21 February 2013

Courage & Wisdom through Humility

1st Week of Lent (Th)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Jesus is offering us a pretty good deal! Ask and receive. Knock and the door opens. Seek and we will find. What could be easier? You know there's got to be a catch, right? Of course. And we'll to that soon enough. But first we need to understand the context of this most excellent deal. The early Church Fathers write about this passage from Matthew as if it refers to seeking after the truth of scripture. For example, want to know what wisdom the Book of Esther imparts? Ask for enlightenment and receive it. Knock on the door of the Word and it opens. Seek wisdom and you will find it. For the Fathers, studying scripture is a necessary step in uncovering its wisdom but study alone is not enough. Asking, receiving, knocking, seeking, and finding are all forms of prayer that require us to submit our pride to some healthy humiliation so that God's wisdom can get a foothold in us. What does this sort of prayer look like? Well, speaking of Queen Esther, she prays, “Help me, who am alone and have no help but you, O Lord, my God.” Esther shows us the way to wisdom through prayerful humility. 

Queen Esther is “seized with mortal anguish” b/c she's discovered that her husband, King Xerxes I of Persia, has authorized the slaughter of all her fellow Jews under his rule. Her uncle, Mordecai, asked Esther to intervene with her husband on behalf of the Jews but doing so would mean her death. To prepare herself and her people, Esther asked that all the Jews in the empire fast with her for three days. After this empire-wide, three-day fast, she summons the courage to approach her husband. She prays earnestly to God—this evening's OT reading—the night before she visits the king, “. . .come to help me, an orphan. Put in my mouth persuasive words in the presence of the lion [the king] and turn his heart to hatred for our enemy. . .” Here's what we need to notice about Esther's prayer. First, though she is seeking courage for herself, she is seeking that courage in order to save her people from destruction. Second, her prayer (the longer version) recalls the history of God's relationship with His chosen people and calls on Him to honor His covenant with them. Third, she freely confesses her powerlessness, her need for divine help. And lastly, she accepts fulls responsibility for the outcome of her meeting with the king; in other words, she's expecting no miracles from God, just all the help she needs and no more. 

Now, back to Jesus. Ask and receive. Knock and the door opens. Seek and you will find. This is exactly what Esther does. And God answers her with abundant wisdom and her people are saved. Earlier, I mentioned a catch. Here's the catch. Jesus notes that even the wicked do not give their children a stone when they ask for bread, or a snake if they ask for a fish. He continues, “. . .how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” There's the catch. For humility in prayer to work as it ought, we must ask for good things. Not just anything we happen to crave, not just anything that we think we might one day want or need, but only those things that we know to be good. Esther asks for the courage she needs to save her people from death. She asks as an orphan child living in a foreign land married to a ruthless king. She freely admits her helplessness and accepts that nothing good will happen unless she takes up the task to see it done. She submits her pride to some healthy, public humiliation and receives all the divine wisdom she needs. Ask, knock, seek in humility and you will find behind every door closed to you the all the wisdom and courage you will ever need. 

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  1. Oh, nice! The reading from Esther spoke strongly to me this morning - I really liked how you took us through Q. Esther's back-story, indicating what was worth noting in her prayer...and therefore, how we can apply it to our own prayer. Final sentence tied everything up nicely - putting that touch of hope out there for all of us to grab.

    Thanks! (Oh, and I liked the "Daily Lenten Reflection" you wrote for today, too.)

    1. I really like Esther. She's my kinda gal.

  2. This one worked as exactly the kind of spiritual direction I needed today...

    P.S.: What "Daily Lenten Reflection", Shelly...?

    1. MFT, my province sends via email daily Lenten reflections to donors.