In announcing His edicts on Kingdom living, the King contrasts what passes for the social and religious norm for the revised norm that expresses Kingdom Life.
His social commentary holds nothing back in displaying the flaws of the religious norm. This is particularly evident when it comes to prayer. His critique is not just about the behaviour of the hypocrites, He’s even got insight on being different non-Jewish practices. This critique is important because Jewish history was known for years to be ever wary of what the neighbours were doing.
Addressing these issues, Jesus has two things to combat these issues. The motive and the content.
Motive: Embrace the Secret Life
When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites …Matthew 6:5
The hypocrites behave in a way that garners attention from others. They love the attention, they love to be seen to be holy, they love to be seen to have a direct communication with the divine being. They love all of that. Actual content of character is largely irrelevant, because it’s all about what you look like.
That was the critique in Jesus’ day and it’s not too dissimilar today. People are hired to help individuals create and display an image. Specialists, advisors and researchers spend hours on surveys and opinions to pitch their client in the right light. It’s not just an activity for celebrities either. Being seen to be just right and doing right things is clear in how people portray their piety.
Church circles have developed their own celebrities based on charisma and the skilled orator. In the age of things being democratised, now larger numbers of people can make their own platform for their acts of righteousness to attract the attention of hundreds, thousands and even millions.
The direction of Jesus is about motive that informs practice. That motive when it comes to prayer is to appreciate that this is a discreet and intimate communication with our heavenly Father. As such, the method of this communication has to reflect that intimacy and discretion. It’s not for show. It’s not to be seen to be righteous in the eyes of others. It’s to cherish the opportunity to have ongoing communication with the Father who sees in secret. It is for the purpose of God and God alone. That also determines not just the method but the content …
Content: Embrace God’s Kind of Prayer
When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do …Matthew 6:7
Babbling. What a word. A word familiar to those who have had the experience of being bombarded with someone who talks and talks and talks to the point where the point of what they’re saying was lost a long time ago.
Some in religious circles back in those days thought that babbling was a sign of great piety. They could impress God with the amount of words they offered and the elaborate and flowery kind of words. Whether they meant what they said was largely unimportant. When they even knew what they meant wasn’t an issue. The issue was to ‘impress’ God with their vocabulary and their stamina for long-distance waffling.
The King puts a stop to that approach to prayer. The secret life of prayer that Jesus instructs is a simple one. So simple that people have even thought that reciting the way that He teaches to pray is sufficient as prayer in itself, even though this wasn’t the intent of what He was presenting.
The instruction to pray in this way gave His disciples an idea of what God is looking for in prayer. Acknowledging the grand nature of the almighty and appreciating the privilege of still having that intimate contact to refer to the Creator as our Father. Being minded to do that which is in line with His will and his Kingdom. Expressing complete dependence on Him for provision. Appealing for restored vertical relationships that reflects a commitment to restoring horizontal relationships. The whole prayer reflecting the peacemaking purpose of the Kingdom that marked the inhabitants as nothing expresses that desire for peace than the practice of forgiveness.
Prayer often seems like an excuse to unleash a shopping list of things that God’s got to do for us. Prayer sometimes comes across as an opportunity to revel in how well things are going. There is room for making requests in prayer. There is room for rejoicing in prayer. What the King outlines, however, is that the kind of prayer that God loves is one where requests and rejoicing are founded on the primary desire for the Father and His Kingdom to be real on earth as in heaven. Founded in the desire for the Holy Father to look out for us as His children, not just for me as His child. Based on the desire not for God to please us, but for us to be pleasing to Him in our activities and in our relationships.
This is a challenge to common sensibilities about the religious life or the pious life. Will we be sucked into the show-off, self-centred approach? Will we want to keep with those around us in their ever expansive and pretentious efforts to show themselves to be holier than you? Will we slip into a routine pattern of repeating phrases and terms that we heard others say that gives the impression we know God, when in reality we have no idea what we’re talking about and less of a desire to truly know this loving heavenly Father?
Or will we hear, obey and teach others to observe what King Jesus says?
For His Name’s Sake
C. L. J. Dryden