30th of the Year, 23 Oct 22
Wendy, John and Michael were sleeping soundly in their beds unaware that Peter Pan was in their bedroom looking for Tinkerbell and indeed looking for his shadow, which he had also lost. Wendy wakes up and reattaches Peter Pan’s shadow to him. He introduces Tinkerbell to her, a fairy, and explains their origins, “You see, Wendy, when the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces and went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.” There ought therefore, he goes on to explain, be one fairy for every boy and girl. Wendy enquires why there isn’t then. And Peter explains, “You see children know such a lot now, they soon don’t believe in fairies, and every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.” It’s a lovely scene, I think, from the the opening chapters of J M Barrie’s 1911 classic, Peter and Wendy, and a lovely - fictional obviously - explanation of the origins and demise of fairies.
Last Sunday our Gospel concluded, “But when the Son of Man comes, will He find any faith on earth?” Our Gospel today continues from where Our Lord left off:” “Jesus spoke the following parable to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else.” St Augustine of Hippo observes on this progression in the narrative, “Since faith is not a gift of the proud but of the humble, our Lord proceeds to add a parable concerning humility against pride.” I want therefore to say something about faith and especially how it is connected to humility and prayer.
Faith is a gift of God. It is not something we merit, it is the gift of the grace of God (Romans 4:16). The author of the letter to the Hebrews gives a useful definition to commit to memory: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1). He goes on to observe that because of faith people were put right in their relationship with God (v.2) and because of faith people acted in a way that otherwise would not make sense. He gives the example of Abraham setting off on a big journey to Canaan (v.8) and, with Sarah, giving birth to children even though they were both too old (v.11).
Faith and belief are basically two words meaning the same thing, especially when we think of them in the context of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Now we might use the word ‘believe’ in different ways in different contexts and we mustn’t confuse that with what we mean when we speak of it concerning our Lord. So, for example we might say, “I believe the world is round … I believe semi skimmed milk is better for me.” I say “I believe” because I do not know, I am operating in trust. Someone else can prove it and I believe them, in part because we cannot ceaselessly try to prove everything ourselves. But it doesn’t really change how I live my life the fact that I believe the world is round or that Saturn exists etc. Whereas the fact that I believe God exists does and is meant to change my life.
That faith and works go hand in hand with each other is seen in the letter of St James in the New Testament: “Someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works and I by my works with show you my faith” (2:18). C S Lewis cleverly observes that asking which is more important is is like asking which blade of a scissor is most needed: the two - faith and works - have to work in tandem. So many people say they believe in God in the sense they recognise He exists - like believing another planet is there - but they don’t think it needs to affect their behaviour. This is true of us too when we sin: we are failing to let our faith produce fruit in our lives, fruit that will last, brought forth because we are united to Christ, the one true Vine.
Be warned though because faith and good works seem to be in abundance in the Pharisee in the Parable our Lord tells in the Gospel today. Gosh, isn’t he holy?! He’s praying, so that’s good. He fasts twice a week as the Pharisees did indeed do. Gosh, that’s good too, isn’t it? And he pays tithes, ten percent on his possessions given to God. And yes, just for the avoidance of doubt, these are actually good things for us to be doing. But recall what our Lord says elsewhere (St Matthew 9:13), quoting from Hosea 6:6, “What I want is mercy not sacrifice.” And it is abundantly clear that mercy, love, kindness, gentleness and compassion are sorely missing from this Pharisee because in his heart as he prays is hatred, ridicule and scorn for the tax collector who had also gone to the Temple to pray.
Notice how our Lord describes the Pharisee as praying “to himself.” God was not the object of his prayer, it was simply to make himself feel better. In stark contrast, the tax collector does not even dare to raise his eyes to Heaven, but beats his breast and says, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” With this image in our minds does the Church encourage the practise of striking our breast once when during the Confession at the start of Mass we say, “Through my most grievous fault.” How can we make prayer to God without first recognising we are sinners, without first coming to terms with the fact that we need forgiving?
For the last fourteen years of parish ministry I’ve been trying to encourage folk to realise prayer is not just about asking for things. What’s interesting to note about what the Pharisee says in his prayer is that he doesn’t ask for anything: he is supremely arrogant and simply congratulates himself on how wonderful he is (and I’m sure God was pleased to be reminded!). We ought then to be asking for things and not just for that which we are deficient in but also for what we have plenty of, for this recognises that God is the source of all things and even if we think it’s going to be easy for us to have dinner this evening or to afford a holiday or to forgive someone our awareness of God’s kindness will be improved when we know that we still ought to ask Him for it first, and thank Him for it afterwards.
Prayer and humility then go hand in hand with each other. Often we can learn humility when some misfortune befalls us, when something terrible is happening in our life, when some past error is coming back to bite, when we are concerned about someone we love, when ill-health strikes. In these situations and many others the temptation is to pray fervently to avoid the suffering and maybe we should do that but before we do, brothers and sisters, we should pray that we may learn humility through it: that we may not think we can conquer life in our own strength, though we may be gracious enough to recognise God has given us that strength. The problems of life will humble us and we should pray that they do so.
This in part is the sentiment behind the beautiful lines we sing in the great Epiphany hymn, “Brightest and best.” As we celebrate the visit of the Wise Men on 6th January each year and the gifts they offer of gold, frankincense and myrrh we sing, “Vainly we offer each ample oblation, vainly with gifts would his favour secure, richer by far is the heart’s adoration, dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.” In a world where the poor are so often forgotten I find it incredibly powerful and comforting to know God who reigns over everything does listen when so often no one really cares, everyone’s too busy, everyone already knows better. This radical love of God for the poor means we are better articulating our prayer when we realise our poverty, our need of God, our reliance on His grace. There can never be a time when we say we don’t really need anything when it comes to prayer. I’ve heard people say it though not out of an obvious arrogance but through a failure to rely on and to turn to God.
What is prayer? Well, prayer is the union of the soul to God. It comes from faith because faith isn’t just about recognising that there is a God, it’s about saying we know we will discover what it is to be happy from being close to Him and making ourselves more like Him; and it’s about realising the fellowship of the Church is essential in this great task. Prayer is not only the fruit of faith but it will also go hand in hand with humility. For in prayer we also make Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane our own. On that Maundy Thursday evening, Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, told us to take bread and wine in memory of Him and then He has gone out to pray. The horror of the Cross is dawning on Him and the choice before Him comes together in the image of a cup, a chalice. Jesus prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done,” (St Luke 22:42). The Lord submits Himself to His Father’s will, not the easier version of it He could have justified to Himself in His own mind. May our prayer inspire in us that same love of service. We don’t believe in fairies but we do believe in God and that will change our life. Amen.