“Pride is your greatest enemy; humility is your greatest friend.” – John R.W. Stott.
Humility does not entail thinking less about ourselves; it is about realizing that we are nothing without God (John 15:5). Humility is not weakness; it is meekness. We admire humble people and even praise them, but we often have a hard time being humble ourselves because we don’t want to appear weak and defenseless. In line with this, Helen Nielsen says: “Humility is like underwear; essential but indecent if it shows.
Last Sunday saw us climbing the mountain of prayer and raising the staff of persistence. Today we are invited to adopt a humble disposition in our prayer beyond persistence. If you like, the liturgy of this Sunday is asking us to become humble supplicants. A prayer that lacks humility is not prayer at all.
The First Reading (Sirach 35:12-14; 16-18) can be called a poem on effective prayer. The writer gives us three just characters whose prayers attracts the attention of the just judge, namely God. We shall examine these for deeper understanding:
- The Prayer of the defenceless: Here we see the poor, the widow and orphan. It may be tempting for us to assume that these are the physically poor, widows and orphans in our neighborhood. They could be! However, and more importantly these refer to those who make God their refuge and their strength; their present help in trouble. (Psalm 46:1).
- The Prayer of the diligent servant: The diligent servant is not necessarily an ordained minister but anyone who obeys God; someone who keeps God’s commandment without compromise. For instance, God calls Job his servant (Job 1:8; 2:3; 42:8). In the First Reading, today says that God willingly hears the prayer of the one that serves him; his petition reaches the heavens.
- The Prayer of the humble: The humble represents those who put God first in all things. Those who recognize and depend on God in all things. We are told in the First Reading that the prayer of such people pierces the clouds. In the Book of Lamentations (3:44) we learn that God covers himself with a cloud that no prayer can pierce but here there is an exception; the prayer of the humble. Such people are unrelenting because they have God as their first, second and last choice.
The Gospel Reading (Luke 18:9-14) presents us with an interesting parable that tells us about the value of humility in contrast to self-righteousness and despising attitude borne out of pride. Two men go to the temple to pray; one is a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. These represent two extreme personalities as far as the context is concerned. We shall examine their individual characters and their personal dispositions to prayer.
The Prayer of the Pharisee:
In the context of the narrative, Pharisees are known to be upright people; “spotless and sinless.” In fact, they are called the “Separated Ones.” They are always praying at the designated times with their robes of distinction worn at all times to set them apart from others. They see themselves as “accomplished good and holy men” unlike the rest sinful humanity.
Entering the Temple, the Pharisee TAKES HIS POSITION; this means that he has a designated place which is probably in front where everyone could see him. Next, he SPEAKES a PRAYER to HIMSELF; this means that he is so full of himself that he does not remember that God is the focus of prayer. He prays thus: “O God, I 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”.
The self-exaltation (not prayer) above shows the profound self-indulgence of the Pharisee. He starts with thanksgiving to God. Not for His goodness nor His love. But for the fact that he is not like the rest of men (who are sinful). He goes on to render an inventory that discredits and passes judgment on the tax collector while giving himself moral distinction. Using others as standards to measure one’s spiritual value is absurd. Our standard as Christians should be Christ himself. After his narcissistic babblings, the Pharisee goes home worse than he was before coming to the temple. He came with a presumed holiness and went back with a debunked holiness. He came with seeming justification and went back unjustified.
The Prayer of the tax collector.
The tax man stands parallel to the “righteous” Pharisee both physically and morally. His is the wrong guy! The wicked and public sinner. He knows all these, and he does not disprove them. He comes into the Temple and takes a very lowly position, unlike the Pharisee. He does not look up to heaven but beats his chest in complete penitence. From his lowly position, he makes this short but profoundly transforming supplication: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
While the Pharisee says a self -exaltation prayer, the tax collector says a prayer of penitence. It is very probably that the tax collector entered the Temple before the Pharisee because the script of the Pharisee shows a reflection of the penitence of the tax collector. While the tax collector says: “mea culpa, mea culpa mea, maxima culpa!” (through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault) the Pharisee replies mockingly “tua culpa, tua culpa, tua maxima culpa!” (through your fault, through your fault, through your most grievous fault); perhaps pointing at him as he says that.
After making his supplication, our tax collector friend went home justified. Why? According to David, God does not spurn a humble and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17). He is the person that did pray between the two men. He came unworthy and went home worthy. He came with an unholy life and went back with a holy life. He came dissipated and goes home inspired. He came displaced and goes with a perfect placement. The prayer of the two men made two remarkable impacts, and we shall examine them in what follows.
- The Prayer that Pierces The Proud.
The Pharisee’s “prayer” can be described as an abomination to God (Proverb 15:8). He comes before the righteous one to claim righteousness. Often we are like this Pharisee when we pray to impress and to show that we are better than others. Often we are like this Pharisee when we use prayer as a medium to express our selfish desires and to pass judgment on others.
I once read a joke about a couple who while praying uses quotations from the Bible to spite each other. All these are Pharisaic and unchristian. Such prayers end up piercing our perceived pride and claims instead of piercing the clouds. They are prayers said from the head and not from the heart.
Prayers said from the head are inspired by selfishness and pride. Pride is a vice that gives us a lot of spiritual limitations. St. John Vianney says that it is pride that prevents us from becoming saints. It closes the door of our heavenly home while opening the way to hell. God detests the proud of heart (Prov.6:16).
- The Prayer that Pierces the Clouds.
“God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble,” says the Apostle James (4:6). Humility is a golden virtue that quickens our connection with God. It is for this reason that the prayer of the humble pierces the cloud. Humility in prayers shows our dependence on God as we are nothing without Him (Phil. 4:13). It shows our love, faith, and trust in God. It takes humility to know God and to worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:24).
The prayer that pierces the clouds is the prayer said with a humble heart, not with a proud head. St. Paul’s personal diary in the Second Reading (2 Timothy 4: 6-8; 16-18) tells us a lot about the gains of humble submission to God. He writes from the point of being sacrificed yet he is sure that God will rescue him from every evil and save him for his heavenly kingdom. The apostle Paul radiates humility in his ministry:
- “I am the least of the apostles.” – 1 Cor.15:9.
- “I am the very least of all the saints.” – Eph.3:8.
- “I am the foremost sinner.”- 1 Tim.1:15.
Are you Piercing the Clouds with your Prayer?
In our day and age, we have more “Pharisees” (self-righteous people) than the time of Jesus Christ. Do we not have people condemning others as sinners and promising them hell fire? In fact, the Pharisaic syndrome is more obtrusive with the proliferation of Churches with so many self-made “men of God” than ever. Many people have become God’s deputies on earth tagging those who will enjoy heaven and those who will perish in hell fire. Judgment is an exclusive reserve for God; many seem to forget. That you sin differently than other people does not make you better than them.
We need to be humble in our prayers if we mean to pierce the clouds. Humility is a virtue we need to cultivate and wear as a habit. Our lofty self-perception is often an opposition to the virtue of humility in our lives. Pride and excessive self-consciousness often make it difficult for some people to obey certain gestures in the Church, like kneeling, standing, the sign of the cross and others. Most of us are often proud to display our technological devices but lack the humility to hold the bible or rosary; even to own one.
As we continue our spiritual journey in life, let us adopt the virtue of humility in prayer. The Apostle Peter (1 Pet. 5:6), enjoins us to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God so that he may exalt us in due time. Our Lord Jesus Christ ended the Gospel Reading today by saying that whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted!
Have a lovely Sunday and a great week ahead.