Popular Prayer Pitfalls (Matthew 6:5-9a)
Popular Prayer Pitfalls
(One Lord: So Great a Salvation)
March 10th, 2019
I. Prayer Pointers?
Prayer is an interesting thing. When you are young in faith, you're often looking for help when it comes to prayer. When to pray. How to pray. But as you mature in your faith, the idea of someone critiquing your prayers seems stranger and stranger. We think, “prayer is personal; prayer is me talking to God; it's between me and God; no one can tell me how to do that.”
But this morning, Jesus wants to push back against that idea. He wants to coach you. He has pointers to give you, pointers on prayer; instructions about how to pray. Are you open to hearing those?
If you are a follower of Jesus, a disciple, a student, then it should be your deepest desire to learn from Him, about anything in and everything, in any area to which he speaks. As we return to what we've called the 'mountain message' of Jesus in Matthew chapters 5-7, we learn that Jesus wants to speak to us about this subject of prayer. So let's listen to by looking together to Matthew 6:5-9a.
II. The Passage: "And When You Pray" (6:5-9a)
Now let me remind of what Jesus is doing here at the beginning of chapter 6. He's correcting the influence of other teachers in regard to the three main acts of Jewish righteousness: almsgiving or charitable giving, prayer, and fasting. Notice that Jesus does not do away with these Jewish customs. Instead, he seeks to move his disciples to a God-focused, Kingdom-informed approach to each of these three topics.
We talked a little last week about giving to those in need. But beginning in verse 5, Jesus moves on to the topic of prayer. This is what he says...
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  Pray then like this...”
In this passage, we hear Jesus doing two things: first, he is teaching his disciples about how NOT to prayer. Second, he does and will go on to instruct them about how to pray. Now, in teaching them, in teaching us, how not to pray, Jesus points us two major prayer 'pitfalls'. Let's look at those together as we work through this passage. So...
1. How Not to Pray: Our Tendencies (6:1, 5-8)
In verses 5 and 7, Jesus makes it clear that He is responding to, and warning his students about, some of the current thinking and fashionable practices concerning prayer.
Look again at the first part of verse 5: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.”
Jesus provides us here with what we could call our first “prayer pitfall”: praying ‘people-directed’ prayers.
As Jesus makes clear, many of the revered, religious teachers in the Jewish community wanted to be looked up to and praised as the holiest of holies. Even though they explicitly directed their prayers to God, other people were their real concern. They wanted the respect of their peers and the esteem of the 'common people'.
And so they would stand in the synagogues, or even strut out to the street corners, and perform for their audience. And “perform” is the right word here. Remember what we learnede last time? The word we translate as “hypocrites” is the Greek word for actor.
These so-called religious giants were not praying to God, they were performing for others.
Now you may not stand on the corner of Yuma and Watson and offer up your prayers, but which of us has not been more concerned about how our prayers might sound to others than how they might sound to God? Which of us has not, at some point, wanted to impress others with our prayers or, at least, hope our prayers were acceptable to others.
We might make our prayers flowery. We might use our prayers to reveal how much we know. We might deliver lectures in our prayers. We might correct other through our prayers. We might feign emotion. We might make our prayers extremely long or extremely short.
We might pray portions of Scripture we've memorized. And we might do all of this just to be noticed, to be praised, to seem impressive… or because we care too much about the approval of others.
Here's what's clear: Our sinful tendency for human approval can often influence how we pray.
Do you remember the verse that began chapter 6, a verse 1 that sumamrizes everything through verse 18? Look again at verse 1: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
But look at how Jesus responds to this practice in v. 5: Truly, I say to you, [those who use prayer as a means of drawing attention to themselves], they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
By definition, prayer is communicating with God, not with others. When we forget this definition, prayer is no longer prayer; it is simply some kind of poetry reading or soliloquy.
But be careful. Jesus is not teaching us never to pray in public. The Gospels record many instances of Jesus praying in public. Acts speaks of the Apostles doing the same. For Jesus, the issue is not ultimately public versus private prayer, it is praying for attention from others versus praying for an audience of One.
But Jesus give us another “prayer pitfall” in verse 7: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
Here we see Jesus warning his disciples about using prayer as a magic mantra.
You know what a mantra is, right? It’s a phrase repeated over and over again in order to bring about some magical or supernatural outcome. That’s what Jesus is warning against here.
As you know, the non-Jewish people had their own gods and goddesses. Typically, their prayers contained long lists of different names for the god they sought to sway, names repeated over and over, because they believed that one of these names would prove to be the magic key that caught that god’s attention. They believed certain formulas were imbued with magical properties. If said enough times, they would prove effective in bringing the person praying his or her desires.
Obviously, Jesus knew both his present disciples and his future disciples would have enough exposure to these pagan forms of prayer to be possibly influenced by them.
Now again, we don’t consciously think of our prayers as ‘magical mantras’, but we can, nevertheless, still fall into this same trap. Which of us has not prayed a prayer simply because we thought it was the right thing to do, that somehow God would bless us if we simply went through the motions? Which of us has not, at times, trusted more in the power of praying, in the power of the act, than in the power of God?
We may not be praying to gods or goddesses, but we too can see prayer, not as a means of speaking to God, but as a tool to manipulate God; to bend God to our will.
Here's the 'bottom line': Our sinful tendency for control can often influence how we pray.
But look at how Jesus counters this pagan practice in verse 8: Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Notice that Jesus does not simply say, “OK, don’t babble and, um... keep your prayer brief.” No, he responds to this pagan practice by pointing us back to the nature of God.
Jesus says, “There is a fundamental difference between the gods of the pagans and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God is not a genie that you have to coerce to get what you want. He is not a distant force you attempt to invoke through this or that ritual. No, he is a Father who knows perfectly what you need, even before you ask.”
In some sense, the root issue here is control. We can foolishly believe that ritual prayers and magical mantras are tools that allow us to control the divine, that allow us to get what we want, but Jesus is teaching us here that God is in control, and that prayer is an act of faith, a submissive gesture, not to the unknown, but to One we know knows us. But Jesus doesn't simply point our sinful tendencies. He also points us to God's priorities. And so...
2. How to Pray: His Priorities (6:6, 9-13)
In thinking about how to pray, it's important to remember what Jesus has already taught us. Jesus has reminded us to live for God’s approval, to want nothing more than to please the One who sees in secret. What does this mean when it comes to how you pray? It means even if you are in the middle of a crowded stadium, Jesus is teaching us here that prayer should always “shut the closet door”, that is, shut out the influences below and look with 'blinders' to the One above.
Is that your practice when you pray? Do you take time to push out the distractions? Do you work hard to get your heart and mind into a 'closet', even when surrounded by others? Don't rush into prayer. Don't get used to being distracted. God is calling us to take the time and to make the mental space to focus on him and him alone.
Now, I want you to notice something else here. Up to this point, Jesus has challenged his hearers on matters of the heart. Why are you praying? How do you view prayer? He has challenged the sinful, human tendencies of pride and control that can affect the way we pray. But look at where he goes in verse 9.
Not only does Jesus instruct us about how not to pray, and about how to pray, but even more specifically, he teach us about what to pray. The prayer we find verses 9-13, that prayer traditionally called the “Lord’s Prayer”, is not in a separate section here. It is an essential part of Jesus’ response to the prayers of the pagans. For his disciples, it is a simple prayer of submission, in contrast to the pagan’s long-winded prayer of manipulation.
Our sinful tendencies influence not only the practice of prayer, but also the content of those prayers. Think about it. Why would Jesus provide us with a prayer if he did not think that in some way, our typical prayers as human being were somehow lacking? Whether our prayers requests are focused on personal gain or our perspective is simply shortsighted, Jesus, as our prayer teacher, our prayer coach, giving us 'prayer pointers', wants to elevate our vision.
But how should we obey Jesus’ instructions to pray this prayer? I think our context can help us answer this question. As you may recall, this prayer was also given in the broader context of Jesus’ response to the hypocrisy of the Jewish teachers.
We also know that in Luke’s setting for this same prayer, Jesus teaches them this prayer as a response to their request: “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1) So we have to ask, “What were these Jewish men expecting?” Surely these guys were taught to pray from childhood, just as Jesus had been.
I believe the answer to our question becomes clearer when we understood the practice of prayer for Jews in the first century. In Jesus’ day, every Jew was expected to pray three times a day. And this time of prayer was not simply about offering up one’s personal requests.
No, there were, what we could call, liturgical prayers that were learned and offered up at the appropriate times. These prayers included the Shema, based on Deuteronomy 6:4, and the Shemoneh Esreh, or the “Eighteen Benedictions”. And in addition to these standard prayers for the community, various rabbis were known to add their own compositions into the mix.
And this is most likely what Jesus was doing. Jesus was not overthrowing the customary prayer practices of his Jewish audience. Like John the Baptist, he was warning them about abuses and giving them a new prayer to add to their daily prayers, a prayer that reflected the hallmarks of his own teaching.
So for those listening to Jesus, obedience to his teaching here would have meant praying this prayer on a daily basis. But is this how we today are supposed to heed Jesus’ teaching? Why wouldn’t it be? Yes, this prayer should be a model, but not simply a model.
Notice in verse 11 the reference to “this day” and “daily” bread. The most natural way to take Jesus’ instruction is that he was calling his followers to pray this prayer on a daily basis. In fact, this is the only prayer that Scripture explicitly calls the Church to prayer. But why?
The teacher and writer R.C. Sproul makes this statement: “Hearing [the Lord's Prayer] over and over again may lead us to mindless repetition, but it also may burn these words, and the underlying principles, into our minds. Repetition in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, it's one of the most important ingredients of learning, because it's the rare person who masters a concept or a principle by hearing it once.”
I think that based on what we’ve seen about the effects of sin on our prayer life, based on how Jesus has warned us, I believe that we can say that on the sea of human tendencies, the Lord’s Prayer is meant to anchor us to God priorities.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. Jesus has already warned us about magical mantras. Simply uttering this prayer is not going to do anything. But through daily prayer and deepening prayer, God wants to work on our hearts. Jesus has given you a prayer. Will you use it each day? Will it inspire you each day to living according to God’s priorities, and not simply your own tendencies?
III. Power and Perspective
Next week, we'll dig into verse 9-13, into this “Lord's Prayer”. And we're going to do this in light of his call not only to daily prayer, but also deepening prayer. Our goal should be to deepen our understanding of this prayer so that when we pray it each day, we, by his grace, through faith, will be conformed us to His priorities.
Brothers and sisters, friends, which of us not stumbled in regard to prayer? Which of us has not found himself or herself tumbling into these same pitfalls? Praise God that our assurance and comfort is not first in the prayer Jesus gave us on that mountain, but in the power and perspective he provided on that hill called Golgatha. It was the Son of God's death that makes it possible for you and I to live as reconciled children of God, as those who can also cry out, “Abba, Father”. It's thru the power of his resurrection that we desire His priorities, rather than our sinful tendencies. This passage has affected the prayers of billions down through the centuries. But only the gospel can change our relationship with the One to whom we pray.
If you're like me, it's easy to get discouraged when it comes to prayer. But let's pray together this morning, praising God for both the prayer correction and prayer connection Jesus makes possible. Let's allow that love to drive us to our knees and to His throne, each day.