I used to love Bazooka Joe bubble gum when I was a kid. The comics inside the wrapper were never brilliant humour, but there was one punchline that stuck with me, and the Gospel reading for today reminded me of it.
In it, Bazooka Joe calls his friend Mort stupid. Someone overhearing the exchange rebukes Joe, and says "Tell Mort you're sorry". Bazooka Joe turns to Mort and tells him earnestly, "Mort, I am sorry you're stupid".
I thought that was pretty funny, and it was a style of apology I once tried on my brother. Oddly, it was not acceptable.
This is the big issue with the prayer of the Pharisee in today's Gospel (Luke 18:9-14). It is disingenuous, to say the least.
Prayer is an ill-defined concept, at best. It is versatile, and there are no rules, as such, but broadly speaking prayer falls into four categories:
1. Adoration, where we simply adore God.
2. Thanksgiving, where we express gratitude.
3. Penitence, where we acknowledge a wrong we have committed, and express our regret for having committed it.
4. Petition, where we ask God for something.
Number 4 is where 90% of us probably spend 90% of our prayer time. This is not a bad thing, as a prayer of petition can include asking for guidance, strength and wisdom. While I probably don't need to explain why asking God for winning lottery numbers or for a new car is barking up the wrong tree, there are perfectly valid prayers of petition out there. We just need to be sure we don't conceive of prayer as a wish-fulfillment list, or that we don't treat God like a dispensing machine.
Either way, the prayer of the Pharisee is not a valid form of prayer in any sense of the word. One could argue that it is technically a prayer of thanksgiving, but it really isn't.
It is a list of judgments parading as a prayer.
Martin Luther said, "Two things especially make our prayers void and of no effect: confidence of our own righteousness, and our contempt of others", and the prayer of the Pharisee fall into both categories.
Prayer is a powerful tool for communication with whatever way we conceive of the divine, of communing with something outside ourselves, and as a tool for self-reflection.
I am often struck by how most modern self-help concepts are actually a repackaging of spiritual concepts such as prayer. Whether we speak of meditation, mindfulness, living in the moment, attentiveness, we are essentially talking about prayer.
At its base, prayer is an act of self-reflection and/or an act of reflecting upon the sacred, however we conceive of it.
The prayer of the Pharisee is none of those things, and is therefore invalid.
How are we praying these days?
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