Luke 18: 9-14
When I was in seminary and dating a Catholic, I spent some time at his church in downtown Atlanta. There was a lot I liked about the congregation and the liturgy. For a United Methodist not raised in particularly “high church” services with a lot of formal liturgy, processions, or incense, I actually found the ritual intriguing and alluring. I liked moving my body when we prayed. I liked celebrating Communion every week. And while some folks find rote prayers to be boring or predictable or not Spirit-infused enough, I liked knowing that many of the prayers were simply English translations of prayers that had been said continuously for thousands of years. I felt “lined up” with a long, long history.
But there was one of those prayers that I never got completely used to saying. During the part of the liturgy when the congregation is preparing for Communion, every week they say this prayer: “O, Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
I bristled at this prayer. At first I really only heard the first part: “I am not worthy to receive.” Why do we have to talk about our unworthiness right now? Why do we have to focus on this instead of the gift we are about to receive? Part of me wondered if what seemed to me then as a sort of self-loathing was the reason so many adults raised in that church called themselves “recovering Catholics.”
It took a long time for me to even hear that second part: “But only say the word and I shall be healed.”
Oh. Maybe it’s not as much about the unworthiness as I thought when I was busy bristling and railing against this prayer. Of course I am not worthy of this – no one is worthy, in the sense of deserving this. If I got what I deserved, what I could bring about by my own work, it would not be a feast like this.
Maybe it’s even more important that at the sound of God’s Word, I can be healed. We all run off course so often and so often we do so without even realizing it. God knows this but chooses – graciously, with abundant generosity and love – to forgive and to heal us and make us whole. God wants to wash away the sin and the accumulated wrong directions of our lives and get right down to that most essential, still intact, image of God that’s at the heart of each of us.
That’s a completely different prayer than the one I first heard and bristled at. That’s a prayer about setting things right – about my responsibility to recognize both my failings and my true worth, and to open myself to the healing and redemption that only God can bring. And that God wants so desperately to bring, to flood into each of our lives.
O, Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.
This sounds a lot like the prayer the tax collector offers in Luke’s parable for today. The tax collector, commonly seen by believers at the time as a sinner and unworthy of polite company, goes to the temple to pray and stands in the far corner, afraid to even look up at God while he prayed (which was the more common practice at the time). He keeps his head bowed down, beats his chest remorsefully, and prays simply, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18: 13). It’s all there in his prayer: recognition that he is a sinner and also that God’s mercy is bigger and more powerful than that sin – and that God is ready to be merciful.
While this man is offering his prayer there is another man, a Pharisee, also praying in the temple. For a long time I thought the Pharisee was praying aloud here but that is not in the text. He’s praying to himself, just like the tax collector, but it’s a very different prayer, isn’t it? He isn’t in a posture of penitence or remorse and he prays like this: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Luke 19: 11-12). It’s a laundry list of all the reasons God should prefer him to other people and confer recognition and blessings on him. It’s hard to imagine this man praying the prayer I learned in the Catholic church.
The Pharisee isn’t even content to arrogantly list out his many fine attributes. He goes further by contemptuously comparing himself to other people, even pointing out to God that sorry tax collector over there. Like me when I first started visiting the Catholic church, the Pharisee is not interested in delving into his darker nature. He doesn’t bother to list out for God all the reasons he has fallen short. He makes his prayer like a résumé, highlighting what he sees as his strong points and leaving the rest out. But he goes a step further by tearing down other people in the process. It isn’t enough for him to completely ignore his own faults – faults are all he sees in other people and he wants to make sure God sees them, too.
I think these two attributes of his prayer – the arrogant laundry list of his own good deeds and his contemptuous attitude for other people – are linked. His approach to God and his approach to other people are intertwined and inseparable. This is how it’s meant to be for all of us. We are meant to integrate our faith and who we know ourselves to be in God’s eyes into “the rest” of life – academic work, jobs, interactions at the grocery store or the mechanic’s, relationships with our family and friends. God expects the conversation we have in prayer to be reflective of what is happening in the rest of our lives and God expects the conversation we have in prayer to reflect into the rest of what is happening in our lives. In this sense, the Pharisee gets it right – he’s the same in prayer as he is everywhere else. But he doesn’t really know who he is, does he?
I’ve been talking with some folks lately about what it means to be humble. I think we often leave part of the definition out, kind of like I did when I first learned that prayer in the Catholic church. For many in the church and in our broader culture, being humble means discounting ourselves in favor of other people. To be humble means we don’t take our own needs, thoughts, or feelings into account, deferring instead to other people in a show of respect for them.
But this is a perversion of humility, particularly from a Christian point of view. This is like only praying that first part of the prayer – I am not worthy to receive – without ever adding the second part into the mix – But only say the word and I shall be healed. From a Christian point of view, this is like refusing to recognize and celebrate the resurrection, preferring to end the story with the crucifixion. From a Christian point of view, we are called to remember that we are both not worthy – we do not deserve what God lavishes upon us – but that this is in God’s hands and that God wants our healing and wholeness, God chooses us anyway.
I find Thomas Merton’s definition of humility to be extremely helpful here. Thomas Merton was a Trappist Monk who lived in the middle of the 20th century and wrote many books on spirituality and contemporary life. Here’s what he said about humility: “Humility is being precisely the person you actually are in the presence of God” (quoted by The Rev. Robert M. Holmes in “A Satisfactory Humility” on www.day1.org).
By this definition you might think that even the Pharisee could be called humble. Listen again: Humility is being precisely the person you actually are in the presence of God. The Pharisee behaves like he does everywhere else even in God’s presence, but is this who he “actually is”? He’s leaving out a pretty essential part of who he is, namely everything beyond his control, everything unsightly, everything that puts him on a level field with all the other sinners made in the image of God.
Being humble means being honest about both our failures and our gifts – being exactly who we are and all of who we are. Being humble does not privilege or leave out either the sin or the gifts. Being humble neither raises us above everyone else nor does it lower us beneath them. Being humble means to recognize that I am a sinner, a failure, a child of God and made in the image of God – and so is everyone else. Being humble requires us to live like this all the time – in the privacy of our prayers and in our daily lives and interactions with the rest of God’s children. O, Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.
Thanks be to God!
© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis