Be We Ever So Humble: The Importance of Vulnerability in Prayer
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
October 26, 2016

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year C 
(Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14)
23 October 2013 – St. Austin Parish, Austin, TX

Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series on prayer. Read part one here. Read part two here.

Our reading from Sirach and our psalm today both declare that God hears the prayers of the oppressed and the downtrodden. Despite this consistent message throughout the Bible, there’s something in the human mind that causes us to think the opposite. In other words, when we meet someone who is wealthy and prestigious, we think that that person is among God’s favorites.

Today, Jesus gives us another challenging parable of humility, the origin of the so-called “Jesus prayer” used especially by Eastern Christians: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on all of us sinners!

A few years ago, I received an e-mail message from a certain friend of mine. He’s so involved in his Catholic faith that I’ve placed him at the top of my “short list” of people I’d recommend to become pope – just in case anyone ever asks me for recommendations. Despite all of his involvement in ministry, he was nervous. He had recently signed up to take communion to hospital patients. While some patients perk up when they have visitors, others remain focused on their pain and sadness. What do you say to people who feel hopeless? How do you sit in that sadness with them? My buddy was tempted to provide these patients with simple, pat answers about God’s mercy or to trivialize their fears by making jokes. He knew these approaches weren’t right, but he wasn’t sure what he should do.

I explained to him that the key is to meet people where they are. Many of us think of ourselves as problem-solvers. But we cannot “solve” someone’s illness. All we can do is take their hand and sit with them in the valley of darkness. We don’t have the magic words to make people feel better. But we can let people know that they are not alone. We can lessen their fears by sharing their burdens, even if it’s just for a few minutes and with the assurance of our prayers. 

Today’s parable is about humility. The tax collector recognizes his humanity. In other words, he recognizes that he is mortal, imperfect, and sinful. He recognizes that he is not God. He recognizes that he is dependent on God.

What’s the problem with the prayer of the Pharisee? He gives thanksgiving to God, which is great. It’s great that he fasts twice a week. It’s great that he pays tithes on his entire income. And, personally, I think it’s fantastic that he’s willing to sit in the front row of the assembly! Nevertheless, something is obviously terribly wrong with his prayer. The Pharisee seems to be trying to deceive himself – and, ironically, trying to deceive God – into thinking that he is perfect and sinless. 

I think a lot of us have more in common with the Pharisee than we care to admit. We pretend as if we can stop God from knowing about our failings and inadequacies. Let us not be so arrogant to think that we need to shield God from the bad stuff in our lives. God can deal with our complaints and burdens. Our problems will not overwhelm God. Our God is a mighty God. 

What kind of prayer life do we have if we don’t bring our fears and our anxieties before God? What kind of relationship do we have with God if we’re not honest with God about who we are – if we don’t share the beautiful and the ugly of our lives with God?

Prayer does not need to be a time of fear and trembling. God already knows that we’re not perfect; he created us that way. But when we acknowledge our sins and our imperfections – when we acknowledge our sense of inadequacy – when we acknowledge our foibles – when we acknowledge the feelings we’re scared of, including sadness, loneliness, jealousy, and the 3 big As: anger, anxiety, and arousal – when we bring these things out of the shadows and into the light of day, they no longer have power over us. God can replace our sense of shame… with the relief of forgiveness. God can fill the hole in our hearts… with love. What we once thought were idiosyncrasies… become gifts with which we can bless the world.

If you don’t know how to open yourself up to God, just pray with Psalm 139:1-18:

LORD, you have probed me, you know me: you know when I sit and stand;

you understand my thoughts from afar.

You sift through my travels and my rest; with all my ways you are familiar.

Even before a word is on my tongue, LORD, you know it all.

Behind and before you encircle me and rest your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, far too lofty for me to reach.

Where can I go from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee?

If I ascend to the heavens, you are there;

if I lie down in [the netherworld], there you are.

If I take the wings of dawn and dwell beyond the sea,

Even there your hand guides me, your right hand holds me fast.

If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light”—

Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day.

Darkness and light are but one.

You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works!

My very self you know. My bones are not hidden from you,

When I was being made in secret, fashioned in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw me unformed; in your book all are written down;

my days were shaped, before one came to be.

How precious to me are your designs, O God; how vast the sum of them!

Were I to count them, they would outnumber the sands; 

when I complete them, still you are with me.

The more open we are with God about our inadequacies, the more we will know that God loves us as we are. Where we are. In our present circumstances.

That’s the advice I gave to my friend who was uncomfortable visiting patients in the hospital. I encouraged him to be open with God about his discomfort. And you know what? He soon became much more comfortable taking communion to those who were sick.

If we want to convey God’s love to people who are feeling vulnerable… we have to be willing to be vulnerable to God ourselves.