And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive
you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him.
–Matthew 6:5-15; 7:7-11
One of the dramatic images for me in this most difficult time is the picture of a single priest alone in a huge cathedral, leaning forward on a pew, praying for his parishioners, his community, his world. I think that is our calling this and every day, to be still and pray, voicing our cares and concerns, but also listening for God’s still, small voice.
You will recall that in this portion of the sermon Jesus is focusing on the spiritual disciplines used in worship. Today he is speaking to us on how to pray. We need to remember that no group ever had a higher ideal of prayer than the Jewish people. One rabbi said, “Great is prayer, greater than all good works.” Another rabbinic saying that I find so helpful is “He who prays within his house surrounds it with a wall that is stronger than iron.”
However, certain faults had crept into the Jewish habits of prayer – faults so discernible that Jesus begins His teaching on prayer by first telling His disciples how not to pray. As we look at this text we notice that Jesus admonishes his disciples not to pray like the hypocritical phonies who like to pray in public as if to be seen and heard. It seems that the Jewish people had begun making a ritual of prayer, scheduling specific prayer hours in much the same manner that Muslims pray today – pausing at 9 a.m.; 12:00 p.m.; and 3:00 p.m. What’s more, they used formalized prayers that could be quite long, such as the Shema, which in its shortened form reads: “The Lord our God is one God.” (found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11; 13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41) Jews were required to recite this every morning and evening, but many had begun using it as a public prayer as well. In addition, there was the Shemoneh Esreh, which means the 18 petitions, a collection of 18 prayers which are still part of the synagogue service prayed by devout Jews; but during Jesus’ time there occurred a public display of praying this long prayer in a very loud fashion. Jesus objected to this, stating unequivocally that prayer is not to be a public witness, but a private devotion.
In addition to his criticism of the hypocrites, Jesus also makes note of the Gentile prayers. Now, what did he mean by that – Gentile prayers? It very well could have meant the invocation of the many gods of so many cultures or the ritual repetition of prayer formulae. You will remember the antics of the prophets of Baal when confronted by Elijah, and how they ran in circles and kept uttering the same phrases over and over again. All of this speaking assumes that one who prays has to impress or gain attention of the deity, or that a correct formula must be used to ensure the effectiveness of the prayer. Jesus reminds us that we aren’t saying things to God that God doesn’t already know. The biblical scholar, Dale Bruner, says, “Prayer is not an intelligence briefing for God; it is intelligent conversation with Him.”
After all of these instructions on how not to pray, Jesus then turns his attention to how to pray by giving us this wonderful prayer, one that we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.” However, I think it is better understood, as “The Disciples’ Prayer.”. I mean, there are parts of this prayer that Jesus didn’t need to pray – “forgive me my trespasses . . .” No, Jesus gave this prayer to us as a model for prayer.
In the play and subsequent movie, Shadowlands, the story based on the romantic relationship between C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman, there is a scene where Lewis has returned to Oxford from London, where he and Joy have just married in a private ceremony performed at her hospital bedside. She is dying of cancer, and, through the struggle with her illness, she and Lewis have discovered a deep love for one another. Afterward, as Lewis arrives at Magdalene College, he is met by his friend, Harry Harrington, an Episcopal priest, who asks what news there is. Lewis hesitates; then, deciding to refer to the marriage and not the cancer, says, “Ah, good news, I think, Harry. Yes, good news.” Harrington, not aware of the marriage and thinking that Lewis is referring to Joy’s medical condition, replies, “I know how hard you’ve been praying . . . Now, God is answering your prayer.” “That’s not why I pray, Harry,” Lewis responds. “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God; it changes me.”
Tom Long, professor of homiletics, notes, “Prayer is not a message scribbled on a note, jammed into a bottle and tossed into the sea in hopes that it will wash up someday on God’s shoreline. Prayer is communion with God. We speak to God, but God touches, embraces, shapes, and changes us. Whether we pray for rain or pray for sunshine, our prayer is answered, because in the act of praying we receive the gift we really seek – intimacy with God.”
Prayer isn’t a prescription for those who are used to instant gratification. It requires a constancy that Jesus exhorts at the end of his sermon. We need to keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking at the door of heaven. For it is that discipline that changes the world by changing us.
No one believes that any more than the inspiring South African bishop, Desmond Tutu. Peter Gomes, Dean of the Chapel at Harvard University, remembered an experience which took place years ago now. “I remember when Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to visit our campus on his way to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Prize. We had arranged for a special service at noon on the day he was to travel through Boston. Needless to say, the chapel was packed to the rafters with nothing left but standing room only. It was a time of particular anxiety in South Africa. Nelson Mandela had not been released from prison, and hopes for that was a fantasy held only by a few faithful and most devout. DeKlerk was not yet President of South Africa, and the old Boers were in full and total and brutal charge. The chapel was filled with activists eager to do something about the situation in South Africa, and they wanted to do it then and there. Their moral and political temperature had risen higher and higher, almost over the boiling point. The Archbishop rose into the pulpit after many minutes of cheering from the crowd. In his lilting, musical, almost hypnotic voice, he said, ‘I’m going to tell you all what you most need to hear, the single most important thing you can do for South Africa.’ The sanctuary fell silent as we waited with bated breath, ready to follow him anywhere at any cost. ‘Pray,’ he said softly . . . ‘Pray for my people. Pray for us and with us, daily. Pray. That’s what you can do. That will change the world.’”
It was and is. Let us, therefore, pray . . .
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- How do you feel about your personal prayer time? Is it a source of renewal and inspiration? Are words difficult to find? There are times when it helps to simply sit in silence, open our heart and say, “Nudge me toward you, O God,” then to pause prayerfully for an awareness, a thought, an emotion, rooted in love.
- For many people, music is a meaningful part of prayer. A beautiful hymn tells us, “There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God.” It concludes by asking, “Hold us who wait before thee, near to the heart of God.” In today’s world we are unaccustomed to waiting before God. If you find it helpful, sing this hymn softly to draw nearer…
- What are your deep concerns? Have you taken them to God, the source of strength, compassion, and understanding beyond our own?
- What are your praises? I remember in a staff meeting in Tyler, the Minister of Recreation, in his devotion to open our meeting, said, “I made an interesting discovery about prayer last night.” He went on to say that it was his custom to pray with each of his three children. When he prayed with his youngest, he realized that this little one’s prayers each night began with thanksgiving . . . “Thank you God for Mommy and Daddy; thank you God for . . . .” Let the prayers of children inform our own. During these trying times, are you able to specifically identify and express gratitude each time you pray?
- What are the needs of our community? The world? The traditional prayer of St. Francis begins “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” Ask God for an awareness of how you may embody that ideal.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: “Praying ” by Mary Oliver
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.