Actor Denzel Washington has received widespread recognition for his work, including two Academy Awards (he is one of only five actors to be nominated in five different categories) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
During a 2015 commencement address at Dillard College, he recounted a humorous but pointed life lesson he learned from his mother, having come home for a visit after making it big in Hollywood.
“Mom, did you think this was going to happen? I’d be so big and I’ll be able to take care of everybody and I can do this and I can do that,” he told her.
Washington’s mother told him to “stop it right there,” saying, “If you only knew how many people have been praying for you.”
“How many prayer groups she put together, how many prayer talks she gave, how many times she splashed me with holy water to save my sorry behind,” said Washington, adding his mother advised him he could “get a mop and bucket and clean the windows” to demonstrate his self-sufficient “superstar” abilities.
The lesson Mrs. Washington taught her adult son was to be humble before God. She was obviously a woman of prayer and great faith, and her humility comes through in this simple story. Not only is she teaching her son a lesson, one apparently well learned, but she witnessed to that humility.
Humility and prayer are interrelated in the readings for today’s liturgy. Jesus gives us a parable which contrasts two people praying in the temple. The contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector is focused on their stance or position before God; in other words, how they view themselves in relationship to God.
The two could hardly be more different. The Pharisee centers his prayer on himself. He thanks God that he is so good. He tells God that he is does not do bad things but only good ones and he raises his own stature, at least in his own mind, by putting down the tax collector.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is focused on God. His petition is for mercy: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That short, one-sentence prayer which he offers with head bowed reflects a deep awareness of God and his mercy. He is humble before God. He recognizes that his need for mercy.
His prayer for mercy includes his praise – for implicit in this prayer is the acknowledgement that God has the ability and desire to bestow mercy on the lowly. Jesus concludes the parable with a teaching: “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Humility before God acknowledges, in love, God’s greatness and goodness. He created us in love. He is always and everywhere present in our lives. He knows our longings and needs. He even knows them before we do. Humility in our relationship with God tied to prayer helps build that relationship of love.
The passage from Sirach which serves as the first reading this week reminds us of God’s presence, his knowledge of our situation in life and his active listening to our prayers. Sirach particularly mentions the prayers of those in most need – “the cry of the oppressed” and “the wail of the orphan.” But he also mentions the “lowly.” The “lowly” can be the poor, those of lower social, economic or educational levels but it can also refer to anyone who is humble before the Lord. This person is “the one who serves God willingly.” Sirach tells us:
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,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.
The image is a beautiful one by which the humble are raised to new heights because of God’s mercy. The prayers from earth “pierce the clouds” and do not “rest until it reaches its goal.”
Humility entails patience and trust. A few weeks ago, we were reminded of the importance of petitionary prayer. Jesus encouraged us to pray often to our loving Father. The first reading that week reminded us that whenever God answers our prayers – it is never late, it is at the right time.
A similar aspect which helps us grow in humility is found in today’s reading. Sirach tells us the petition of the lowly will not “withdraw” until the Most High responds. He will respond, again, in the right time and will never be late. The humble person recognizes this and waits in patience for the answer.
The psalm today (Psalm 34) reflects a communal aspect in our relationship with God. Here the psalmist recognizes that the prayer of praise will “lift up the lowly.” He says: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be ever in my mouth. Let my soul glory in the Lord; the lowly will hear me and be glad.” As the psalm continues, the psalmist recounts God’s blessings on Israel in very general terms: he “confronts evildoers,” hears the cry of the just, rescues the just from “all their distress” and “rescues them,” he is “close to the broken hearted,” and He “redeems the lives of his servants.” Anyone who is lowly or poor can hear this psalm of praise and be lifted up by them.
In the passage from Second Timothy, St. Paul stands humbly before God as he proclaims that all that he has done and endured for the Gospel was empowered by God. Paul does not look to take credit for himself but acknowledges the God who works in him. He says: “But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.”
God is good and loves us. His blessings are too numerous to be counted. Recognizing those blessings, especially of His mercy, helps us grow in humility so we can, together, proclaim “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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