Attitude, in popular parlance, has come to define the stance that a person adopts in relationship to their world. Thus some are described as self-assured, self-deprecating, aggressive or passive in their attitudes.
Today’s scriptures take us to prayer’s most fundamental question: what is the proper attitude that we should bring to prayer? This question precedes any other concerning the words that we use in prayer or the rituals in which we participate. If prayer is to play any meaningful part in our lives, regardless of the form that it takes, it must be rooted in an attitude, a state of mind and heart, that brings us into the presence of God.
The Book of Ecclesiasticus reflects on the attitude of mind and heart that brings us into the presence of God: “The Lord is a judge who is no respecter of personages.”
When we pray we seek the presence of one who knows us better than we know ourselves. It is in this sense that God is no respecter of personages. He sees us as we are, and if we are to be one with him in prayer, we must seek the humility to see ourselves as we are. It sounds simple, but is, in fact, the work of a lifetime. We allow superficialities to cloud our understanding of ourselves: our pride, the hurts that we harbour, our selfish clamour for attention. These, and many others, can disturb the peace that true humility brings to prayer. “The man who with his whole heart serves God will be accepted. The humble man’s prayer pierces the clouds.”
We long to be heard in prayer, but in order to be heard we must first become listeners. God is described as “the one who listens to the plea of the injured, who does not ignore the orphan’s supplication, nor the widow’s as she pours out her supplication”. To listen is something more than a burning passion for social justice, important though that is. It is a humility so forgetful of self that there is space only for the other. This is, indeed, the work of a lifetime, an attitude that we must bring not only to prayer, but to the whole of life.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector reflects the emphasis given to prayer in Luke’s Gospel: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector.”
From the beginning the parable focuses on the attitude underlying prayer, rather than the importance or worthiness of the person praying. It goes without saying that to the perception of the day the credentials of a Pharisee would far outstrip those of a hated tax collector.
What was the attitude that the Pharisee brought to prayer? Fundamentally, he was staking a claim, unconsciously reminding God of all that he was owed for his virtuous life. “I thank you God that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.”
We are indeed fortunate if we do not follow the Pharisee in our relationships with each other by making demands on each other on the basis of what we have done or what we deserve. Such attitudes, unconsciously, can even creep into our prayer.
A loving God owes us nothing. We owe him everything. That is the meaning of grace, perfectly expressed in the attitude and prayer of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
The parable concludes with the observation that the tax collector went home at rights with God. It was his humility that allowed God to enter the soul of a sinner, thereby allowing God to put the sinner “at rights” with himself. This is grace, and humility its door.