Step 7: Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings
Scripture for Sunday: Matthew 6:1-13
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
Notes on the Text:
Our scripture for this Sunday is a part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus seeks to reverse the expectations of the people about the Kingdom of God by challenging the common practices of his day around worship, public prayer, and alms giving.
People expected personal rewards for their spiritual practices. This was the equivalent of “prosperity theology” in our day where people believe that serving or loving God should result in personal prosperity. Jesus invited people to pray in secret because he knew that the public prayers were being used to inflate people’s egos. In order to appreciate what Jesus was trying to say, we have to take a look at the practice of patronage or beneficence in the ancient Roman and Jewish worlds. A great resource about this is the work of Bruce Winter in his book Seek the Welfare of the City. At the time of Jesus, public works, public buildings, public baths, city festivals, feasts, and games were done by wealthy individuals. So the people of the ancient cities would praise the benefactors in public with great praise to show their appreciation. Even the emperor of the Roman Empire was part of this practice, giving of his own wealth in order to show off his power and generosity. Benefactors also supported individuals by providing them income and goods. In return, it was the duty of the recipient of such generosity to praise his benefactor in public writing poems or essays about his generosity or even waking him up in the morning to a hymn of praise.
Against this backdrop, we can appreciate what Jesus was saying to the people. The system that promoted the power and egos of individuals and their social status had no place in the Kingdom of God. God’s way is so different. Earning God’s grace is radically opposed to the values of the kingdom of God. God’s way is about humility and trust. Prayer and other spiritual practices are about aligning ourselves with God’s vision for our world instead of our ego’s vision for our lives. The followers of Jesus had to let go of their expectations about success and power in order to be in a place of openness to God’s grace. If they came to prayer with expectations of getting a reward, then they would miss the radical gift of grace. What they needed was to be humble and open as a beggar would be. The act of asking God for daily bread and for help is about not taking things for granted or out of a sense of entitlement.
This week, the invitation is to be humble and vulnerable before God instead of using prayer or any other spiritual practice to inflate our ego. Prayer is not about getting/earning things from God. Instead, prayer is about being in a deep relationship with God. After recognizing our addictions and our need for God to help us, it is important to ask for help. The act of asking is important because it is about inviting God in. Rohr writes, “Prayer is a symbiotic relationship with life and with God, a synergy which creates a result larger than the exchange itself. (That is why Jesus says all prayers are answered, which does not appear to be true according to the evidence!) God knows that we need to pray to keep the symbiotic relationship moving and growing.”
Humbly asking God to remove our shortcomings is not about entitlement. When we ask God for help, we place ourselves in the position of a beggar. We are invited to let go of the ego because it often leads us to believe that we are separate from God and from others. The ego tells us that we must earn or deserve love. That is why it is essential for us to practice the kind of prayer which Jesus offered, going in secret without much fan fair or the ways of the ego. Praying in secret and humbly asking for God’s grace helps us to drop our pretenses and defense mechanisms to welcome the power of God in our lives. It is about the deep recognition of our own humanity as beloved children of God. The blocks to our full life (our addictions) are not usually the things we think are in the way: jobs, possessions, comfort, perfect relationships, youth, or power. Asking God for help does not guarantee that we will be protected from all harm or that we will get our wishes fulfilled. Asking God for help is about the transformation of our own desires because what is often missing in our lives is our inner sense of peace which is not related to the circumstances of our lives. The shortcomings we ask God to remove from us are usually our coping mechanisms which we developed in childhood when our sense of wholeness was lost or diminished. Think of all the struggles we have today in our world and how our fears and shortcomings play out in daily life and the world stage: broken relationships, personal anxiety, wars, ravaging the earth’s resources for the sake of profit, exploitation, and violence. I am heartbroken every day when I watch the news and see images of cruelty to children in our own country. This morning the image that haunted my prayers was that of the father and his 23-months old daughter who drowned at the Mexican border. We need God to transform us and our world. We need to reclaim God’s vision for the goodness of life. Experiencing God’s unconditional love even if it is just for a few minutes a day can be so powerful because it exposes all the falsehoods with which we surround ourselves in order to cope with life. Asking God to remove our shortcomings is about situating ourselves in the flow of love.
This invitation to humbly ask for God’s help in removing our shortcomings is about trusting that only love is strong enough to heal us. Rohr writes, “God’s totally positive and lasting way of removing our shortcomings is to fill up the hole with something much better, more luminous, and more satisfying. Then your old shortcomings are not driven away, or pushed underground, as much as they are exposed and starved for the false program for happiness that they are. Like used scaffolding, our sins fall away from us as unneeded and unhelpful because now a new and better building has been found.”
On Prayer from The Awakened Heart by Gerald May:
“My life of prayer has always been stumbling and fitful, but it has convinced me of some basic truths.
~We are in love.
~God is absolutely and always present, intimately active and involved with us, and endlessly good.
~As God’s creation, we bear an essential part of God’s own goodness in our hearts that can never be removed, no matter how selfish, prejudiced, and vindictive we may be, no matter what we have done or what has been done to us.
~And, when we say yes to love, or try to say yes, or even honestly desire to try to say yes, love is as victorious in that moment as it is in all of cosmic time. The great spiritual leaders have not preached fear and paranoia. They have said that we can trust divine goodness, that we can risk vulnerability if our intent is toward love.
When you have concerns about praying, pray about them. Pray about prayer. Ask the source of love to help you pray, to protect you, to show you your way, to make it possible. Prayer just happens as part of being in love. It happens in your heart more often and more steadily than you will ever know.
Whether we are distracted or not, whether we know it or not, whether we even want it or not, a communication between the soul and God keeps going on beneath the surface of our self-awareness. It is given everywhere and at all times. There is no need to attain it; there is nothing we have to do to make it happen. Neither can we escape from it (Psalm 139).
Relationship with the source of love is the most natural thing about us. Active practice of this relationship is nothing other than living, as best we can, in appreciation of, and fidelity to, the continual heart-to-heart connectedness with the holy Other whose presence makes us complete. Brother Lawrence called it conversing everywhere with God.
Little glances and repetitive prayers can be loving, sweet, and deep, but it is in practicing direct relationship with God that we encounter the grits and guts of love. The possibilities for practice are endless.
Three common ways are:
- Companionship: All through the Gospels, Jesus keeps inviting people to follow him, take him in, keep him company, and love him. “I no longer call you servants… I have called you friends.” John 15:15
- Romantic: passionately in love with God. Letting yourself be loved.
- Cosmic Presence: love surrounding, embracing, pervading is and all creation. A relatively imageless awareness of God expressed through reverence, awe and wonder.”
Prayer to the Holy Spirit by Joyce Rupp:
We worship You, holy Spirit of God, and we may only guess, as best we can, who You are for us.
We open our hearts to receive You that we may learn how deeply and invisibly You are present everywhere.
You are the air we breathe, the distance we gaze into, the space that surrounds us. You are the kindly light in which people are attractive to each other.
You are the finger of God and you playfully order the universe. You are the sensitive love with which we were created.
We pray to You, Spirit of God, Creator, complete the work you have begun; prevent the evil we are capable of doing and inspire us toward what is good — to faithfulness and patience, to compassion and gentleness and awaken in us friendship for every living being, with joy for everything that is good and human.
Everything that lives grows only by your power. Your activity is strange and beyond all human words. You are hidden deep inside us like yeast, a seed of ire. You are our will to live, the love that keeps us here on earth and ties us to Yourself.
You urge us to go on to the end and to endure everything, not to give way, but to go on hoping, as love does. You are the soul of all our prayers, so there is nothing we may not expect from You.
Wisdom to understand each other, readiness to help each other. You are God’s gift to us, God who dwells with in. Amen.