The readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C continue the theme of prayer. In the first reading (Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18) we read: “The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds….”
From time to time I’ve been asked, “What’s the point of praying? If God know everything and even knows what is in our hearts before we put words to our concerns and desires, what’s the point of praying?
Our world is obsessed with action. We tend to think of prayer as a last resort. When practical action appears to be impossible we say, “Well, I guess I’ll just pray.” “Just!?” Is prayer a last resort rather than the first?
There is a line attributed to both St. Augustine and to St. Ignatius Loyola. While the former may have written it, the latter, I’m told by the Jesuit historian Fr. John Padberg, did not. In fact, St. Ignatius probably reversed the order of the saying.
The saying goes: “Pray as though everything depends on God and work as though everything depends on you.”
It is good to recognize when we pray that the Holy Spirit is the one who prays within us (see Romans 8: 26-27). And it is good to work hard. But the reverse of the saying—“Pray as though everything depended on you and work as though everything depended on God”—makes more sense.
In other words, we should put time, effort, and energy into our prayer, praying as though it’s up to us but knowing that grace is always a gift. And we should work in such a way that we leave the results to God rather than thinking that our sheer effort will accomplish things.
This is where the Gospel (Luke: 18: 9-14) comes in. The Pharisee congratulates himself on his works and goes away unjustified, while the tax collector prays with humility and is said to go away justified. The key, as we’ve heard in previous Sundays’ Gospels, is humility.
The word comes from “humus”—dust or earth. Humility recognizes that I am not God, not in control, and cannot overcome every obstacle by my own effort and hard work.
Humble or lowly prayer surrenders to God who created us to share in the love of the Trinity and the communion of all saints. When we pray fervently and persistently, our prayer pierces the heavens and opens a channel for God’s grace and mercy to enter the world. Like parents who show respect and love to their children, inviting them to work alongside of them though they do not need their help in assembling a toy or cooking a meal, God respects and loves us by including us in the work of caring for creation and the human family.
Prayer is not so much changing God’s mind as opening ourselves up to Trinitarian Love and allowing God to transform us and work through us to transform the world.