Sunday, October 27, 2019

Between Casinos & Scanners

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc EasySentri Sentri

My dear friends, have you ever walked through a security scanner before? How about a casino? Have you entered a casino before? Is there any difference between the two? I’m not sure, but I imagine that the best way to walk into a casino, especially if you’re there to gamble, is to make sure that your pockets are as full as possible. If not literally, then at least figuratively. Not only do you want to have easy access to lots of money, but you also want to let others know that you do. Why? Well, not just to impress your fellow patrons, but also so that the casino staff will roll out the red carpet for you. So that they will treat you like the high-roller you really are. A high-roller enters a casino with full pockets in order to impress.

The opposite is true of a security scanner. As you know, the best way to walk through one of these is to make sure that your pockets are well and truly empty. I remember once being surprised when I was stopped after walking through a scanner, since I had already emptied my pockets. But, as it turned out, they were not as empty as I had thought. I had left my handkerchief in one of them, which the scanner was able to detect, even though it was just a piece of cloth!

In sharp contrast to a casino, if I want to pass through a security scanner, and get to my destination as quickly as possible, then it’s better that I go in with empty pockets.

I mention this difference between a casino and a scanner because I believe it can help us understand better the valuable lesson that our Mass readings are teaching us today. In the gospel parable, the Pharisee begins to pray in much the same way a high-roller might walk into a casino. Not only does he make sure that his pockets are as full as possible – by listing all the pious practices he engages in regularly – but he also broadcasts them out loud, to make sure that everyone knows about them. Even worse, he looks down on those who don’t seem to have much cash on them.

In contrast, the tax collector prays as though he were walking through a security scanner. Instead of looking for all the things he can use to impress God, he allows his pockets to be emptied. He lets himself realise what a huge difference in dignity there is between him and the almighty, all-holy God. And yet, probably much to the surprise of his listeners, Jesus declares that it is the tax collector, not the Pharisee, whose prayer reaches its intended destination.

The first reading tells us the reason why. It’s because, unlike the staff at a casino, the Lord is a judge who is no respecter of personages. Like a security scanner, God is unimpressed, even turned off, by full pockets and flashy clothing. God is drawn instead to hearts that are surrendered and empty. Hearts that may even be broken, as the tax collector’s heart seems to be. Broken by his own weakness and sinfulness, in the face of God’s great mercy and compassion. For as the responsorial psalm reminds us, the Lord is close to the broken-hearted, those whose spirit is crushed he will save…

I’m not sure what you think, my dear friends, but this insight that God is more like a security scanner than a casino can actually be very encouraging. Especially for those of us who, like me, may find it difficult to pray when we are in a dark interior space. When I am feeling guilty, for example, for having committed a stubborn sin yet again. Even after confessing it for the umpteenth time. Or when I may be fuming mad at someone with whom I live or work. Someone with whom I’ve been trying very hard to be patient. Or when I’m disappointed in God for allowing me to fail at something in which I so very much wanted to succeed. Or when I fall sick, and find myself indulging in self-pity.

At times like these, it can be very difficult to pray. Difficult because, without realising it, I may think that I can’t come before God with nothing to show for myself. I may think that I need to hide my weakness, my empty pockets. Or find some way to fill them myself. And yet, to feel that way is really to approach God as I would a casino. To think that God needs to be suitably impressed in order to hear my prayer. Which is the opposite of what our readings are saying. That good effective prayer is honest humble prayer. Prayer that allows my heart to be laid bare. This is the kind of prayer that is more likely to reach its intended destination.

But that’s not all. For it is not just prayer that I need to learn to enter with empty pockets. The same can be said of the whole of my life. Isn’t this what we find in the second reading? Towards the end of his life, as he awaits his eventual execution, St Paul speaks not about being filled but about being emptied. Poignantly he writes that his life is already being poured away as a libation, a sacrificial offering. And yet it is precisely in his emptiness, that he experiences the Lord standing by him, giving him power, bringing him safely to his intended heavenly destination.

To walk through life as I would a security scanner. With empty pockets and even a broken heart. This is not a message that the world likes to hear. On the contrary, for many of us, isn’t life much more like a casino? Don’t we spend much of our time desperately filling ourselves? Isn’t this why we call ourselves consumers? And yet, it’s helpful to remember that the Lord whom we gather here every Sunday to worship is the same One who did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself for our sakes, even to the point of giving his life for us on the wood of the Cross.

Sisters and brothers, as we proceed with our prayers here at this Mass, and as we pass through the church doors when our celebration is complete, will we be walking through a scanner or into a casino? How full or empty will your pockets be today?

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