waiting for their turn to talk. I think we all do that from time to time. But the really great conversations are the ones where we encourage each other to talk because we are truly interested in what the other has to say. We want to know more about them and they want to know more about us. That’s stimulating, not annoying. That type of relationship is not one-upmanship. That is one of mutual interest and understanding.
God’s the same way. God doesn’t want us to talk to him only about ourselves. God knows all about us. He knows our accomplishments and He’s proud of them, more proud than we are ourselves. He also knows our failures, and that’s what He wants to talk to us about. He wants us to be grateful for what we have and for what we have done with what we have. He also wants us to recognize where and when we have fallen short, ask for forgiveness, and then move on.
We pray to God because we need to say it and we need to believe that he likes to hear it. We need to know that we’re ok with God. We need to know that we have ultimate value, that we are accepted by our creator, even though we don’t really deserve it. We need to have that hope and know that there’s a purpose to life, with all its joys and sufferings. It is through our prayer that we keep our relationship with God in focus.
But does God answer prayers? Ah, the great question. When we ask it we are usually referring to prayers of petition. We ask God for something and then sit back and wait to see if we get it. Sometimes we do get what we ask for, but rarely does God answer us boldly and loudly, so we can easily recognize it. Rarely do we get that miracle we’ve been hoping for. But then, we never got that pony we asked our parents for for Christmas, did we? And I think we oftentimes make excuses for not getting what we asked for. “God knows best, and I guess I really didn’t need it. So I guess I’ll try to word it a bit differently next time.” Or, we look back and try hard to see how God really did answer our prayers. “Yeah, that was it, right there. It really did work out ok in the end, even if it wasn’t the way I expected it or planned it.” We desperately need to believe that God hears us.
But what about those prayers of hopelessness when we are enveloped in deep suffering and poverty of body and spirit? When we are not asking for things but just for an end to our pain? What about the millions of people who go to bed hungry every night, who aren’t asking for a better job or a new car but just to survive? Sometimes their prayers are never answered with the alleviation of their suffering. Does that mean they weren’t answered? Does that mean that God has abandoned them?
St. Paul experienced this. Many times he prayed that he be relieved of an unknown physical ailment, only to get the answer that sorry, he had to put up with it. He came to the conclusion that it was only when he was weak and had to rely totally on God that he was actually stronger. But that still didn’t make him feel any better. And today we heard that even after an entire career of bringing the Good News to people the world over, he was still alone and abandoned by them in his time of need. Just like Jesus. But even when he looked back on his life’s race and saw all the times he’d stumbled and fell, he still kept his eyes on the finish line. He never lost hope.
God does not guarantee that when we ask for things from Him we will necessarily get what we request. He only guarantees that we will receive His mercy and through that mercy, hope. Prayer is always answered with mercy.
And mercy is all about hope. Can you imagine what the world would be like if God were not merciful towards us? What if he left us to our own devices in our evil and sinfulness? Without God’s mercy there would be no good on the earth. Because we sin we need to ask for and receive forgiveness. If God in his mercy does not forgive us we are doomed to destroy ourselves. Without the possibility of forgiveness we would go insane. Without God’s mercy we would have no hope. Because the opposite of mercy is despair.
And true mercy requires the one who receives it to accept it with humility. Not in humiliation, but with an understanding that even though our actions require forgiveness, we still have great value. Mercy is accepting our true place in the scheme of things and knowing what our true relationship is with our creator. Have mercy on us sinners. We need to accept that we are only the creatures, and we don’t have all the answers. Sometimes it all makes sense and oftentimes it doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean we give up in frustration.
So, does it matter how we talk to God? Is our attitude towards prayer more important than the words themselves? It does in today’s parable. One man went away justified, the other didn’t. And it wasn’t because of what they said, it’s how they said it.
God doesn’t want us to do all the talking. God doesn’t want us to focus on ourselves. He wants us to focus on him. He wants us to stop talking and just listen sometime. He wants us to be curious about him, to ask lots of questions and get to know him better.
Your God wants to have a conversation with you. One on one, person to person. He likes to hear from you, he finds you infinitely interesting, and he loves to be with you. Do you feel the same way about him?