“The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds, and he will not be consoled until it reaches the Lord; he will not desist until the Most High visits him, and does justice for the righteous, and executes judgment. (Sirach 35:17)
Last Sunday, we read of the battle between Israel and the Amalekites. Moses stood on the mountain with hands raised in prayer. Israel prevailed only when Moses’ hands were raised thereby showing us the power of persistent and consistent prayer. Jesus also gave us the parable of the widow and the unjust judge to teach us that we must continue praying and never lose heart even when our prayers are not answered. Today, our readings teach us some other important dimensions of effective prayer.
1. God Never Ignores the Prayer of the Poor and Oppressed.
As the book of Sirach says: “He (God) will not show partiality in the case of a poor man, and he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged. He will not ignore the supplication of the fatherless, nor the widow when she pours out her story.” (Sirach 35:13-14). No matter what you may be going through right now, remember that God cares and He always listens to the cries of the poor and oppressed. When you cannot fight with your hands, call on God with all your heart. As our Psalmist sings today: “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted; those whose spirit is crushed he will save.” (Psalm 34:18)
Some time ago, a primary school teacher was kidnapped. She had just become a widow a few months earlier. With virtually nothing to hold on to, she had taken up the responsibility of catering for her children all by herself. When the news of the kidnap reached the children at school the next day, they were all moved to tears for their beloved teacher and instantly these little children started praying. That same day, the woman was released without a single dime paid as ransom. The kidnappers confessed to her that they felt as though something was burning all over their bodies, they even knelt before her and asked for her forgiveness and blessing.
Prayer by itself is powerful and even more powerful is the prayer of innocent children, orphans, widows and victims of injustice. In Luke chapter 7, we see the moving story of Jesus’ encounter with a widow whose only son had just died. This is one miracle that Jesus worked without demanding faith from the person in need. Merely seeing the tears from the woman’s eyes was enough to break Jesus’ heart. As Luke puts it: “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ And he came and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ And the dead man sat up and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother.” (Luke 7:13-15).
2. Prayer Demands an Attitude of Humility: Avoid Commanding God.
Again from our first reading, we learn that: “He whose service is pleasing to the Lord will be accepted… The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds…” (Sirach 35:16-17). When we pray, we must always assume the attitude of servants begging from their Master, not that of Masters giving orders to their servants. As the book of Proverbs teach us: “The LORD tears down the house of the proud, but maintains the widow’s boundaries.” (Proverbs 15:25). In Mary’s Magnificat, she explains how God works saying: “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree.” (Luke 1:51-52).
In other to underscore the importance of humility in prayer, Jesus taught us to pray saying: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In praying like this, first, we remind ourselves that God is Our Father, our Creator, our Owner. Meaning that we are nothing before Him. Secondly, we ask that His will may be done. Meaning that whatever we are about to ask for must be in line with the will of God. In this way, we are not commanding God, but simply begging for his favour. This is why the Church recommends kneeling, bowing, genuflecting or standing with hands folded or raised while praying. By prostrating ourselves, we remind ourselves that we are begging from God.
Sometimes, we hear some people pray and say things like: “by the anointing in me, I declare that from this day henceforth so and so will happen…” thereby assuming the place of God over the person(s) they are praying for. This is very wrong. Sometimes we see people shouting at the top of their voice even with microphones as if God is some deaf and dumb idol that is far away from us. Such prayers are not addressed to God but to people and this brings us to the next lesson for today.
3. Prayer Demands Examination of Conscience.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus gives us a parable of two men who went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee’s prayer was not only an exercise in self-praise, but it was also vindictive of others. There are some of us who pray like this Pharisee. We remind God of the good we have done as if to say, God is owing us forgetting that our goodness is by God’s grace. We claim to be speaking to God, meanwhile, we are voicing our condemnation of others, passing judgement and expressing our anger. Sometimes, our prayers are filled with so much bitterness that the person we are referring to knows we are talking about him or her.
As Jesus explains, this Pharisee ended up “praying with himself.” In other words, for his pride and vindictiveness, his prayers did not go up to heaven. It is not in your place to report the evils of others to God, examine your conscience, acknowledge your faults and ask for grace. When the tax collector approached the Temple, he stood far off (like the prodigal Son at the gate of the Father scared of entering the house), he couldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven but beat his breast (as we do during the “I Confess” at Mass), saying: “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus tells us that this man went home justified. The time of prayer is not the time to boast, it is rather a time to look inwards, a time to search deep and beg for God’s mercy.
4. The Christian Life is a Fight and a Race: Prayer Keeps us Going.
Our final lesson today comes from our second reading. We hear St. Paul saying: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” In other words, the Christian life is not an easy one. Jesus himself says “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:14). The Christian life is a real battle, a battle against the flesh with its animalistic cravings, a battle against the forces of darkness, principalities, powers and the devil who comes to steal, kill and destroy. (John 10:10). The Christian life is a race, one that requires constant training, constant self-discipline as Paul would say: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things…. I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:25-27).
St. Paul went on to say that his success did not come from his own strength but by the help of God. He says: “the Lord stood by me and gave me the strength to proclaim the word fully…” Prayer is our direct connection to God. It is our source of grace and power. Without prayer, we cannot fight and we cannot run the race before us. As the saying goes, a prayerless Christian is a powerless Christian.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus, teach me to humble myself and to pray well. Amen.
Bible Study: Sirach 35:12-18, 2 Timothy 4:6-18 & Luke 18:9-14).