“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” – Luke 6:46
Jesus’ first instructions to his disciples (talmidim) on prayer are found only in Matthew’s account (Matthew 6:5-8). In context, he had just finished talking to them about ostentatious almsgiving (Matthew 6:1-4). God does not reward good deeds done for the sake of appearances. Acts of almsgiving and philanthropy done for the praise of men will receive no reward from God. When doing good deeds, it’s best to keep a low profile.
This context is important to Jesus’ discussion prayer because the theme of ostentation is carried through: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the street corners to be seen of men,” (Matthew 6:5a).
Several things about this verse jump out at us. First, Jesus doesn’t say “if” you pray, but “when.” He takes it as a given that his followers would be a praying people.
Second, some people, whom Jesus called “hypocrites,” deliberately position themselves to be seen by others as praying. Ostentatiously giving alms (charity) and praying are both forms of spiritual exhibitionism which Jesus condemns. Prayerful public posing and posturing are ways of getting others to say, “Oh my, look how spiritual she is – she’s always praying.” Those who gain recognition and praise from men for their gifts of charity and exhibitionistic praying have, in that human praise, the full reward for their “spirituality” (verse 5b).
Jesus then teaches the correct way to pray: “But whenever 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,” (Matthew 6: 6 RSV).
Note: Jesus is not here forbidding collective prayer. The early followers of Rabbi Jesus often gathered for prayer (Matthew 18:19-20; Acts 16:13 etc.). Praying in a group as Christians is not the same as ill-motivated exhibitionistic praying in the public square to gain recognition from men.
Prayerful Long Windedness
Once Jesus had addressed spiritual exhibitionism in both deeds of charity and in prayer, he turned his attention to another dimension of prayer: long windedness: “When you are praying, 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,” (Matthew 6: 7-8).
“Gentiles” were non-Jews – pagans or heathen. They employed in their prayers to the gods some peculiar practices. In this section, the Greek word used to describe pagan prayers is battalogeo. It appears no where else in the New Testament or in contemporary secular literature. Robert Mounce, in his commentary on Matthew, suggests that it is a word made up from another Greek word: battarizo, meaning to “stammer or stutter.” Mounce explains that “Behind the word is the practice of the heathen who developed long lists of divine names, hoping that by endless repetition they would somehow invoke the name of the true god and receive what they wished. To know and pronounce correctly the name of a god was thought to provide the power to manipulate that god,” (New International Biblical Commentary – Matthew by Robert H. Mounce, p. 56).
Of course I believe that when Jesus was originally giving this teaching, he was speaking in Hebrew, not Greek. The key thought here is “many words.” God is not impressed by the sheer volume or loudness of our words. In fact, in Judaism, one of the highest forms of prayer is silence: “Be silent, all flesh, for He is aroused from His holy habitation,” (Zechariah 2:13). Worshipful silence before God often enables us to hear the “still small voice” (I Kings 19:12). Silence can be “listening prayer.”
God heard the silent prayer of Hannah, Samuel’s devoted mother though “…Hannah spoke only in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard,” (I Samuel 1:13). When we appear worshipfully before the throne of God, he “hears” the desires of our hearts and often grants them, “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and he shall give you the desires of your heart,” Psalm 37:4). After a time of barrenness (I Samuel 1:5), the Lord granted Hanna a son who became a great prophet.
Any of you who have been parents have experienced the phenomenon of knowing what your children are going to say before they say it. You know when they are “on approach” what is coming next: “Dad, I need some money to buy that video game,” or, “Mom, I want to stay up later tonight to watch (whatever).” God, our loving Father, is the same, “…your Father knows the things you need before you ask him,” Matthew 6:8b). God anticipates his children.
In this article we have learned that God is not impressed with ostentatious giving or praying. Those of us who perform acts of piety to “be seen of men” have, in that human approbation, all the reward we’re going to get. It’s best not to be a spiritual exhibitionist or an ostentatious giver and prayer. That’s what it means by “don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.”
We also learned that God is unimpressed with overlong and overloud prayers. A silent prayer can be as effective as a noisy one – if not more so. The rule of thumb is this: The subject of the prayer dictates the appropriate length of the prayer. On occasion, Jesus prayed all night, but many of his prayers were relatively short. You can bet there were no wasted words in those prayers; everything he said had substance. Surprisingly, Jesus didn’t always pray for healing or exorcism – he simply took authority and cast out the disease or the demon. Jesus could do this because the prayer that gave him this authority had already been done.
In the next installment, we examine the so-called “Lord’s Prayer” from a Hebraic perspective.