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March 10, 2018 - Build-A-God

Saturday of the Third Week of Lent

Scripture Readings

When I was in high school, I was of course concerned with the almighty perception of cool.  So, when my mom suggested that I go to a Build a Bear store for my cousin's Christmas present I found the idea... less than desirable. (Unfamiliar with build a bear? This video reasonably captures my expectations.)  The only thing was, as a high school boy, I didn't have a better idea, so with all of the awkwardness I could muster, I picked out a bear, stuffed it, gave it a heart, recorded messages on it, and produced its birth certificate.  Despite my apparent “uncoolness” I found myself valuing that I was doing these things for my cousin.  Admittedly there is something cool about building and shaping something the way you want it, to your desires and wishes.  As long as that thing isn't God, but that is what we see happen in today's gospel. This famous parable tells us about the Pharisee and the tax collector who go to pray.  There is much to be learned from this passage, but lets just focus on the posture and the prayer of the Pharisee.

The Pharisee's prayer is incredible.  It is the epitome of what people assume a “holier-than-thou” kind of Christian would say.  By and large they are right, and we will look to that in a moment, but look just a little closer that the Pharisee's actions.  His actions tell us so much about this man's prayer before he even opens his mouth.  Christ says, “The Pharisee took up his position.”  He was simply going up to the temple area to pray, and yet he had a position to take?  This strikes me as odd, and I can imagine that he is taking up the spot or the posture that would allow people to glance at him and know, by virtue of his position, he is a holy and righteous pharisee praying as he should be.  Pride, anyone?  Yes, but I've done this.  I rush into church in a bustle right before Mass starts and the second my coat is off and I am in the pew, the kneeler is down, and there I am, looking like I'm praying.  Am I praying?  Sometimes.  Other times I go through this motion just to look like I'm praying, because I'm Catholic, this is what I do before Mass.  Maybe I'm alone in this, maybe I'm not, but let's keep going. 

 Scripture continues, “And spoke this prayer to himself,” those are interesting words when we read them in comparison to the tax collector's description, which reads, “But he beat his breast and prayed.”  The tax collector was praying, the Pharisee was just talking to himself!  He was engaging in some kind of First Century psychological pump up, but under the disguise of prayer.  But only if he was alone in this!  I do this unintentionally sometimes.  I start with the intention to pray and in the middle of it I'm suddenly reminding myself about the errands I have to run, or I'm distracting myself in the pew thinking about everyone else in the Church, or wondering, “Can they tell I'm kneeling here before Mass not praying at all?  Oh, I hope they can't.” 

 Finally, his prayer reads, “O God, thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”  This is where the build a god comes into the Gospel.  You can see this in two ways.  First, if you are not being challenged by God in your life in someway shape or form, it is not God.  When God ceases to take issue with at least one thing that we think, say, do or fail to do, then we have probably stopped being formed in His image and started forming Him in our image.  This in mind, it is appropriate that the Pharisee starts his “prayer”, aka talking to himself, by saying “O God.”  When I form God in my image I might as well consider myself God.  Second, if you think you've been called to simply be better than everyone else, then there is a good chance that is your pride calling you, not Christ.  Christ does not call us to be better than our neighbor, He calls us to come after Him, to be like Him. 

So, does this mean that tithing, fasting, doing good for others, worship, prayer, and living a moral life are unimportant?  No!  But this parable does show that the strong demands of the Gospel, the “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” exist to help form radical disciples.  And those radical disciples do not stand before God patting themselves on the back for all of the good they've done or recounting all of the ways they haven't stumbled.  No, they stand before God recognizing that the call to radical discipleship is guided by strong demands, and made possible through fathomless mercy.  So, let us recognize that as we grow prideful; God's strong demands will “rent” and “strike” us to strip us of our pride, and that God's mercy will “heal us” and “bind our wounds.”  But first we have to stand before the Divine Physician who wishes to treat the disease of our sin and say, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” 

- Spencer Hargadon