How to Pray, Part Four: Self-Emptying

(Homily for 31st Ordinary Sunday, Year C)

Message: You and I may not empty ourselves so totally as Paul or Damien or Zacchaeus. But "little by little" as the Book of Wisdom says.

This is the fourth and final homily on how to pray. I begin with an apology. Last week I talked about the "sinner's prayer," also known as the "Publican's Prayer." Some thought I was saying the the Republican's Prayer! (smile)

This mistake might help us understand today's Gospel. We live in a time when politics has become a toxic, winner-take-all game. It's easy to develop strong feelings - even hatred - for an opposing politician. What a given group today feels against certain politicians - in Jesus' day everyone felt against the publicans.

No one likes paying taxes, but you have to understand that the publicans were much more than simple tax collectors. We can more accurately call them "tax farmers." They had a certain quota to collect and everything over than amount, they kept for themselves. The Roman army stood behind them so they could force people to sell food reserves, farm animals or even homes in order to pay the taxes. The honest Jewish people, as you can imagine, despised the publicans.

In today's Gospel we meet a publican named Zacchaeus - the chief tax collector of Jericho. As Scripture scholar William Barclay says, "he was the most hated man in the district." And we might suppose, the most miserable man. In spite of his rich meals and fine clothes, he stood furthest removed from God and his fellow citizens.

His position in the sycamore tree represents the state of his soul: He had climbed to the top, but was there by himself, alone, and in a precarious position. At any moment he could fall, break an arm or worse. And the people would delight in his fall. They would laugh at him.

Jesus could have poked fun at him - a short man, perhaps a bit fat, pockets loaded with money - ill-gotten money. But Jesus does not ridicule him. Instead, he says, "Zacchaeus, come down."

It's not easy to come down, It requires courage, humility - willingness to take a risk.

Zacchaeus took that risk. He did come down. And coming down, he responds with gratitude - a bold gratitude. "Lord, I will give half my possessions to the poor." Then he adds, "If I have extorted anything from anyone I will repay it four times over." Ears must have perked up. Half Zacchaeus gives directly to the poor; the other half he reserves to make whatever restitution he can.

Last week we heard about two people who poured out their lives like a libation - St. Paul and St. Damien of Molokai. This Sunday we see a third - Zacchaeus.

What does Zacchaeus receive in return? The answer is: Everything. Jesus. "Come down quickly," Jesus says, "for today I must stay at your house."

You know, at the end of the day, prayer is not us seeking God, but God seeking us. "Salvation has come to this house," Jesus says, "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost."

Our response, like Zacchaeus, is self-emptying: Emptying oneself in gratitude so that Jesus may fill you.* Sooner or later, you and I will have to hand everything over. Why not do it now?

I invite you today to say the sinner's prayer. Even if you are Democrat, say the Publican's Prayer. Use it to frame your prayer. Remember that Mass is the Publican's Prayer, taken to the tenth power. Make Sunday Mass the anchor or your prayer.

You and I may not empty ourselves so totally as Paul or Damien or Zacchaeus. But "little by little" as the Book of Wisdom says. The beautiful thing about the Mass is that we can bring the tiniest offering - like the boy with the small fish and bread rolls. What we bring is little, but Jesus joins it and us to his perfect sacrifice.

Unlike Zacchaeus we might not immediately put all our life and all our finances in God's hands, but we can make small steps. More about that next week. Not a new homily series, but a simple, direct request. Do not be afraid. God offers us freedom and Jesus takes our burdens as his own.

In the past eight weeks, we have undertaken a journey: From Egypt to the Promised Land. That's home. That's where we belong. We can only stay in the Promised Land by prayer: gratitude, persistence and, above all, the Eucharist - the Publican's Prayer par excellence.** By emptying ourselves in prayer we receive everything. Jesus himself. To us he says these beautiful words: "Today I must stay at your house." Amen.


*We are like the Buddhists in recognizing the falsity of our present "self." And like them we desire purification and even a kind of "nirvana: "The word literally means 'blown out' (as in a candle) and refers, in the Buddhist context, to the imperturbable stillness of mind after the fires of desire, aversion, and delusion have been finally extinguished." Similarly, we Christians have always insisted on a radical emptying of self. St. Therese expressed it in these words:

After earth's exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone. . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.

**In these homilies we have barely touched the surface on something so vast and so central as prayer. To go into more depth I encourage you to read (or re-read) Part Four of the Catechism on "Christian Prayer."

Audio Version of this Homily

Versión Castellana

From Archives (31st Sunday, Year C):

2010: Salvation
2007: A Little Man With a Lot to Teach Us
2004: Astonished Gratitude
2001: An Ocean of Mercy

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Sunday Homilies

Audio Files of Homilies (MP3)

Evidence for God's Existence from Modern Physics (MP3 Audio File)

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