Are Some of the Psalms Boastful?

To anyone who regularly reads the Liturgy of the Hours, some of the psalms seem downright boastful. They sound too much like the Pharisee who went to pray and said, God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:11-12). In the very next verse, Jesus recommends a briefer prayer for us: God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:13).

How, then, are we to understand some of the psalms that seem to take up a rather boastful and presumptuous tone? Consider these three passages:

    • The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I am not guilty of turning from my God. All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees. I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin. The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight (Psalm 18:21-24).
    • My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (Psalm 131:1-4).
    • I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me … therefore I hate every wrong path (Psalm 119:100-102).

For us who would pray these, the spiritual approach is twofold.

These psalms are prayed in hope. While we are not worthy to say such words without a lot of qualifications, by God’s grace they will one day be true for us. God is drawing us to perfection. While total perfection will not come until we attain Heaven, if we are faithful we should be progressing toward this lofty reality even now.

Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining holiness and salvation. One day in Heaven we will be able to say, “I do not sin; I am blameless before God. I am not proud and never depart from your decrees, O Lord.” Hope is the vigorous expectation that these words will one day apply to us fully; for now, we recite them in that fervent hope.

In effect, we are memorizing our lines for a future moment, when by God’s grace we will actually be able to recite them truthfully. Praying psalms like these is like a dress rehearsal for Heaven. These psalms amount to prolepses of a sort, whereby we proclaim a future reality as if it were already present. Our confidence to speak proleptically is in Christ alone.

These psalms are on the lips of Christ. When the Church prays, Head and members pray together; it is the whole Body of Christ that proclaims these psalms.

Christ never wavered, never drew back from God’s Law. He never sinned; His hands were clean from defilement and He was rewarded for His righteousness. Christ alone prays these psalms without any qualification.

In the Old Testament, these psalms pointed forward to the Christ, to the anointed Messiah. Today, they still point to Christ and He alone utters them authentically. None of us can really pray them apart from Christ, as members of His Body.

Even the perfected in Heaven cannot pray them without reference to Christ, for it is He who accomplished in them the perfection that makes such psalms a reality for them.

It is Christ who prays these psalms, and we—through Him, with Him and in Him—head and members—are praying them to the Father.

Without Christ, such psalms amount to haughty boasts and presumptuous declarations, but with Christ our Head, they are true; we can rightly pray them in the hope of our own perfection, one day, by His grace. We can also pray them in the joy that some of our brothers and sisters in Heaven have already attained to the perfection described therein. This is because the grace of Christ has had in them its full effect.

Four Teachings on Personal Prayer – A Homily for the 16th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel this Sunday speaks to us of the priority of personal prayer. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus sent the apostles out two by two to proclaim the Kingdom. Now they return, eager to report their progress and the graces they encountered.

As Jesus listens, He urges them (perhaps because they are so overjoyed) to come away and rest awhile, for they have labored long. In so doing, Jesus also teaches us about prayer. Let’s consider four teachings on prayer that are evident in today’s Gospel.

I. The Practice of Praise-Filled Prayer – As the text opens, the apostles are with Jesus, joyfully recounting all they experienced on their missionary journey. In a similar text in Luke (10:17), the apostles return rejoicing, saying that even demons are subject to them (through Jesus’ name). Thus, their first instinct is joyful gratitude before the Lord.

Is your prayer filled with praise and thanksgiving? Are you grateful to God for all He has done? Do you tell God what is happening in your life and give Him thanks for all He has enabled you to do?

Too many people think of prayer only in relation to petition, but praise is also an essential component. When Jesus began His instruction on prayer, He said, When you pray, say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy name’ (Mat 6:9). In other words, “Father, your name is holy. You are a great God, a wonderful God. You can do all things and I praise you! Thank you, Father; your name is holy, and you are holy.”

Praise the Lord. Thank Him for what He is doing and tell Him everything that you are experiencing. Scripture says that we were made for the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:16). So, praise the Lord in your prayer. How? Take a psalm of praise. Pray or sing the Gloria from Mass. Sing or recite a hymn. No matter how you do it, praise Him!

II. The Peace of Personal Prayer – Jesus invites the apostles to come away by themselves to a quiet place and rest for a while. Most people don’t think of their personal prayer as a privileged invitation from the Lord, nor do they think of it as rest.

Yet, consider that the Lord invites us to come aside and spend personal and private time with Him. Most people would relish personal attention from a famous person. Why not from the Lord? An old song says, “What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.”

Note the description of this time as “rest.” Most people think of prayer more as a task than as a time of rest. Yet to pray is to rest, to withdraw from this world for a brief time and enjoy the Lord’s presence. Scripture says, For thus the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said, “In repentance and rest you will be saved. In quietness and trust is your strength” (Is 30:15).

An old hymn says,

Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer!
That calls me from a world of care,
And bids me at my Father’s throne
Make all my wants and wishes known.
In seasons of distress and grief,
My soul has often found relief,
And oft escaped the tempter’s snare,
By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!

Learn to think of prayer as quiet time, as rest with the Lord, when He soothes, strengthens, refreshes, and blesses us.

III. The Primacy of Prioritized Prayer – The text says that people were coming in great numbers seeking the attention of the Lord and the apostles; they could not even get a moment to eat!

There is no doubt that the people had critical needs. They needed to be taught, healed, fed, and cared for in many ways. Yet despite this Jesus said, in effect, “We have to get away from all this for a while.” He directed the apostles to go off in the boat to a deserted place.

Indeed, one of the few places they could “get away” was out on the water. There, the crowds could not follow them, and they could be alone and quiet for a short time.

Jesus made prayer a priority. Scripture says of Him, But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5:16). Scripture also speaks of Him rising early to pray (Mark 1:35), praying late into the night (Matt 14:23), praying all night long (Luke 6:12), and praying in the mountains (Matt 14:23) and other deserted places.

Understanding prayer as rest helps us to understand why prayer must be a priority in our lives. If we are going to engage in the work to which God has called us, we need to be replenished and refreshed daily by spending time with Him.

If we were to engage in physical work without ever stopping to rest, we would collapse. The spiritual life has a similar law. Resting with God in prayer fills us with His presence, grace, and strength so that we can be equipped, empowered, and enabled unto the tasks that He has given us.

No one can give or share what he does not have, so if we aren’t praying and experiencing God’s presence, how can we share it? To share grace, we must first receive it. To speak the Word, we must first receive it. To witness to the Lord, we must first know Him.

Jesus often had to hide in order to pray. Sometimes the only quiet place He could find was out on the lake, but He did make time for prayer. He invites the apostles and us to do the same, not only despite the busyness of life, but because of it.

A Brief Story –

A priest friend of mine told me that back in the 1970s he once gave spiritual direction to a religious sister. At that time, it was common for people to say, “My work is my prayer.” When this priest inquired about the good sister’s prayer life she answered, “Oh, I’m too busy to pray, but that’s OK because my work is my prayer; that’s my spirituality.” He replied, “Sister, if you’re not praying, you don’t have a spirituality.” He got her to start praying for one hour a day. Some years later, he ran into her at the airport. By now, she had moved on to become a major superior in her order. “How are you doing, Mother?” he asked. “Oh,” she replied, “I am very busy!” He cringed, but then she added, “I’m so busy these days that I have to spend two hours a day praying!”

Now there’s a smart woman! When we’re being foolish we say, “I’m too busy to pray.” When we’re smart we say, “I’m so busy that I need to pray more.”

Jesus made prayer a priority. Prayer is the rest that strengthens us for the task; it is the refreshment that gives us new vigor and zeal.

IV. The Power of Pious Prayer – The text says that after Jesus spent this time alone with the apostles on the boat, they reached the other shore. Sure enough, the crowd was there waiting for them, but Jesus and the apostles had been refreshed and were now well-rested. Jesus, renewed and refreshed, saw the vast crowd and began to teach them at great length.

Prayer has that effect. In drawing close to God, who is love, we are better equipped to love others. Jesus, though He never lacked love for them, models this renewal for us. The text says that upon seeing the crowd, His heart was moved with pity for them. The Greek word translated as “pity” is σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai), which means “to be moved with compassion.” The word “pity” often carries with it a condescending tone, but what happens here is that Jesus sees them, loves them, and has compassion for their state. The religious leaders in Jerusalem have largely abandoned them, considering them “the great unwashed,” but Jesus loves them and teaches them at great length.

It often takes many years and a lot of prayer to equip our hearts in this way. One of the signs that grace and prayer are having their effect is that our love for others, even for the multitudes, grows deeper, more compassionate, more patient, and more merciful. This takes great prayer and long hours of sitting at the Lord’s feet learning from Him.

Here is the power that prayer bestows: we are more fully equipped for our mission, more zealous, and more loving. The rest afforded by prayer rejuvenates our better nature and helps it to grow.

So, here are four teachings on prayer. Jesus found time to pray; He made it a priority. How about you?

The Conquering Power of Praise – A Meditation on a Text From Second Chronicles

072113There is a story of King Jehoshaphat and the victory of Israel against the Moabites, Ammonites and Meunites (2 Chronicles 20). It is a story that speaks of the power of praise to defeat a numberless army. Simply singing a hymn of praise can cast out demons, avert war, and send evil threats limping away.

Yes, praise! It is not always weapons of iron and steal and fiery bombs that wins the day. Often it is simple praise, hands lifted in prayer, voices raised in praise.

Never underestimate the power of the liturgy to change world history, to turn back threats and see the devil’s power crushed. Indeed, scripture says, Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger (Psalm 8:2).

I would like to take a more detailed look at this passage from Second Chronicles to see what praise and communal prayer can do. As a Church musician myself, and now a priest, I have often used this text to speak to Church Choirs of the power of praise. For, in this text we see that it is the choir, not the army that wins the day! Lets look at the text.

I. THE ANXIETY PORTRAYED – We begin with a description of a looming Crisis. The text says, After this the Moabites and Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat for battle.  Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazontamar” (that is, Engedi). Then Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. (2 Chron 20:1-3)

Now all this may seem a bit remote to us moderns. Indeed it my sound more like recitation for an ancient atlas or recitations from a “Jewish telephone book.” Don’t let all the names and places distract you. You and I also face a triple threat from the world, the flesh and the devil; from sins, sorrows and sufferings or just that situation you’re going through!

Indeed, as a pastor I am keenly aware that many come into our parishes on Sunday fighting demons and enemies. Many are overwhelmed, discouraged  and afraid. They seek wisdom from God through his word and Sacraments.

And we who would pastor and lead parishes must seek above all to make our parishes, and the celebration of our liturgies, healing moments for God’s people, moments that give them hope and victory over afflictions and demons and difficulties. It is much like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who, encountering the Lord, had  their hearts set on fire and their path redirected toward the heavenly Jerusalem.

People come with burdens, and we must be a place of blessing, or instruction in the Lord and a place that reminds of victory to those who persevere. And thus it makes sense that we head to the next step where in the faithful are assembled to seek healing, blessing and victory.

II. THE ASSEMBLING OF THE PEOPLE –  The text says,  And Judah assembled to seek help from the LORD; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD. And Jehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the LORD, before the new court, and said, “O LORD, God of our fathers, art thou not God in heaven? Dost thou not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations? In thy hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand thee. Didst thou not, O our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before thy people Israel, and give it for ever to the descendants of Abraham thy friend? And they have dwelt in it, and have built thee in it a sanctuary for thy name, saying, ‘If evil comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house, and before thee, for thy name is in this house, and cry to thee in our affliction, and thou wilt hear and save.’ And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir, whom thou would not let Israel invade when they came from the land of Egypt, and whom they avoided and did not destroy– behold, they reward us by coming to drive us out of thy possession, which thou hast given us to inherit. O our God, wilt thou not execute judgment upon them? For we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon thee.”  Meanwhile all the men of Judah stood before the LORD, with their little ones, their wives, and their children. (2 Chron 20:4-11)

Notice that the people all assemble: Men and women, young and old, children too. Here is sacred assembly and the power of communal prayer. Private prayer is both necessary and good. But there comes a time each week when all the faithful must assemble and join their collective prayers and praises. Here is a time of collective praise and, as we shall see of the sharing of wisdom and mutual support.

Isn’t this what we do each Sunday? We face demons and enemies and struggle with fear, just as did these people of old. But we, like them assemble and find strength. We tell the biblical and personal stories of how we’ve overcome and we draw strength from our story. Yes, there we are, clergy and people together with our God who instructs us in the battle reminds us of the victory, feeds us to strengthen us, and gives us a pledge of future glory in the Eucharist.

The Book of Hebrews says, And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25)

Note that in this ancient gathering Jehoshaphat and the people do four things. There is:

1. The PRAISE of POWER (OF GOD)-  For they say: O LORD, God of our fathers, art thou not God in heaven? Dost thou not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations? In thy hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand thee. (vv. 4-6). And this is very much what we do in the Gloria, our collects, and in the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. In praising the power of God we acknowledge his capacity to save us and are stirred to hope that He, who can make a way out of no way, will save us.

2. The PROCLAMATION of PAST DEEDS – For they recall that God settled them in this land as blessed them day by day. And they recall God’s promise to answer their prayer. And we too, as we read God’s word every Sunday of affliction, but then of deliverance. We learn that weaping ay endure for a night, but Joy does come with the morning light! This proclamation and reminder of God’s steadfast help in the past, steels our confidence that, as Scripture says, But this I will call to mind; therefore I will hope: The LORD’s mercy is not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; They are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness! The LORD is my portion, I tell myself therefore I will hope in him. The LORD is good to those who trust in him, to the one that seeks him; It is good to hope in silence for the LORD’s deliverance. -(Lamentations 3:21-26). Yes, we tell the story of how we’ve overcome and we’ll understand it better, by an by! In remembering the Lord’s mercy and deeds of the past we are encouraged that he did not bring us this far to leave us.

3. The PRESENTATION of the PROBLEM – For they say,  And now behold, the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir…are coming to drive us out of thy possession, which thou hast given us to inherit. (vv. 10 – 11) Yes, Lord we are afflicted on every side, be it these ancient enemies or the even more ancient enemies of the World the flesh and the devil. Yes, Lord we are in need, we are afflicted.

4. The PETITION of the POWERLESS – And thus they say standing before the Lord with hands raised: O our God, wilt thou not execute judgment upon them? For we are powerless against this great multitude that is coming against us.  (v. 11-12) And we too cry out: Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us O Lord by thy grace. We afflicted and powerless! Save us O Lord, spare us! And in acknowledging our powerlessness, comes our true power for then we start to rely on God.

III. THE ANSWER PROCLAIMED – And the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah, son of Benaiah, son of Jeiel, son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph, in the midst of the assembly. And he said, “Hearken, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the LORD to you, ‘Fear not, and be not dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s.  Tomorrow go down against them; behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz; you will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the LORD on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Fear not, and be not dismayed; tomorrow go out against them, and the LORD will be with you.”  Then Jehoshaphat bowed his head with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell down before the LORD, worshiping the LORD.  And the Levites, of the Kohathites and the Korahites, stood up to praise the LORD, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice. 2 Chron 20:14-14)

And thus in this sacred assembly comes an answer from God. And thus we note:

1. RESPONSE – For God speaks an answer through the Prophet Jahaziel, just as the prophetic voice of His Church continues to speak for him today. And notice too its in the context of the assembled community that the answer comes.

2. REASSURANCE – And Jahaziel says, Fear not, and be not dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s….‘ Fear not, and be not dismayed; tomorrow go out against them, and the LORD will be with you.”  Yes, we do well to remember that the battle is ultimately the Lord’s. It is he who will win, it does not all depend on us alone. And we do well to remember this today when we are beset by many difficulties and discouraging cultural trends. The Lord has already won.  Nations may rise and fall, empires come and go, wicked philosophies have their time, and this has all happened in the age of the Church, but the Church and the Lord and the Gospel are still here and we have buried every one and everything that announced our death. Where is Caesar? Where is Napoleon, where is the USSR? God has already won, only the news has not yet dawned on some who choose the losing side.

3. REQUIREMENT – Tomorrow go down against them; behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz; you will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the LORD on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem. But the Lord who made us without us, with not save us without us. He DOES have something for each of us to do. Our task is to discover our role and take our position on the field!  Perhaps it is being a priest, catechist, teacher or parent. Perhaps it is the witness to and renewal of the temporal order. Perhaps it is raising children in Godly fear or summoning others to holiness. But find your place on the battlefield and be still and stable there, doing what the Lord says, knowing that he is with us and that the battle is His and that he does the real fighting.

In effect we have here a quick synopsis of what a good homily should be. A homily should give, using God’s Word and the teachings of the Church, a response and reassurance regarding the issues and afflictions faced by God’s people. And, it should remind us of our role in finding our place on the battlefield, remaining stably there and doing what the Lord asks, but to do so in supreme confidence.

IV. THE AWESOME POWER OF PRAISE –  And finally comes the remarkable victory, a victory not won by military power, but by mighty praise. It is the praise of God that defeats his enemies round about. The text says: And they rose early in the morning and went out into the wilderness of Tekoa; and as they went out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, “Hear me, Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Believe in the LORD your God, and you will be established; believe his prophets, and you will succeed.” And when he had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the LORD and praise him in holy array, as they went before the army, and say, “Give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures for ever.” And when they began to sing and praise, the LORD set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed. For the men of Ammon and Moab rose against the inhabitants of Mount Seir, destroying them utterly, and when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, they all helped to destroy one another. When Judah came to the watchtower of the wilderness, they looked toward the multitude; and behold, they were dead bodies lying on the ground; none had escaped. When Jehoshaphat and his people came to take the spoil from them, they found cattle in great numbers, goods, clothing, and precious things, which they took for themselves until they could carry no more. They were three days in taking the spoil, it was so much. On the fourth day they assembled in the Valley of Beracah, for there they blessed the LORD; therefore the name of that place has been called the Valley of Beracah to this day. (2 Chronicles 20:20-26)

Note carefully that the Choir, dressed in holy array went in front of the Army! It is praise that will prevail this day! And as they go in front they sing: Give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures for ever! And this praise throws the enemy into confusion! The threefold opposing armies turn on each other. No one escaped, they were all killed by one another.

Pay attention, there is power in praise. Nothing discourages the evil one more than the praise. Nothing confutes and confuses the world, the flesh and devil more than the joyful shout of a Christian. There is a glory and a power to joy and confident praise that cannot be denied.

I myself am a witness to the transformative power of God’s praise and its capacity to put the world, the flesh and devil to flight. I have spent most of my priesthood in African American Parishes where jubilant praise is a constant practice. Songs of hope, and joy and blessings abound and even our many songs that summon us to repentance are quite often humorous and hopeful, warning of judgment, but promising mercy to the steadfast. And this praise has changed my life. It has put demons to flight, subdued fleshly anxiety, sins, and thinking, and put the world on trial. I am more confident, more courageous, and more equipped to speak the truth in love.

Praise works, my life has had to many victories to say anything else. When the praises go up, the blessings come down and the victory is won. Yes, I am a witness. How about you?

Lord,  save us from sour-faced saints! God grant us joyful, confident and praise-filled Catholics all throughout this world. For in our praise, and joyful confidence in the truth of God’s Word and teaching comes a witness that is hard to refute. Yes Lord, even from the mouth of babes you have found praise to foil your enemies! (Ps 8:2). Yes Lord, teach us to praise you! Teach us the power of our song and of our joyful testimony.

Happy the people that know the joyful shout; that walk, O LORD, in the light of Thy face. (Psalm 89:16)

While on Others Thou Art Calling, Do Not Pass Me By – A Homily for the 20th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel this Sunday teaches us to pray always and not to lose heart. It is about being tenacious in prayer, continuing to beseech the Lord even when the results are discouraging. It is also about the Lord’s will to extend the Gospel to all the nations and to make the Church truly catholic.

Let’s look at this Gospel in five stages.

TRAVELS – The text says, At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Jesus goes north of Israel into the territory we know today as Lebanon.

Matthew is not just giving us a quick travelogue here. We are not interested merely in Jesus’ physical location but in what it signifies. Jesus has gone up north to pagan territory. Other things being equal, this is a rather odd destination for a Jewish preacher, but remember that Jesus is preparing the Church for a mission to all the nations. Thus it makes sense that He pushes the boundaries of the Jewish world. Jesus interacted with Gentiles and Samaritans as if to say, “The racism of a Jewish-only world must now end. The Gospel must break the boundaries of nations and races and be truly universal, truly catholic.”

This vision of the Gentiles being drawn to the Lord was actually well attested to in the Old Testament, but just as is the case today, there were some texts that were well known and others that were conveniently “forgotten” or had little effect. Consider these passages that announced the entry of the Gentiles into the Holy People of God:

  1. The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, ministering to him, loving the name of the LORD, and becoming his servants–all who keep the sabbath free from profanation and hold to my covenant, them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Is 56:6-9).
  2. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Is 49:6).
  3. Babylon and Egypt I will count among those who know me, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia, these will be her children and Zion shall be called “mother” for all shall be her children (Psalm 87:4-5).
  4. I come to gather nation of every language; they shall come and see my glory. Some of these I will take as priests and Levites says the Lord … All mankind shall come to worship before me says the Lord (Is 66:18; 23).

Hence we can see that the Jewish people’s own Scriptures spoke of a day when Jews and Gentiles together would worship the Lord and be His people.

This introductory note about Jesus’ location is essential to understanding the rest of the Gospel passage. We must grasp Jesus’ will to reach out to the Gentiles. We do this in order to appreciate that some of the harsh tone Jesus exhibits later can likely be understood as a rhetorical means of questioning racial and national divisions rather than affirming them. In effect, He is tweaking His disciples and the Church, giving voice to their fears and hostilities. In so doing, He also calls out the Canaanite woman in order to show forth one who is willing to set aside these racist notions for a greater good.

Let’s watch it unfold.

TORMENT – The text says, And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.”

Canaanites were despised by Jews and Jews were despised by Canaanites. What is it that would make a Canaanite woman reach out to a Jewish Messiah? In a word, desperation. She no longer cares who helps her daughter as long as someone helps her!

She has likely heard of Jesus’ power to save and heal. She looks past her racial hatred and, risking terrible rebuke, calls on Jesus. Her torment enables her to cross boundaries. The only enemy she cares about is the demon afflicting her daughter.

It is sad but true that a common enemy can often unite disparate factions. It should not be necessary, but the Lord will take whatever He can get in order to unite us.

TEST – The text says, But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” … “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Jesus does a shocking and daring thing here. He takes up the voice of sin, oppression, racism, and nationalism. It is a very strange to hear such a thing from the mouth of the Lord, who has already journeyed among the Samaritans and Gentiles, healing them and often praising their faith (e.g., Lk 8:26; Mt 8:10; Lk 7:9; Matt 8:11 inter al).

The usual explanation is that Jesus is calling out the woman’s faith and through her is summoning His disciples to repentance. The disciples want the Lord to order her away. In effect, He takes up their voices and the voice of all oppression and utters the hateful sayings of the world, even going so far as to liken her to a dog.

Yes, Jesus is testing her, trying to awaken something within her. He is also giving voice to the ugly thoughts of His disciples and likely others, both Gentile and Jew, who were watching with disdain the interaction between a Gentile—a Gentile woman—and a Jew.

There is a saying, “Things do, by opposition grow.” Through this test, Jesus increases the woman’s faith and possibly that of the bystanders. Just as an athlete improves by facing tougher opponents and a musician improves by playing more difficult pieces, so does this woman grow in faith by being tested.

Remember, God tested Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Job, Esther, Susannah, Judith, Gideon, and countless others. The Canaanite woman, too, is being tested. Like those of old, she, too, will grow by the test.

We are tested as well. At times, God seems to be strangely silent; we may feel as if we are no child of God at all. Indeed, we may even conclude that dogs live better than we do.

Will we give way during the test or hold out until our change comes? Will our faith grow or wither? Will our love grow stronger or will it change to resentment?

TENACITY – The text says, But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

Note here that the woman is not put off. Whatever anger, grief, or discouragement she may feel, she perseveres.

She is even bold and creative. In a sense, she will not take no for an answer.

  1. She is like Mother Mary at Cana, who did not pause for a moment when Jesus seemed dubious of her request (Jn 2:5).
  2. She is like the widow who never stopped pestering the judge for a favorable ruling (Lk 18:1-8).
  3. She is like the blind man at the side of the road who kept calling for Jesus despite the rebuke of the crowds (Lk 18:39).
  4. She is like the parents who brought their infants to Jesus for a blessing, who withstood rebuke from the disciples and won through to the blessing (Mk 10:13-16).
  5. She is like Zacchaeus, who overcame his short stature by climbing a tree to see Jesus (Lk 19:1ff).
  6. She is like the widow with the hemorrhage, who, though weak and ritually unclean, pressed through the crowd and grabbed the hem of Jesus’ garments (Mk 5:28).
  7. She is like the lepers, who, though forbidden by law to enter the town, sought the Lord at the Gates and fell down before Him (Luke 17).

Yes, she is tenacious. She will hold out until the change (the healing she desires for her daughter) is accomplished. She will not give up or let go of Jesus no matter how unwilling He seems, no matter how politically incorrect her request appears, no matter how much hostility she encounters from the disciples, the crowds, or even Jesus Himself. She will hold out.

Here is a woman with tenacity! How about you?

TRIUMPH – The text says, Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.

Here is the victory. She has gone from torment to triumph by a tenacious and tested faith. Jesus now takes away the veil of His role and shows His true self—the merciful, wonder-working Messiah and Lord.

Jesus says to her, “Great is your faith.” But how has it become so? In the crucible of testing, that’s how. We may wonder at God’s delays, at His seeming disinterest or even anger, but in the end it is our faith that is most important to Him.

Our faith is more important to God than our finances, our comfort, or our desired cures, for it is by faith that we are saved. We are not saved by our health, by creature comforts, by money, or by good fortune. God is willing to delay. He is willing to test us and try us, if only for the sake of our stronger faith, by which He will save us. God saves us, but He does it through our faith.

Why all this delay? Why the suffering? Why the trials? Stronger faith, that’s why! God may not come when you want Him, but He’s always right on time, for His true goal is not to give us what we want, but rather what we need: stronger faith.

Having done this, the Lord gives her the triumph. We, too, must accept that God’s truest blessing for us is not better health or improved finances; it is stronger faith.

Consider well the lesson of this Gospel. Though God often seems uninterested—even cruel—He is working His purposes out and seeking to increase our faith. Hard, you say? What parent among you has not had to do the same for your child? For children, untested and untried, who get their every wish, who never have to wait, become spoiled, self-centered, and headed for ultimate ruin. God knows exactly what He is doing. Most of us are hard cases and God must often work mightily to get our attention and strengthen our faith. Do not give up on God; He is up to something good, very good.

I have it on the best of authority that as this woman saw Jesus coming up the road she sang this song:

Pass me not O gentle savior
hear my humble cry
while on others thou art calling
do not pass me by

Savior, savior,
hear my humble cry
while on others thou art calling
do not pass me by

Let me at a throne of mercy
find a sweet relief
kneeling there in deep contrition
help my unbelief.

https://youtu.be/vic58HDUeBA

 

On the Power of One Small Prayer

Praying the rosary today I marveled once again at the Fatima prayer, which is recited at the end of each decade:

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins; save us from the fires of Hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy!

I have often wondered how God reacts to a prayer like this. I am awed by the power of this simple prayer, even if said in a distracted way. God is surely pleased that we ask for the salvation of souls and that we have in mind especially those who are most in need, most lost, most wayward.

How many times have we prayed this in the rosary and what have been its effects?It is astonishing and humbling to consider this. Perhaps in Heaven we will be greeted by grateful souls who will tell us that at a certain time on a particular date God heard our prayer for lost souls and applied it to them! We, too, will come to know what a difference the prayers of others made for us.

In recent years during confessions, I often ask the penitent to offer an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary” for that soul (known only to God) who is now most in need of His grace and mercy. God knows not only who is in most need of His mercy but also who is opento receiving that mercy. It is a beautiful thought to engage the battle for that soul and to consider that our prayer may be the prove to be the tipping point. God knows how to coordinate all this; we do not. But He asks us to join Him in this work and to pray for the conversion of sinners and the consolation of suffering. In so doing we engage the battle for souls, including our own.

Just a brief consideration of the value of one small prayer that reaches someone in most need of God’s mercy.

A Plea From Moses for Mercy Is Needed for Us As Well.

The first reading from Thursday’s Mass (of the 4thWeek of Lent) features the golden calf incident. God, likely trying to draw mercy from Moses, threatens to destroy the people for their infidelity. But as the text says,

But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying, “Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand? …Let your blazing wrath die down; relent in punishing your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky… (EX 32:7-14)

The Responsorial Psalm (106) for Thursday summarizes things well.

Our fathers made a calf in Horeb
and adored a molten image;
They exchanged their glory
for the image of a grass-eating bullock.

 They forgot the God who had saved them,
who had done great deeds in Egypt,
Wondrous deeds in the land of Ham,
terrible things at the Red Sea.

 Then he spoke of exterminating them,
but Moses, his chosen one,
Withstood him in the breach
to turn back his destructive wrath.

And all this, in our current crisis inspires also a model for prayer. I want to be clear that I am not concluding that God is directly punishing us, but he has permitted this. And, as we know, the people of Bible used times like these to repent and call on God. As I prayed these readings today at a private Mass the following prayerful thoughts came to mind:

Lord God we are in a great crisis, a worldwide crisis. I am going to guess we probably had this coming. For, we have collectively forgotten you, we have been ungrateful and done every sort of wicked deed. We have been greedy, wasteful, worldly, unchaste, unfaithful to marriage and family life, and have aborted our own children by the tens of millions. Yes Lord we have sinned and been stubbornly unrepentant. But Lord, I am, like Moses, asking your mercy. Even though we may not deserve it, I ask it anyway. Please Lord spare us from this disease and the economic collapse that will cause additional lives and harm. A miracle Lord, yes, we need a miracle. Please Lord, as you once did for King David and stopped the pestilence of that day at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, please do this now for us. Save us also from our excessive fears which have so seized many of us. For the sake of Christ’s sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world;  Have mercy.

Abbreviated Breviary? Pondering Omissions from the Current Breviary

liturgy-of-hoursOne of the great gifts of reading the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Breviary) faithfully over the years is that the Scriptures become deeply impressed upon the mind, heart, memory, and imagination. This is especially true of the psalms that are repeated every four weeks, all year long, every year.

But there are significant omissions in the modern Breviary. This is true not merely because of the loss of the texts themselves, but that of the reflections on them. The verses eliminated are labeled by many as imprecatory because they call for a curse or wish calamity to descend upon others.

Here are a couple of examples of these psalms:

Pour out O Lord your anger upon them; let your burning fury overtake them. … Charge them with guilt upon guilt; let them have no share in your justice (Ps 69:25, 28).

Shame and terror be theirs forever. Let them be disgraced; let them perish (Ps 83:18).

Prior to the publication of the Liturgy of the Hours, Pope Paul VI decreed that the imprecatory psalms be omitted. As a result, approximately 120 verses (three entire psalms (58[57], 83[82], and 109[108]) and additional verses from 19 others) were removed. The introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours cites the reason for their removal as a certain “psychological difficulty” caused by these passages. This is despite the fact that some of these psalms of imprecation are used as prayer in the New Testament (e.g., Rev 6:10) and in no sense to encourage the use of curses (General Instruction # 131). Six of the Old Testament Canticles and one of the New Testament Canticles contain verses that were eliminated for the same reason.

Many (including me) believe that the removal of these verses is problematic. In the first place, it does not really solve the problem of imprecation in the Psalter because many of the remaining psalms contain such notions. Even in the popular 23rd Psalm, delight is expressed as our enemies look on hungrily while we eat our fill (Ps 23:5). Here is another example from one of the remaining psalms: Nations in their greatness he struck, for his mercy endures forever. Kings in their splendor he slew, for his mercy endures forever (Ps 136:10, 17-18). Removing the “worst” verses does not remove the “problem.”

A second issue is that it is troubling to propose that the inspired text of Scripture should be consigned to the realm of “psychological difficulty.” Critics assert that it should be our task to seek to understand such texts in the wider context of God’s love and justice. Some of the most teachable moments come in the difficult and “dark” passages. Whatever “psychological difficulty” or spiritual unease these texts cause, all the more reason that we should wonder as to the purpose of such verses. Why would God permit such utterances in a sacred text? What does He want us to learn or understand? Does our New Testament perspective add insight?

While some want to explain them away as the utterances of a primitive, unrefined, or ungraced people and time, this seems unwise and too general a dismissal. So easily does this view permit us to label almost anything we find objectionable or even unfashionable as coming from a “more primitive” time. While it is true that certain customs, practices, punishments, and norms (e.g., kosher) fall away within the biblical period or in the apostolic age, unless this is proposed to us by the sacred texts or the Magisterium, we should regard the sacred text as being of perennial value. Texts, even if not taken literally, should be taken seriously and pondered for their deeper and lasting meaning.

St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly taught that an imprecatory verse can be understood in three ways:

First, as a prediction rather than a wish that the sinner be damned. Unrepentant sinners will indeed be punished and possibly forever excluded from the Kingdom of the Righteous.

Second, as a reference to the justice of punishment rather than as gloating over the destruction of one’s enemies. It is right and proper that unrepented sins and acts of injustice be punished; it is not wrong to rejoice that justice is served.

Third, as an allegory of the removal of sin and the destruction of its power. We who are sinners should rejoice to see all sinful drives within us removed. In these verses, our sinful drives are often personified as our enemy or opponent.

So, as St. Thomas taught, even troubling, imprecatory verses can impart important things. They remind us that sin, injustice, and all evil are serious and that we are engaged in a kind of war until such things (and those who cling to them) are put away. (For St. Thomas’ fuller reflections, see the Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q. 25, a. 6, ad 3. You can also read a thoughtful essay by Gabriel Torretta, O.P., which served as a basis for my reflections.)

To all of this I would like to add a further reflection on the value and role of imprecation in the Psalter (including the omitted verses).

Because the general instruction speaks to “psychological difficulty” in regard to imprecation, I think it is good to recall that the overall context of prayer modeled in the Scriptures is one of frank disclosure to God of all of our emotions and thoughts, even the darkest ones. Moses bitterly laments the weight of office and even asks God to kill him at one point (Num 11:15). Jonah, Jeremiah (15:16), and other prophets make similar laments. David and other psalm writers cry out at God’s delay and are resentful that sinners thrive while the just suffer. At times they even take up the language of a lawsuit. Frequently the cry goes up in the psalms, “How much longer, O Lord” in the psalms. Even in the New Testament, the martyrs ask God to avenge their blood (Rev 6:10). Jesus is later described as slaying the wicked with the sword (of his word) that comes from his mouth. Yes, anger, vengeance, despair, doubt, and indignation are all taken up in the language of prayer in the Scripture. It is an earthy, honest sort of prayer.

It is as if God is saying,

I want you to speak to me and pray out of your true dispositions, even if they are dark and seemingly disrespectful. I want you to make them the subject of your prayer. I do not want phony prayers and pretense. I will listen to your darkest utterances. I will meet you there and, having heard you, will not simply give you what you ask but will certainly listen. At times, I will point to my final justice and call you to patience and warn you not to avenge yourself (Rom 12:19). At other times, I will speak as I did to Job (38-41) and rebuke your perspective in order to instruct you. Or I will warn you of the sin that underlies your anger and show you a way out, as I did with Cain (Gen 4:7) and Jonah (4:11). At still other times I will just listen quietly, realizing that your storm passes as you speak to me honestly. But I am your Father. I love you and I want you to pray to me in your anger, sorrow, and indignation. I will not leave you uninstructed and thereby uncounseled.

It is not obvious to me that speaking of these all-too-common feelings is a cause of psychological distress. Rather, it is the concealing and suppressing of such things that causes psychological distress.

As a priest, I encounter too many people who think that they cannot bring their dark and negative emotions to God. This is not healthy. It leads to simmering anger and increasing depression. Facing our negative emotions—neither demonizing them nor sanctifying them—and bringing them to God as Scripture models is the surer way to avoid “psychological distress.” God is our healer, and just as we must learn to speak honestly to a doctor, even more so to the Lord. Properly understood (viz. St. Thomas), the imprecatory verses and other Scriptures model a way to pray in this manner.

Discussions of this sort should surely continue in the Church. The imprecatory verses may one day be restored. For now, the Church has chosen to omit the most severe of the imprecations. I think we should reconsider this. The complete Psalter given my God the Holy Spirit is the best Psalter.

Listen to this reading of one of the omitted psalms (109 [108]) and note its strong language. But recall St. Thomas’ reflections and remember that such verses, tough though they are, become teaching moments. Finally, recall that these psalms were prayed in the Church until 1970.

The Practices of Prayer

This Sunday’s readings speak to us of the power of persistent prayer. The first reading (Exodus 17:8-13) in particular depicts prayer quite powerfully. In it, we can discern six fundamental teachings on prayer.

I. The Problem for PrayerIn those days, Amalek came and waged war against Israel. None of us like problems, but one good thing about them is that they help to keep us praying. Israel was at war and her enemies were strong; it was time to pray.

The Gospel concerns a widow who is troubled about something, and this problem keeps her coming back to the judge. Sometimes God allows us to have problems in order to keep us praying. Problems also keep us humble and remind us of our need for God and others.

Problems aren’t the only reason we pray, but they are one important motivator. It shouldn’t be necessary for us to have problems, but they certainly have a way of summoning us to prayer.

II. The Priority of PrayerMoses, therefore, said to Joshua, “Pick out certain men, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle after Moses had climbed to the top of the hill with Aaron and Hur.

Notice that Joshua and the army did not go forth until after Moses took up his position of prayer. Prayer ought to precede any major decision or action.

We often rush into things without praying. We should begin each day with prayer. Important decisions should also elicit prayer from us. Prayer needs to come first; it has priority.

Too many people use prayer as a kind of rear-guard action through which they ask God to clean up the mess they’ve made. We end up doing a lot of things we shouldn’t because we didn’t pray first. We also end up doing a lot of things poorly that prayer might have clarified or enriched.

Prayer isn’t just about asking for this or that specific thing. It involves an ongoing relationship with God, through which we gradually receive a new mind and heart, and our vision and priorities are clarified and purified. The new mind and heart that we receive through prayer and the study of our faith are an essential part of the prayer that precedes decisions and actions.

III. The Power of PrayerAs long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.

As long as Moses prayed, Israel got the better of the battle, but when fatigue caused his prayer to diminish, Israel began to lose.

Prayer changes things. Here in this world, we may never fully know how our prayers helped to change history, but I am sure that one of the joys of Heaven will be to see what a difference our prayers—even the distracted and poor ones—made. In Heaven, we’ll tell stories of prayer’s power and will be able to appreciate the difference it made for us and for others. For now, much of this is hidden from our eyes, but one day, we’ll see with a glorious vision what prayer accomplished.

I suppose, too, that one of the pains of purgatory might be seeing the negative effects of our failure to pray and realizing that it was only God’s mercy that counteracted our laziness.

In this passage, Moses struggles to pray—so do we. Remembering prayer’s power is an important motivator to keep us on our knees and at our beads.

IV. The Partnership of PrayerMoses’ hands, however, grew tired; so they put a rock in place for him to sit on. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other.

Moses knew that because of his fatigue he needed the assistance of Aaron and Hur. They all prayed together and, once again, Israel was strengthened and regained the upper hand.

Prayer is not supposed to be merely a solitary experience. While personal prayer is important, so is communal and group prayer. The Lord said, Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20). He also said, Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven (Matt 18:19).

We are taught to gather in prayer liturgically and also to find partners for prayer. Because prayer is so essential and we are individually so weak, we ought not to have it all depend on us. We need our own Aaron and Hur to support us in prayer and to help make up for our weakness.

Do you have some friends who help you, not only to pray but also to walk uprightly? Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up. … where a lone man may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:10,12).

Do not pray or journey alone. Find some spiritual friends to accompany you.

V. The Persistence of Prayerso that [Moses] hands remained steady till sunset.

With Aaron and Hur to help him, Moses prayed right through until sunset. They prayed right up to the endso must we. There is a mystery as to why God sometimes makes us wait, but we must continue to pray anyway. We may get frustrated, fatigued, or disheartened by the delay, but we must pray on. Like Moses, we should get friends to help us, be we must not stop praying.

Be like the woman in the Gospel, who just kept returning to that judge until he rendered justice for her. I have brought people back into the Church long after the spouse or parent who prayed for them died.

VI. The Product of PrayerAnd Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.

The text says that the enemies of Israel were utterly defeated. This shows the powerful result of persistent prayer.

We may not fully see the results of our prayer on this side of the veil, but on glory’s side we one day will. We may not need God to mow down a foreign enemy for us, but how about enemies like fear, poverty, illness, and sin? Yes, we have enemies, and God answers prayers. Pray and then wait patiently for the product of prayer.

There you have it, six practices and teachings on prayer.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Practices of Prayer