More from Jesus on hypocrites and the rewards they desire.
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. Do you pray? Why do you pray?? I’m going to assume most of you don’t pray on street corners to be seen by others. To be honest, I doubt anybody who reads this does anything close to that. We wouldn’t stand on street corners and pray for the purpose of being seen by others these days simply because people who stand and street corners praying these days are mostly seen as having mental difficulties (as in crazy), or just as a religious nut job who will be summarily shunned and ignored by all who see them. Because prayer is not something that even we who would pray are usually willing do in public at all.
In the time Jesus walked the earth, prayer was important. It was part how people were formed spiritually. It was an important part of a Rabbi’s job to teach his flock how to pray. We see in Luke that Jesus’ disciples wanted to be taught how to pray by their Rabbi – “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”” Luke 11:1 ESV. Teach us to pray as John (the Baptist) taught his disciples. They expected Jesus to teach them. Being able to pray well was important, and how could one learn to pray well unless taught?
Praying well is not something that is considered important or is widely taught these days. We don’t like to learn liturgies of prayer from our pastors, and generally speaking our pastors don’t like to teach them.
Does this mean we don’t have liturgies?? No, we all have liturgies. If you pray, you already have a liturgy. You DO mostly pray the same things over and over. But they are YOUR prayers. So, at least, we can feel good that we aren’t following someone else’s liturgy.
Except we do. Whether we call ourselves Christians or not, every American is very much formed by an endless liturgy. Our liturgy is repeated over and over, and no apologies are made for its endless, vain repetition. We are exposed to it and formed by it our entire lives, almost from the moment of birth to the moment of death.
I’m talking about the liturgy of advertisers. We are formed, almost minute by minute and hour by hour, by the liturgy of advertisers which assaults us on our screens, in our cars, in our magazines, even within the books we read and shows and movies we watch. We are formed into mighty American consuming consumers. As I’m watching this, the morning news was just turned on, I looked up, and all the latest lottery numbers are scrolling along the bottom. Even the “news” is spiritually forming us to just keep spending, just keep spending.
And so we spend. We spend on our clothes, our hair, our car, our bodies. And we stand on the street corners, in the clubs, at the arena. We follow the liturgy of our lives, and we do our best to be seen by what that liturgy forms us into. And it’s all about being seen, in the workplace, at the movies, in the grocery store, when we are out in public, when we are in private, we want that reward of being seen by others and being told “nice shoes”, “nice car”, “nice jersey”, “nice haircut”. We don’t care about being seen as pious by others, we don’t put on a show of praying in the street, we don’t go out of our way to be seen praying even in church. Not because we aren’t trying to impress others, we try to impress others with almost every purchase we make. We don’t try to impress others with our praying because nobody, including we who claim to be Christian or even just religious, cares about praying. It’s not a priority. It’s not a habit we have, it’s not something we seek to learn to do. If we do seek to learn, it’s mostly because we want to be able to use prayer in our lives and we believe we would get something out of it. (And many of you right now are thinking “Why would I pray if I’m not trying to get something out of it?”) We may not pray to be seen by others, we simply live to be seen by others. We follow the liturgy that forms our lives, and do everything we can to be seen as successful or beautiful in light of that liturgy. And we do receive all the reward we seek, the approval of others.
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. I hope you do pray regularly, and yes, you probably do pray in secret. That is a good thing, because Jesus tells us here that we should pray to our Father who is in secret. God is in secret. He is in that secret, quiet place where you pray. That is about the only place you will find him. It doesn’t have to be an indoor place either, we all know we sometimes hear from God in nature, in His great creation. But it is in our quiet place, wherever that is, that we can pray to our Father in heaven, and he can hear us (he always does), and we might even be able to slow down enough to hear back from him.
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. Let me say this – having a liturgy of prayer that you bring before God regularly is not vain repetition or empty words. The Lord’s Prayer is not empty words. The prayer of St Francis, the prayer of St. Patrick, not empty words. When we come before God to punch A6 on his vending machine expecting him to give us whatever we want, those are empty words. When we view prayer as utilitarian, as a secularist would use prayer (because it is useful), that is vain repetition and empty words.
The primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we think he ought to do. The primary purpose of prayer is not to pester God to get Him to give us what we want. After all, your Father knows what you need before you ask him. He already knows. You don’t need to tell Him what you need. That us not the primary purpose of prayer. The primary purpose of prayer is to be formed spiritually to be more in the image of Christ. The primary purpose of prayer is spiritual formation.
We are spiritually formed by the liturgy of our everyday lives, the liturgy of empire and the liturgy of advertisers. If you don’t use a liturgy of prayer, not in vain repetition (our liturgy of advertisements makes no apologies for endless repetition), but in repetition that it might begin to form us in a new way, then how are we going to be formed by anything other than the liturgy of advertisers? Jesus then goes on to give us a prayer to base our liturgy upon, doesn’t he?
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day 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 evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever. Amen. We are in the middle of a sermon series on this prayer in my church. I’m not going to break this down, I’m just going leave it there and say that this is part my daily liturgy of prayer, and I repeat this prayer at least tree times per day. It’s not vain repetition, but repetition to allow myself to be formed as God wants me.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. How do you become the kind of person who can more easily forgive the trespasses of others? Only by the power of God. But you can willfully submit yourself to that power by using a good liturgy of prayer, yes praying many of the same things over and over, to be formed as a person of God and of prayer, and over time to be formed by that repetition into someone who can more naturally forgive others.
Look at this verse describing the early church in Acts Chapter 2 -“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Acts 2:42 ESV. What is that last bit there?? Did they devote themselves to prayer? No. They devoted themselves to the prayers. They had a liturgy of prayer they were formed by. What was their liturgy? I don’t know, but you can be sure the Lord’s Prayer and the psalms were a very large part of it. We have plenty of prayers. Find your liturgy. Devote yourself to the prayers. Not because of what you hope to receive, but who you hope to become.
“”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: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day 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 evil. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Matthew 6:5-15 ESV