Prayer

“And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites: for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father who is in secret, and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee. And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him” (Matthew 6:5-8).

It should be evident what prayer is all about. Unfortunately, all too often, its primary purpose gets missed.

In the midst of what is popularly called the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus addressed the three primary religious practices of righteousness in Second Temple Judaism: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (Matthew 6:1-18). He does so in light of the theme set forth in Matthew 5:17-20: one’s righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and scribes if they desire to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, while Jesus is directly addressing His disciples in view of the crowd (cf. Matthew 5:3), He continues to critique the standard of righteousness professed by scribes and Pharisees, elsewhere considered rather hypocritical (Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 11:37-54). Righteousness is not a thing done to be seen by others; if that is one’s motivation, then one gains nothing from his or her heavenly Father (Matthew 6:1).

Jesus began His discussion of prayer by again pointing out the motivation of the “hypocrites”: they stand and pray publicly so as to be seen in both religious venues (the synagogue) and “secular” space (street corners) in order to be seen by men (Matthew 6:5). As with almsgiving, so with prayer: they have their reward; people see them and think they are holy and righteous (Matthew 6:2, 5). Instead Jesus commended going into an “inner chamber,” an inner room, and pray in secret, and the Father who sees in secret would reward them (Matthew 6:6).

Jesus then turned to a concerned rooted in the practices of the pagan nations: the belief that they would be heard by divinity for their battalogesete, literally “stammering,” but here referring to constant repetition of phrases (Matthew 6:7). Jesus assured His disciples and His Jewish audience that God already knows what they would need before they asked (Matthew 6:8).

What are we to conclude from Jesus’ instruction? We do well to note how Jesus brings us back to the original point of prayer: communication with God. When we pray we are making petitions of God; it is not about impressing other people. If in regular conversation with people we prattled on with ceaseless repetition of phrases, those with whom we converse might think us mad. God wants to hear our prayers; God wants to bless us; but God wants us to speak with Him in prayer; God is not some mystic force which requires a certain mantra repeated over and over in order to be summoned.

Is it wrong to pray in public? Jesus does not condemn prayer in the synagogue; prayer will become an important feature of Christian assemblies in the new covenant (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:15-19). Jesus Himself prayed in public at times (John 11:41-42, 12:28). Jesus’ concern is less about location and more about motivation: are we praying so as to impress others or to humbly pour out our souls before God? Granted, much prayer, especially intimate prayer, is best done in the inner chamber; plenty of prayer subjects have no place in the assembly or in the public square. If we pray in the assembly, we do well to focus on how we can build up each other by making thanksgiving, petitions for protection, strength, and need, keeping the focus on God (1 Corinthians 14:15-19, 26). If we pray in public, we do well to pray for the needs of the moment, keeping the focus on God. We easily delude ourselves into justifying praying in such a way as to impress men as opposed to really speaking to God. We must stand firm.

Is it wrong to use the thoughts of others, or to repeat ourselves in prayer? Jesus will go on to provide the Lord’s prayer as a model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13); God gave us the Psalms to this end; the Psalms themselves sometimes feature a repeated phrase (e.g. Psalm 136:1-26). Jesus condemned a pagan practice which did not respect God as god; we must resist any such pagan practices, vainly imagining that if we repeat a phrase over and over again, however substantive, God will listen to us or give us an ecstatic experience because of it. Jesus exhorts us to maintain prayer as a form of effective and meaningful communication with God. God knows what we need; prayer is for our benefit more than His. We can use the words of others, appropriating them for ourselves, and pray in a way that glorifies God; we can pray halfheartedly and absentmindedly with our own thoughts and thus dishonor God. In life we tend to need the same things; our prayers will most likely seem repetitive since life is rather repetitive. We must not sacrifice meaning in repetition; God is not a genie or force we conjure up through some kind of ritual incantation; He is our Creator and the ultimate Power of the universe, and we do well to speak with Him accordingly.

Humans, then and now, are easily tempted to forget about the purpose and meaning of prayer. It is easy to turn prayer into a ritual incantation or a pretense given to manifest holiness; neither practice honors God. Prayer, first and foremost, is communication with our God, the God of the universe, who already knows what we need. We do well to pray in thankfulness and sincerity, meaning what we say, focused on God in prayer, to His glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sinners and Hypocrites

But when [Jesus] saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).

“Ye serpents, ye offspring of vipers, how shall [the Pharisees and scribes] escape the judgment of hell?” (Matthew 23:33)

Much is made of how Jesus responds and reacts to people. It is interesting to see how people will go out and treat people in entirely different ways and base it all upon Jesus!

We have all seen the stereotypical “street preacher.” He has taken it upon himself to let everyone in his community know that they are sinning and sinful people. He is often found on street corners or in public places on university campuses and in similar places, and he does well at yelling at people about fornication, drunkenness, worldliness, perhaps consumerism and materialism, and so on and so forth. No one really listens, of course, but the street preacher goes home, justified in his own mind. He told those nasty sinners about their sin, just as Jesus condemned sin– or so he thinks.

There is also the universalist or the politically correct “tolerant” person of our day. If there is condemnation for anyone, it is because they are intolerant. Most everything and anything is acceptable, unless it harms another person, but then again, those who harm others were probably harmed somehow themselves, and so even then God will understand. This person also feels justified, for after all, Jesus Himself had compassion on people– or so he thinks.

These are both extreme positions– and they are extremely misguided. Nevertheless, we can discern from Jesus’ ministry a way forward when it comes to working with different people in our midst.

The first thing we should notice is that sinners sin. This statement should not be too terribly surprising or earth-shattering, since everyone is sinful (Romans 3:23), and sinners are known to sin, but it has been forgotten by many who profess Jesus. Too many have bought into the idea that America is somehow like a “new Israel,” and therefore we need to have “prophets” running around condemning the people for their sins. The New Testament teaches that the church is the new Israel (Galatians 6:16, Philippians 3:3, 1 Peter 2:4-9). There are times when someone does need to take up a “prophetic” style role and warn Christians about complacency and sin (2 Timothy 4:2), but we do not see Jesus or the Apostles out castigating worldly people for their sin in their faces. Quite the contrary– Jesus has compassion toward the multitude of people, those worldly, nasty sinners, even those among God’s chosen people, Israel (Matthew 9:36)! He was lectured by the religious authorities because of His association with the “sinful” of society (Matthew 9:9-13). Jesus our High Priest associated with the sinful!

While this might seem scandalous, we must understand what Jesus is attempting to do. He does not associate with the sinful to promote or justify sin. Even though He does not condemn the woman caught in adultery, He does send her off with the warning to “sin no more” (John 8:11). We never see Him participating in sin or approving of sin (Hebrews 4:15, 5:7-9). Instead, Jesus knows that the sinners know that they have sinned and are sinning, and they know that they need redemption (Matthew 21:28-32). They follow Jesus en masse because He is willing to sympathize with them and point the way out of their sinful misery. This is the message of the gospel that leads to the redemption of sinners to this very day (Romans 1:16)!

Therefore, we should not be surprised when sinners sin. While Christians are to abhor sin (Romans 12:9), they are not to abhor sinners, for they themselves have sinned but have been redeemed (cf. Titus 3:3-8, etc.). Pointing fingers at sinners and declaring to them what they already know is counterproductive: it pushes the sinner away and leaves a very bad taste in his mouth. It makes it that much more difficult to show such a one the way of Christ.

The real challenge came less from those who knew that they were sinful and more from those who thought that they were not. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day thought that they were holy and blameless, and sought to be separate from the “sinners” of the land (cf. John 9:34). They would bring down pronouncements to the dirty masses, but refused to get dirty themselves (Matthew 23:1-4). For such people, Jesus’ message was completely offensive: all of their great pretenses of holiness and sanctity were in vain, their great knowledge and study was being debased, and their authority was being completely undermined. They already had everything figured out; since Jesus’ message did not fit what they already knew, He was the blasphemer (cf. John 7:45-52, 9:24-29). Jesus spoke of them rightly: they were already “healthy.” They had no need of a physician in their haughtiness (cf. Matthew 9:12-13). They were righteous– just ask them (Luke 18:9-14)!

Such people received little compassion from Jesus’ words. His strongest denunciations– even a declaration of condemnation– were poured out against these religious authorities (cf. Matthew 23:1-36). Jesus treated them this way not out of hate or envy but out of love and a desire for them to wake up regarding their true spiritual condition. Jesus did make prophetic denunciations, but it was not to the worldly sinners of His day, but to the religious professionals who had compromised God’s purposes in order to advance themselves and their own agendas!

While many such people exist in churches today, there are some in the world who justify themselves and their conduct. Notice how Jesus did not comfort such people in such delusions. Such attitudes must be rebuked out of loving concern for the soul of someone who thinks they are healthy when they are not, righteous when they are sinful, sanctimonious as opposed to humble (cf. Galatians 6:1-2, 1 Peter 3:15-16).

Jesus’ interaction with people in His own day should be our model for how we work with people today (cf. 1 John 2:6). Yet let us notice how Jesus treated sinners one way and hypocrites in quite a different way. Woe to us if we treat the “sinners” like the “hypocrites,” and the “hypocrites” like the “sinners”! Instead, let us recognize that sinners sin, and we need to help show them that the way of Christ is life and the way of sin is death with all compassion and mercy (Romans 6:23, Titus 3:3-8). Nevertheless, we must oppose those who would justify themselves in their sins or sanctimoniously declare their righteousness apart from the truth of the gospel of Christ. Let us strive to conform to the image of Jesus the Son and point people to Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry