Ok, last time we looked at different ways that people might talk about spiritual practices, and then we honed in on the Lenten triptych of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. Using the sermon on the mount we looked at Almsgiving and generalized it to acts of mercy. This time we are going to look at prayer through the lens of Matt 6:5-14 when Jesus teaches what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. Here are the past entries: Background, #1, #2, #3
First, whole books have been written about the Lord’s Prayer. I would not be surprised to find that whole books have been written about individual petitions. So, 500 words, you do the math.
Jesus prefaces the prayer itself with another warning similar to that about almsgiving which I labeled getting your heart right. If you are performing a spiritual practice, but the intention is in the horizontal dimension, that is you have an audience in your neighbor, it is not really a spiritual practice. The giving of alms to be seen giving alms might still be a good thing, but it is not a spiritual practice. Jesus says you’ve already received your reward. Likewise he says before prayer, don’t do it like the hypocrites. It might be harder today to imagine a reward attached to being seen praying which might actually help with the intent. The hypocritical part is not public prayer or praying with others. Too many Lutherans especially are uncomfortable with this. And I have heard these verses as the excuse. (We are also given to more formal prayer or collective prayer, so our evangelical friends bubbling prayer lives seem, well, so extroverted.) The hypocritical part is when the emphasis in prayer is not on communion with the Father, but upon some effect here. The reward of a spiritual practice for the practitioner is seeing God. If your eyes or your heart is looking elsewhere, that just isn’t going to happen.
Jesus then attaches a second warning about prayer – empty phrases and many words. He also attaches a note of pure gospel. Just thinking off the top of my head I’ve heard a Lutheran use this as a whip against “ramble-on-prayers”. I’ve also heard a Baptist use it as a scourge against “dry-as-dust” written prayers. Empty phrases and many words can be in the eye of the beholder. I was once a parishioner in a congregation where the prayers of the church took no less than 15 minutes. Every hangnail, birthday party and brother’s-sister’s-uncle’s-college-roomate’s passing wish was brought to the congregation in prayer. And each was prayed from the heart complete with “ahs”, “ohs”, “please Lord’s” and flowery phrases. Parson’s wife could tell you how that was just so not me. I was raised in a family where if you weren’t on your death bed, there is no reason to be bothering the whole congregation with your troubles. But a great Christian lady who I got to know at that congregation, without knowing my thoughts, once shared that the prayers were just so overwhelming to her. So what does this mean?
Look at the note of pure gospel. Your Father knows what you need before you ask. Prayer is not a quid-pro-quo. If I put in 10 mins of prayer, then I will get what I need. No! You are not looking for the perfect words that will sway God to give you what you desire. The outcome of prayer does not depend upon you at all. Prayer comes from the Gospel. You Father knows what you need and is not going to deny you that because you used a contraction or said too many “ahs” or mumbled on like an idiot. Instead, be at peace. You are entering the presence of the one who wishes you Shalom. You can be at peace recognizing like Moses you are standing on holy ground or Solomon at the Temple. You can be at peace with very formal planned prayer. You can be at peace wrestling or arguing with God, think Jacob and Abraham. You can be at peace being very expressive like David dancing. The warning is about prayer as a work. Prayer is not a work. It grows out of the core of the gospel. Prayer is one of the ways Christ promises his presence with us. It is that presence that we are seeking. Everything else our Father already knows and daily and richly provides.
I’ll continue next time with the Lord’s prayer itself.