“This poor man called; the Lord heard him. In the Lord my soul shall make its boast. The humble shall hear and be glad.” The Readings at this Sunday’s celebration, like the responsorial psalm cited above, question the dispositions that we bring to prayer.
Why is it that the scriptures insist that the prayers of the poor and humble are heard by God while the prayers of the proud and rich go unanswered? Poverty and humility, pride and riches, are not intended as descriptions of economic circumstances. They describe the attitudes of heart and mind that are the necessary preconditions for the prayer that unites us with God. It is for this reason that the Book of Ecclesiasticus describes the Lord as a judge who is no respecter of persons. In other words, pride of status and achievement can never bring us into the presence of God. Sinful pride, whatever form it takes, is a reliance upon what we can achieve of ourselves. It renders God redundant and effectively excludes him from our prayer. The supplication of the widow and the orphan, on the other hand, knows its need of God. As such it is a prayer that turns to God from a trust in his graciousness rather than a clinging to misplaced self-sufficiency.
The familiar parable recounting the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector illustrate the necessary dispositions for prayer. Jesus spoke the parable to those “who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else”. Few of us would confess to such overt pride and arrogance. There is, however, a more subtle form of pride that undermines our best intentions. Precisely because we have been touched by sin we become vulnerable to a hidden pride that is protective of itself. A sinful instinct for self-preservation cannot resist bolstering its own achievements against the perceived failure of others. Such attitudes are not far removed from the prayer of the Pharisee. “I thank you, God, that I am not like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here.”
The instinct of the tax collector was completely different: “God be merciful to me a sinner.” What commended the prayer of the tax collector was not simply his confession of sin, important though this was. It was the humility that entrusted itself to God’s mercy that ensured that the tax collector’s prayer was heard, that he “went home again at rights with God”.
The most destructive delusion that we can bring to prayer is the presumption that what we do, our imagined virtue, does anything to deepen our relationship with God. It is not our achievements, but the openness of a trusting faith, that deepens prayer’s friendship with God.
The paradoxical imperative, repeated throughout the gospels, applies to the whole of life. It is the sure ground for all prayer: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.”
All prayer, beyond its words, is a longing to grow in the love of God. As such it claims nothing for itself. It can only wait upon the graciousness of the beloved. This is the humility, the self-forgetfulness that leads prayer into the presence of God.