Parable About Humble Prayer: A Remedy for Spiritual Pride
User's Guide to Sunday, Oct. 23
They say Satan was a good angel who turned away from God because of spiritual pride. Today’s Gospel says that we often do exactly the same thing — and shows us how to avoid it.
Jesus tells the story of a Pharisee praying in the Temple area. He is intent on impressing God by listing his spiritual accomplishments. Meanwhile, a tax collector beats his breast and bows his head, praying only, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
We know the rest of the story: The Pharisees rejected Jesus, while tax collectors and sinners accepted him as their Lord.
This is why the Catechism calls today’s Gospel a key parable about the need for prayer to be humble. It is also an easy parable to imitate.
First, at Mass. The Church deliberately puts us in the place of the tax collector in this story twice during each Sunday Mass. We imitate his action when we beat our breasts during the Confiteor, the “I Confess” prayer. We imitate his words during the Kyrie Eleison, the “Lord have mercy” prayer. Both times, we should remind ourselves that we are at Mass as sinners, not saints; seeking healing, not showing off.
Second, at prayer. I am often reminded of the story of St. Benedict Labré, the “homeless saint,” who spent a lot of time praying in France’s churches in the 18th century. They say that whenever he heard someone coming, he would stop kneeling, so that he wouldn’t look too holy. How many of us do the opposite and start kneeling when we hear someone coming?
If we are that conscious of how we look during prayer, we are too focused on ourselves and not focused enough on God. The four ACTS of prayer (A for Adoration, C for Contrition, T for Thanksgiving and S for Supplication, or petition) is the formula for a style of prayer that puts God first.
Third, in our Christian life. The first reading says, “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds,” but it also adds, “The one who serves God willingly is heard.” Acknowledging that we are lowly is a great start, but it isn’t enough. We also have to serve God.
St. Paul’s story is the story of a man filled with weakness who nonetheless can say in today’s second reading that he “competed well,” “finished the race” and “kept the faith.” The key difference between his words and the Pharisees is that Paul knew that it wasn’t his own strength, but that “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.”
Like St. Paul, we need to take delight in performing the good deeds that God likes to watch and not in telling him about them. We should live our lives “poured out like a libation” for him, and then go to prayer to be filled back up.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at
Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.
He is the author of What Pope Francis Really Said.