Come with empty hands
“The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’.” (Lk 18:13)
St Augustine says that God can give only when He finds empty hands. When we come to God in prayer, we need to do so with empty hands—ready to receive what He has in store for us.
The parable in today’s gospel is about one who came without anything—no accomplishments, no virtues. Nothing at all! It was this one, the tax collector, that went away “at rights with God”. He was the one who came to God with empty hands, ready to receive what God had to offer.
The desert monks of Egypt had a saying: “Birds fly; fishes swim; the human prays.” Just as birds find their identity in their ability to fly and fishes find their identity in their ability to swim, we humans find our true identity in our ability to pray. To come to realise our identity, there is a specific way and an approach to God in prayer.
When I come to God in prayer, how do I come? Is there any space within me to receive what God has to offer? Do I approach God, like the tax collector, with empty hands?
I need to come to God aware of my own unworthiness. I need to come to God in prayer like the tax collector, knowing that there are no accomplishments or virtues for me to boast about. It is this disposition which will make me “at rights with God”.
There is a book written about the message of St Thérèse of Lisieux and it is called, With Empty Hands. It is about a young girl who, over 100 years ago, having knocked at the door of the Carmel of Lisieux in Normandy, brought nothing with her. She was received into the Convent and lived there for nine years until her death in 1897.
She did nothing spectacular throughout her very brief life. She came to the Convent with empty hands and she went to God at her death with empty hands. Yet today she is considered a great saint, the patron of missions and a Doctor of the Church. She always approached God with empty hands and for this she was considered “at rights with God”.
How can I come to God with empty hands? This is the only posture of the heart that will make me “at rights with God”.
When I think that I have done so many great and wonderful things and that I am therefore entitled to God’s blessings, I am the Pharisee. When I compare myself with others and think that I am more deserving to receive God’s blessings than they are, then I am the Pharisee in today’s gospel.
However, whenever I approach God with a humble heart, whenever I approach God with empty hands, then I am the tax collector. I am St Thérèse of Lisieux. I am “at rights with God”.
Heavenly Father! I come to You with empty hands. I come to You as the tax collector with empty hands. I come to You without any achievements to boast about that would entitle me to Your love. I come to You without any virtues that I believe would entitle me to Your mercy. I only come to You with empty hands, because I know that You can only give me Your love when my hands are outstretched and empty and ready to receive. Amen.
The gospel reflections for October were by Abbot John Pereira OSB of the Abbey of Our Lady of Exile, Mount St Benedict.