Every teacher loves an eager student. The word ‘student’ itself stems from the Latin studere, meaning ‘to be eager for, to desire.’ Being a good student then depends upon an eagerness to learn. Such students gladden their teachers by hanging on their every word, reading through their bibliography and plying them with questions. The delight a teacher takes in such a student explains, analogously, why God so delights in the lowly. The lowly are eager for God.
In our first reading this weekend (Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18) we hear “the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal.” Why their prayers in particular? Does God have a soft spot for the poor simply because they are poor? It seems not. In the same reading we hear that God “knows no favorites” and he is “not unduly partial toward the weak.” What then gives their prayer such force before God? Perhaps it is because they are better students.
When students arrogantly (and ignorantly) ask questions well covered in the reading, or treated in detail in earlier lectures, they reveal their own indolence. Such questions irritate the teacher and they don’t get much of a hearing. However, the questions of disciplined student have a different effect. Such questions reveal his or her eagerness, delighting the teacher. As a result, either a detailed response will be offered or the two will meet privately to examine the question closely.
Like the good student, the lowly have done their homework. They are well studied in the world’s disappointments and they know they are equally culpable. They have learned to depend upon God and not themselves. The arrogant haven’t learned these lessons.
For the contrast, consider the scene in our Gospel (Lk 18:9-14). The Pharisee is the bad student. In praying, he only praises himself: “I am not…greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” This is one who has not done the requisite reading. He has not even read his own heart. If he had, he would find that (worse than greed or dishonesty) he is in fact idolatrous. For we hear that “he spoke this prayer to himself.” He sets himself up as God. God is surely not impressed with one who has not even learned this most basic lesson: I am not God.
The tax collector on the other hand is a good student. He knows the wickedness of the world. He has seen the same in himself. He has learned the basic lessons. He knows he is not God. Even more, his study has led him to ask the deeper question: if God will forgive him. God recognizes such good students. He honors such questions. Their private conversations are endless.