Thoughts on Matthew 6:5-13
Imagine you’re sitting out in the sweltering Mediterranean sun, longing for a breeze from the sea of Galilee to stir and offer some relief. You could leave, and part of you wants to, but you don’t want to be the first person to walk away from Jesus as he preaches from the hillside. You have pressed as close as you can (or dare), along with your fellow Pharisees, and your anger has been stirred as this Nazarene carpenter has spent the past hour teaching things that threaten to expose your falseness and the futility of your religiosity. You’re hoping the people have not been listening well and that they don’t start to perceive you differently. Then Jesus said it, or so you thought. “Did he just call us hypocrites?” you ask your friend. “I think so, but I’m not sure. Let’s keep listening,” he replies sharply. Then, it happens again, and this time you’re both sure.
Jesus was not afraid to call things what they were. He never dodged the truth or sugarcoated anything so as not to offend. Obviously, he was not malicious or reckless (nothing about Jesus is reckless, not even his love), and he even told his followers that people would be offended at them on account of Jesus. This passage is certainly no exception. Jesus had just finished calling out the “hypocrites” for the way they made a big deal about their giving to the poor and seeking the approval of men. Then, Jesus warns his listeners not to “be like the hypocrites” who stood and prayed loudly in the synagogues and on the street corners.
Some people have taken this passage to mean Christians should never pray in public (like for a meal at a restaurant). I think that interpretation is extreme and misses the point Jesus is making – that just like the giving and doing good deeds, it’s about our hearts. If we were to never pray outside the confines of our rooms, then we need to stop praying in church, prayer meetings and while evangelizing. That’s such an absurd view that I won’t say more to contradict it as Scripture and church history are more than sufficient to do that. However, I will say that we need to be careful when we pray in the presence of others that we’re not putting on a show for others rather than coming before the throne of God.
I’ve had plenty of experiences where preachers and other people default to what I’ll call a “prayer voice” when they prayed publicly. I get that we all have nuanced ways of speaking with various people, God included, and that’s normal. What I mean by “prayer voice” is when it’s over the top (sometimes in King James English) and is obviously not a normal way of speaking to anyone, not even God. God is our Father, and Jesus is our Brother and High Priest, among many other things, and our conversation with them should be natural and normal (assuming we’re practiced in prayer). Again, God is after our hearts – and knows what’s in them!
The second prayer-related warning Jesus gives here is not to “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do.” It was not uncommon in those days for pagan worshippers to repeat their prayers over and over in hopes their false god would hear them. Jesus makes it clear these mantra-like repetitions are unnecessary with God because, unlike wooden or metal idols, he not only hears the first time, but knows our needs before we even voice them. He then presents a prayer after which we can model our prayers.
Because there are thousands of books, articles and posts about The Lord’s Prayer, I will limit my comments here to a basic outline of this prayer that we can use to approach God in a way that can be very helpful and prevent us from approaching God as if he were just a divine Santa Claus who exists to hear our wish lists.
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” – acknowledge God’s deity and majesty, but also his condescension to us as a loving Father who has graciously adopted us into his family.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – express our desire to be in God’s presence and to submit our will to his, and to see God’s purposes fulfilled throughout the earth.
“Give us this day our daily bread…” – Confess our dependence upon the Lord for all we have, as well as our contentment for what he provides, be it much or little.
“…and forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors” – Confess our sins to God (vertical relationship), and examine our hearts to ensure we have forgiven and been reconciled with others (horizontal relationships), and, as Jesus already addresses in Matthew 5:23-24, go and be reconciled before coming before the Lord.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” – Plead for God’s grace and strength to overcome sin, and for divine protection against the attacks of the enemy (whether in the physical or spiritual realms).
I will conclude here to keep this post from becoming too lengthy, but in subsequent posts we will dig deeper into some questions about whether or not God causes us to sin (based on verse 13) as well as the conditionality of forgiveness (verses 12 and 14-15). In the meantime, let’s commit to praying more, and praying in a way that highlights God’s holiness and our need and depravity, but also in a way that sounds and feels like a conversation with our Father who loves us more than we can even comprehend.