Christ the King Catholic Church
This coming Thursday is Halloween and our neighborhoods will be filled with ghosts, with miniature action heroes and a variety of masked creatures roaming our fair city in the annual search for candy. Lots of kids will be out trick or treating.
And they will all have one thing in common: they will all wear masks. For a few fun-filled hours, they will pretend to be someone they are not. Fortunately, at nightfall, make-up will be taken off, swords put away and costumes will be replaced with pajamas and all will be well with our world.
Masks are fun at Halloween. But, if we think about it for a moment, we all wear masks from time to time. We all pretend to be someone we are not. And sometimes, even at nightfall, we don't take those masks off.
That's the case in today's Gospel in which Saint Luke continues his teaching on prayer. Last week he taught us the importance of perseverance in prayer. This week he teaches us the importance of sincerity in prayer. When we come before God in prayer, we must take off our masks. When we come before God in prayer, if we want our prayer to be heard, we have to come before him as we really are - warts and all.
The pharisee in today's Gospel wears a mask. He wears a mask of self righteousness. Unlike the trick or treaters that we will meet this Thursday, the pharisee in Jesus' parable never takes his mask off. He wears it all the time, even when he goes to the Temple area to pray.
The pharisees, we are told in the Gospels, believed in their own self-righteousness while holding everyone else in contempt. The very name 'pharisee' gives us a clue as to how this group of 'religious' folks saw themselves and others. The name means 'the separated ones'. They lived apart from everyone else or, in their view, 'above' everyone else. They separated themselves so that no one would confuse them with the rest ofhumanity- greedy, dishonest, adulterous- sinful.
Unfortunately, as Jesus shows us in the Gospel today, they also separated themselves from God. They didn't need God's help for anything because, in their mind, they did all things well by themselves.
They saw themselves as better than anyone else and they prided themselves religiously as being 'self-made men.' Truth be told, the pharisees were self-made men on steroids!
That day in the Temple area, the pharisee stood before God wearing his mask of self-righteousness firmly in place. We hear that self-righteousness in the words of his so-called prayer. We are told that he prayed 'to himself. He goes to the Temple not to praise God, but to praise himself. He goes to the Temple not to thank God for God's goodness, but to remind God of his own goodness. In that Temple area he's a bit like the five-year-old who at nightfall on Halloween refuses to take off his mask insisting that he really is superman and goes to sleep with that illusion.
On the other hand, the publican, a tax collector for the Romans, wears no mask, at least when he comes to the Temple to pray. He is brutally honest in his prayer. He is a sinner. His very profession is the cause of sin. As a tax collector his salary was based primarily on what he could collect over and above the taxes demanded by the Romans. The money he used to feed his family was often ill-gotten. It came from cheating his neighbors and fellow countrymen. We don't know what masks the publican might have been tempted to wear outside the Temple - perhaps the mask of self-justification. Most of us probably have one of those hanging in our closet. It shows itself every time we say something like, "I know what I am doing is wrong, but... " As he stands before God in prayer, the publican knows that it is time to take off all the masks. And so, he beats his breast and begs God to be merciful to him - a sinner.
Certainly, for Jesus' audience the day he first told this parable, there was a surprise ending. Surprise isn't a strong-enough word. There was a shocking end to the parable. A pharisee and a publican went to the Temple to pray. Everyone knew how that story was supposed to end. Pharisees are good guys and publicans are not. Pharisees are really, really religious men and publicans are not.
And yet, the shocking conclusion to the parable is that while two men went to the Temple to pray that day, only one man's prayer was heard. And it was not the pharisee's.
Masks. We all wear them. Sometimes, like at Halloween, they are appropriate and fun. Other times they cover up who we really are and can wreak havoc on our relationships. Sometimes they even keep us from seeing ourselves as we really are. Jesus teaches us in today's Gospel that in prayer we can take off our masks.
In prayer we must take off our masks. Only if we come before God as we really are - warts and all, can we encounter God as God really is - a God who saves.
Two men went to the Temple to pray. One wore a mask and one did not. One man's prayer was heard and one man's was not.
lfwe think about it, there is something freeing about today's Gospel. When we come before God in prayer, we can be real. We can trust God enough to take off all the masks we wear before others. Jesus teaches us that that trust will not be betrayed. When I was young, I often wore a mask of insincerity in my prayer. I thought I had to protect God from the bad things that were happening in my life. If I was experiencing a toothache, a CYO football defeat or an adolescent breakup, I thought that in my prayer I had to assure God that all was well - when all was not well. Jesus teaches us to be real in our prayer. We can bring the good, the bad and the ugly to God in prayer. God is not a china doll that will fall off the shelf and break if I bring my true feelings to him in prayer.
Jesus give us a perfect example of this in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died. Jesus doesn't 'clean up' his prayer. Instead, sweating blood, he prays, "Father, remove this cup of suffering from me, but let it be your will and not mine."
God knows us and God loves us. In prayer God wants us to know ourselves. We are sinners. As Saint John tells us in his first letter, the one who says he or she is without sin is a liar. We are saved not because we are so good, but because God is so good. The publican in today's Gospel understood this. The pharisee did not.
Masks are great for Halloween and masquerade parties. But after Halloween and when the parties are over, we need to take off the masks. Masks can get in the way of a lot of things - especially prayer. Prayer is the one place where we can be real. Prayer is the one place where we must be real.
Lord, teach us to pray!