Column: Prayer alone can’t bring us closer to God

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

We expect priests and nuns to know something about prayer. After all, they are church workers, and that is one of the central activities of the church.

However, there are certain ones who come across as experts in that field. For example, cloistered nuns devote a major part of their time to prayer.

And it is even possible for an individual to obtain a degree in spirituality, the branch of theology which deals with the spiritual life, our personal relationship with God. Someone with such a degree might serve as a spiritual director or a retreat master. That means placing a particular emphasis upon prayer, the primary way in which we explore our relationship with God.

Prayer is an important theme that runs throughout the various books of the Bible. It is a central practice of our faith. At the same time, certain books of the Bible emphasize prayer a bit more than others and in different ways. For example, the Book of Psalms is a collection of prayers. It is the original prayer book.

The Gospel of Luke also places a strong emphasis upon prayer. Even in its use of the vocabulary connected with prayer, it is stronger.

Compared to the other three Gospels, Luke uses the verb “to pray” more frequently. In Luke’s Gospel, various forms of the verb “to pray” occur 19 times, as compared to only four times in John’s Gospel or seven times in Mark’s Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel comes closer with 14 uses of the verb. That makes sense, since both Luke and Matthew share some materials in common. They are the two Gospels that contain the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer.

Nonetheless, Luke’s Gospel goes a bit further in its emphasis on prayer. In this Gospel, Jesus is seen more often at prayer, in part to give us an example to imitate.

Luke’s Gospel also includes two parables dealing with the topic of prayer which are not found in the other three Gospels. We heard one last Sunday, “a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” That parable told the story of the persistent widow petitioning the corrupt judge for justice.

This Sunday we hear the second parable dealing with prayer, that of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Lk 18:9-14. They are both praying in the temple. The Pharisee uses the occasion as an opportunity to brag about himself. On the other hand, when the tax collector prays, he begs for God’s mercy.

The Pharisee and the tax collector present a strong contrast in their attitude toward God. The Pharisee is filled with pride; the tax collector is overcome with humility. And yet, they are both praying.

Evidently, the simple fact of praying is not enough to bring a person close to God. One’s attitude of heart matters a lot. The frequency of prayer, reciting the correct words, does not matter nearly as much as our attitude of heart. That attitude describes our relationship to God. And ultimately, according to Luke’s Gospel, deepening and strengthening that relationship is the purpose of prayer.

Father Stubbs is the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lansing.

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