Prayer: He Exalts the Humble
How do you pray? How do you believe? How do you live? The questions are a braid of one truth, each overlying and informing the others. For example, in Luke 18 Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The gospel begins with the following introduction: “Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else” (Luke 18:9, NLT). In other words, Jesus told this story to me and to you. We are the Pharisee in the story. We pray, believe, and live as if we are thankful that we are not sinners like the tax collector (or the cheater, the murderer, the liar). We need to become like the tax collector. We need to beg God for his mercy, which he gives graciously. As the text says, it is the tax collector and not the Pharisee who goes home justified before God. “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14, NLT).
Some readers may be unconvinced that they are the Pharisee in the story. I was speaking with a friend about an annual Orthodox liturgy in which each person, the priest included, goes to every other parishioner and asks his or her forgiveness. And my friend, someone whose mature faith I respect, looked at me and said, “What if you haven’t offended that person?” So some readers may be unconvinced, but I must say with Dostoevsky’s Elder Zosima that I am guilty before all men. I believe that I am the Pharisee in the story; perhaps that is enough.
So what does it say of me, that I pray, believe, and live as the Pharisee rather than as the Tax Collector? It is easy for me to be proud or presumptuous at times. I tend to think that because I prayed a prayer when I was nine, or walked an aisle when I was seventeen, or was baptized and go to liturgy each week, that I am covered. That God and I are okay. But even Paul, writing to the Corinthians, says, “I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27, NLT). This is humility. And James says, “There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you” (James 2:13, NLT). This is humility.
Consider the story of the death of the early Church Father Sisoe (fifth century): Abba Sisoe lay dying. The brothers surrounded him and saw his face brighten, and he began to speak such words as, “Lo, Abbot Anthony is here,” and later, “the Prophets,” and “the Apostles.” In a little while he appeared to be conversing with someone and when the brothers inquired about it, Abba Sisoe said that the angels had come and that he was asking them to leave him until he might repent. And when his brothers told him he no longer needed to repent, Abba Sisoe replied, “In truth, my brothers, it does not appear to me, in this hour, that I have begun my repentance.”
Or consider the story of Thomas Aquinas who, before finishing the Summa Theologica, and three months before his death, had a profound experience of God, a mystical vision that shook his soul—so that of all he had written, he said it was “but straw.” (Not, of course, that the Summa should be considered worthless, but that within the light of God the Word, all other words are mere shadows.) Thomas refused to take up his pen again, leaving the Summa to be finished by another.
First Peter 5:5 says, “And all of you, serve each other in humility, for ‘God opposes the proud but favors the humble.’” The foundation of all prayer is humility. As Augustine said, “We are all beggars before God.” And so we pray for the mercy of God even and only as we show mercy to those who sin against us.
A proud man cannot pray.