Jesus Teaches About Prayer

Matthew 6:5-15 Commentary

Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider:

Helmut Thielicke preached to the church in Stuttgart in the declining days of Germany’s “reign of terror.” Screaming sirens, underground bomb shelters and fear surrounded his congregation. When Rev. Thielicke started a sermon series on this very text, his congregation was still worshipping in the Church of the Hospitallers. The series ended in a parish house. The venerable church had been bombed to the ground.

Yet for all this chaos and despair (as Thielicke wrote it), “the Lord’s Prayer was able to contain it all. There was not a single question we could not have brought to it, and not one question that was not suddenly transformed if it were put in the form of a prayer.” For a congregation desperate for “a valid comfort” able to stand up to a world where “the furies” had been unleashed, the gospel- contained in the Lord’s Prayer- became that very comfort.

One of the great problems we have in preaching this text is that it is too great. Every word is a diamond and every facet a sermon. Yet like many treasures, priceless and wonderful (think family, water, education, life itself), we take it for granted. We yawn. We run through the “to do list” while intoning the words of the Prayer on autopilot.

This prayer- one of Jesus’ best gifts to His church- becomes a cross-stitch to prettify the walls of our liturgies or table graces, rather than the “valid comfort” that can stand up to the furies of Hell itself.

In order to taste what Thielicke’s congregation experienced about prayer and specifically the Lord’s Prayer, we have to see the gospel running in and through and surrounding this text.  The text is all about a relationship with God grounded in grace over against religious activity grounded in self. Jesus’ teaching on prayer is nestled in the larger teaching (Matthew 6:1-18) of how we practice righteousness. For centuries, rabbis argued the most essential faith practices were three—almsgiving, prayer and fasting. (Or we could say: faith in relation to others—almsgiving, faith in relation to God-prayer, and with self-mortification of flesh through fasting.) It’s natural that Jesus, the great Rabbi, when he talks about piety, turns to these three.

We immediately notice Jesus assumes his disciples are doing all three. (Uses “when” not “if”.) Jesus does not need to make a case for these practices; it’s a given. (Is it still?) What Jesus does for all three practices is prop open the hood and motion us to examine the engine underneath. Is our righteousness running on the cylinders of Self? Or is something else powering it? How do we know?

As applied to prayer, we ask is our prayer-life powered by notice from others or notice by (a hidden) God? To put another way: do we want to get glory or do we want to get God? Jesus says it’s possible for even a good thing like prayer to be driven by very bad motives– a desire for control, for applause, for image-management. (See textual point.)

A good way to check our heart on this, says Jesus, is secrecy. Move prayer from the street corner to the inner room. “The truest measure of a man is who he is when no one is looking.” But Someone is looking; the One with whom we want a relationship. (How would a lover feel is you only paid attention to him or her in public? Used. Might the Lover of our souls feel the same way?)

If our prayers are about a relationship, then it’s not manipulating outcomes. In verses 7-8, Jesus challenges the kind of prayer that thinks it can merit a hearing from God, given the right prayer statistics. If I just pray long enough, intensely enough, with the right words, and repetition of words, then God has to answer my prayer. This too is Self-powered prayer–prayer becomes a formula or technique to control God. The point here, again, is not about a relationship, it’s about what I want.

(What an anxious way to pray, by the way– having to make the correct diagnosis, given in the proper petitions and with the right quality of fervor. What peace that our Father knows the diagnosis even before I kneel, vs 8.)

After Jesus exposes the wrong engine for prayer, he gives us the blueprint for what a grace-engined, child-postured prayer looks like. We enflesh this structure, this skeleton, with the particularities of our times and place. (Many note that this prayer is better termed “The Disciples’ Prayer” than the “Lord’s Prayer, but look how much John 17’s ‘Lord’s Prayer’ flows out of the structure given here.)

Right off the bat, we see two things: 1) the prayer is not, first of all, about us and 2) it is predicated on a familial relationship. (The literary center of the whole Sermon on the Mount is the phrase “Our Father.”)

We see the first half of the prayer puts first things first–adoration of God. Actually the prayer adores God all the way through: He’s above us in the heavens, He’s holy, He’s personal- having a name, He’s King, His will is good, He cares about big things (like “earth becoming as it is in heaven”), He cares about small things (like being a giver of groceries), He’s a forgiver, a sovereign and a deliverer.

One of the most important things for our faith is to get our magnifying glass off “the furies,” off our fightings and fears, and on to our Father. Only then will our hearts find rest. Only then will His concerns be given priority (Your Name… your Kingdom… your will.)

As Pastor Ron Hutchcraft put it, the Lord’s Prayer moves “from the galaxies to the groceries.” While the prayer places our needs in a second-place position, it does not eliminate them. All our cares–from physical (food) to spiritual (forgiveness) to communal (we too forgive) to moral (deliver us from evil) are to be brought to our Father.

Did you notice the predominance of the 1st person plural in the second half of the prayer? Eight times–us, our, we. We are not just “supplicating” for our own needs, this is intercession for others. We automatically are made concerned for those who have no bread, who are “in debt,” or temptation. (2 Cor 11:29.) We take horizontal gospel so seriously, that we ask God not to forgive us until we forgive others.

The teaching on prayer ends with the acid test of whether we live out of a grace-based relationship with God or out of a merit-based, self-based one: forgiveness. The former forgives others and keeps open the conduit of God’s forgiveness; the latter blocks both. This “forgiveness postcript,” wrote Bruner, shows that forgiveness is “almost single-word summary of both the Christian gospel and the Christian ethic.”(Matthew, pg 257)

Textual Points:

1). The Greek word ” «?ποκριτ??ς” (vs 5)  is “stage-actor” and the verb “theathŽ?nai” (vs 1) – is literally “to be theater to.” It is not irrelevant that throughout Jesus’ youth, the Romans were developing Sephorris, a large city about a mile from teeny Nazareth, and the big civic building being erected at the time was the amphitheater.  One wonders if Joseph in his construction business found work in Sepphoris?  Righteous Jews did not approve of theater, as actors would perform immoral plays in honor of pagan gods. Jesus was saying when we do piety for others, we are like an actor who puts on a false role to honor a false god and win applause.

2) “Tameion” (vs 6) means “the inner room, store room, or closet,” and it was the one room in a typical Jewish home that had a door on it, sometimes a lock too.

But consider this– in Jesus time (and still today) pious Jewish men wore prayer shawls or “talits.” “Talit” means “little tent,” referring to the Tent of Meeting, where God and humans communed. Since it was not always possible to pray in the Tent of Meeting, a man could wrap the shawl around him and cover his face and meet with God in his talit, in “the little tent.” Teacher Raynard VanderLaan points out some rabbis referred to this enveloping in a talit as going into your tameion, your “closet.”

P.S. Susanna Wesley, mother of John, Charles and a dozen other children, made her own version of a talit. When she prayed, she sat in a corner of the kitchen and flipped her apron over her head. Her children knew she was not to be interrupted then, for this apron was her “closet.”

3) “Peirasmos” (vs 13) – testing, trial, temptation. This petition is thorny. James 1 says “God tempts no one,” so some opt for the translation “Lead us not into trials.” But would the God who led his people into the wilderness have us pray our faith be not exercised in trials? Tasker summarizes: “May life’s trials not become for us occasion of spiritual temptation.” (pg 74) But is it really a trial if it’s not also a temptation? Peterson’s Message sidesteps the word altogether but cuts to the chase: “Keep us safe – from ourselves and the Devil.”

Illustrations to Consider:

Remember when Starbucks had “The Way I See It” quotes printed on their disposable cups? Here is quote #247, from Bill Scheel of London, Ontario. Bill asks “Why in moments of crises do we ask God for strength and help? As cognitive beings, why would we ask something that may well be a figment of our imaginations for guidance? Why not search inside ourselves for the power to overcome?

Sounds empowering. Yet all Bill’s, and our culture’s talk, about self-reliance and independence and “searching inside ourselves for our own power to overcome” –does that truly make us more human? Or does it make us more like megalomaniacs? If I shared a coffee with Bill, I’d wonder aloud, “What if when we are most desperate, we are actually most sane? What if it’s then that we realize that we need more than self? What if prayer is the recognition that we are more than cognitive beings; we are, in fact, little children?”

A Roman emperor returned from a great victory. A little boy was seen burrowing his way through the cheering crowd to get to the emperor. Immediately a burly bodyguards scoops him up and scolds “Hey kid, you can’t do that! Don’t you know who is in that chariot? That is the emperor!” The boy replies, “He may be your emperor—but he is my father.”

God is more than emperor to us—the majestic, cosmic God, through Christ, has become our Father. And Jesus commands us to pray that way. We are His little children. (cf. Mt 7:9-11.)

My preschool children don’t come to me sporadically, formally or anxiously. They don’t come with an eye on what others think. They come constantly, informally, trustingly and often annoyingly. They come knowing they need me, knowing they lack, and they don’t know. And sometimes, they come just wanting to sit on my lap. “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” Mt 18.3.

Lora A. Copley is blessed to be a wife, a mother to four children and an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church. She serves as a director for Areopagus Campus Ministry, a ministry of the CRC classes of Iowa at Iowa State University.


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