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It is destructive to think we can deepen our relationship with God through virtue

Thirtieth Sunday of the Year: Eccl 35:12-14; 2 Tim 4 6-8 & 16-18; Lk 18:9-14

By on Wednesday, 20 October 2010

“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.

  • Jim

    It is a pity that Bishop David appears to take this superficial level of analysis of the parables and other teachings of our church. Apart from being dangerously close to a Predestination mentality the main complaint about this article is the poor use of English. The parable referred to, and all other references by Bishop David are really warnings against vanity and against a “tick box” mentality of counting up all our good deeds and equating this with reward.

    Of COURSE we may presume that what we do can either deepen or reduce our relationship with God. The act of prayer deepens, the act of sin reduces. Our pope encouraged us during his visit to the UK that we can all deepen our relationship with God by what we do….how we live, how we pray, how we treat each other…..

    Acts of goodness and charity, by their very nature will deepen our relationship with God. It is when we begin to think of ourselves as “better” or “good” BECAUSE we have done something rather than having BEEN MADE better by the Holy Spirit through doing good that we face the downward spiral of vanity and distance from God.

    Perhaps the pressure of getting a regular blog out means that the occasional ad-hoc piece slips out, but we should be encouraging people, particularly the young, to believe that their good deeds and prayers really do have an effect.

    Jim

  • Paul Williamson

    A wonderful article. Such prayer is paradoxical. God's grace towards us is incredibly paradoxical. I thank God that I am aware of my pride which I despise but yet struggle to purge. I feel my pride when I am with those of weaker disposition to me, and I loath it. I pray God will expunge it. Thankfully though my love for others seems to override it, but not yet sufficiently.

  • TheBlueWarrior

    Perhaps it's just the headline that is odd in this article, for what the Bishop is describing in this article is called vice rather than virtue. As for the headline, I'd suggest the editor review the Catechism of the Catholic Church para 1804 which says “The moral virtues…dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love.”

  • RJ

    Perhaps study of the theology of grace of St Thomas would help to resolve this paradox. Grace as a habitual form divinizes us, making our acts God's acts without ceasing in some sense to be our acts. Unless they do remain our acts – by our grace-moved voluntary consent – then good works performed by grace are merely examples of God pulling the strings of a puppet. Or is that just a misunderstanding?

    Perhaps the key mistake is to rely on our own strength, as though we could do it by ourselves and of ourselves.

  • Mamasnookems

    We deepen our relationship with God through God's Word and believing that Jesus is His Son and that He died and rose again for our salvation. You only learn it through God's Word, no other book or traditions or anything else.

    Romans 5:8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”