30th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Anthony/OLR, NOLA
The tax collector prays to God. The Pharisee prays to himself. What difference does this difference make? Self-righteous prayer attempts to change God, while righteous prayer changes the one praying. In our desire to gain and maintain control of our lives – lives that do not belong to us in the first place – we can forget a basic theological truth: Nothing we can do, say, feel, or think changes God. We live and move and have our being in Him. He does not live and move and have His being in us. We are His creatures; He is our Creator. Prayer is one way that we align our will with His. Therefore, Christian prayer is not a form of persuasion; a way of bargaining, or a means of pestering God into giving us what we think we need or want. Christian prayer is not a magic spell, or a spiritual recipe, or a religious formula that can bend God to our will. We cannot trick God with novenas or litanies, nor can we browbeat Him with adoration or processions. None of these forms of prayer are designed to change God's mind or influence Him in the least. Jesus shows us that prayer changes the heart and mind of the one praying. And that righteous prayer is always prayed in genuine humility.
The first step in praying with genuine humility is coming to know and love God as His creature; that is, acknowledging and accepting that we are made beings, beings made in His image and likeness and re-made in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Man was created from dirt with the breath of God – body and soul. Remembering that we are dirt and that we will return to dirt, and living out that memory, is what it means to be humble. Genuine humility makes it possible for us to get out of our own way and receive all that God has to give us. We set aside our wants, our perceived needs. We set aside the need to control our lives and the lives of others. We give up the lie that we know what's best for us and ours. Above all, we accept that our end – our target – is not in this world or of this world. We are here temporarily, and nothing we do, say, think, or feel will last long after we die. So while we are here, our task is bear witness to the mercy of God, giving testimony from our own lives how He has made us His heirs, His children, through Christ Jesus. Our adoption into the Holy Family is a gift not a reward for good behavior or right-thinking. But a freely offered gift that we freely receive or freely reject. Prayer is our means of giving thanks and growing in humility.
The second step in praying in humility is coming to know and love all of God's creation, especially His sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters in Christ. The self-righteous Pharisee fails to love the tax-collector, judging him to be “greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” How does the Pharisee make this judgment? He says, “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” In our self-righteousness, we might say, “I attend daily Mass. Go to confession once a week. Pray the rosary twice a day. And serve on the parish council.” So??? None of this makes you or me righteous. If we attend Mass, go to confession, pray the rosary, and serve on the parish council in order to be seen, to be noticed by the greedy, dishonest, and adulterous sinners who don't deserve God's mercy, then our humility is suffocated by self-righteousness, and we pray to ourselves not to God. To know and love all of God's creation, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ, is not about calling sin good. It's about seeing in them and ourselves the desperate need for God's mercy and offering to them (and ourselves) the witness we all need to come out of sin and to surrender ourselves to Divine Love. The humble pray knowing they are sinners.
The last step in praying with humility is coming to know and love ourselves as redeemed sinners; that is, as loved and saved creatures of Love Himself. Genuine humility is never about self-degradation. It's never about torturing ourselves into believing that we are worthless. Remember: we are made from dirt with the breath of God. Genuine humility requires that we remember both elements of our creation: the dirt and the divine breath. When we forget that we are dirt, we end up believing ourselves to be god w/o God. That's pride. That's the lie the Serpent whispered to Eve. But when we forget that we are also of the divine breath, we end up believing ourselves to be just dirt. That is also pride. We leave God out of our lives, living as if He has no part to play in how we came to be or where we need to go. The balance is struck when we genuinely humble ourselves and exalt God. God doesn't need our exaltation, but we need to exalt Him in order to remain humble. This is why Jesus teaches us, “. . .whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Pray like the redeemed sinner you are.
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