Wednesday, February 23, 2011

THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT, 15

A Model Prayer

Matthew 6:7-15:  “And when you pray don’t blather like the heathen do, for they suppose that they’ll be heard because of all their words.  So then, don’t be like them, for your Father knows what need you have before you ask Him.  Pray then in this way:
                  Our Father Who is in the Heavens,
                  may Your Name be regarded as holy,
                  may Your kingdom come,
                  may Your will be done,
                  as in Heaven, so on earth.
                  Give us today our daily bread,
                  and forgive us what we owe,
                  as we also have forgiven those who owe us,
                  and don’t bring us into temptation,
                  but rescue us from the evil one.”

Jesus has been warning His hearers of the dangers of becoming play-actors in living the life of a disciple.  He deals with hypocrisy in three specific areas of religious activity which would have meant much to His listeners, most of whom were Jews and, if practicing Jews would have seen these as very important acts of religion: charity (6:1-4), prayer (6:5, 6) and fasting (6:16-18).  All three warnings follow a similar format.

However, between the warnings on hypocrisy in prayer and on hypocrisy in fasting, He digresses from the format and dives deeper into the subject of prayer.  He gives a second warning (6:7, 8) and then follows up with a model prayer (6:9-13).

The model prayer He gives is one of the most familiar passages in the New Testament.  In many churches it is recited at least weekly as part of a Sunday liturgy.  It has even been set to music.  The Didache, an early Christian writing dated to around the middle of the second century recommends that it be prayed three times a day (8:3).  It has probably been memorized more than any other passage, even the 23rd Psalm.  Most of us could easily recite it from memory, even those who haven’t set foot in a church for years.  Most of us are familiar with it by the label that got attached to it somewhere along the way – “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Yet, every time I find myself involved in a worship of any sort in which this prayer has been repeated, I find myself distracted by the irony of doing this in light of Jesus’ warnings that precede the prayer.

He tells His hearers that they are not to “blather.”  The Greek word used is not a common word and it is not clear what the precise meaning is, though it is obvious that He is warning against the repetition of empty and sometimes meaningless words and/or formulas.  And there are, and it seems always have been, such, whether we think of the ancient prophets of Baal and their all day rantings as recorded in 1 Kings 18:25-29, or the present day mantras of modern followers of eastern religions.  “Don’t be like them,” He warns.

And then He tells the reason why we don’t need to blather and rant:  because our Father knows what our needs are before we ask Him.

This is a packed statement.  The first thing we need to notice, is that we pray to a God Who is our Father – not some distant god or gods like the ones to whom the pagans ranted.  We don’t need to make a lot of noise and continually repeat ourselves to gain His attention.  He cares and not only hears, but knows our needs.

This must have been a radical new concept, not only to Jesus’ pagan listeners, but even to His Jewish ones.  Although God is called Father a few times in the Old Testament, He is the Father as Creator, as Begetter, as Master, and not often regarded as a warm compassionate Being who is concerned about His children’s needs.

And we should notice that He knows our needs.  I’m sure that He also knows our wants, but, as a Father, He is concerned about meeting our needs.

The question is sometimes asked, if He knows what we need, then why bother to ask?  I have to say that there are no easy answers to this question, even though many have been attempted.  But I’ll take a shot at it.

First of all, though He knows our needs, we don’t always come to Him with our needs, but rather with our wants.  It’s not that He doesn’t often give us our wants; He does.  But I believe that what He seeks for us in our prayers is that we make our needs into our desires.

We are like little children.  We want stuff, we want toys, we want pleasant things.  We are often satisfied with lesser things than our Father seeks for us.  But He knows what our real needs are.

And I believe that while He desires to meet our needs and does, His real longing is that we seek Him.  Not simply what He can provide, but Him.  As a father and grandfather, I believe that in a small way I can understand this.  I am not a wealthy man.  I cannot (as God) provide rich gifts for my children and grandchildren.  But I can provide them with love and my great desire is for them to reciprocate.

So if we look at the model prayer in this light, we see it not as a mantra to be repeated, but as an example of what God desires to hear from us.  Notice that Jesus said, “Pray in this way,” not “Pray in these words.”  I think we should notice also that the prayer is not the expression of a desire for some uncertain possibility.  Every request in this prayer has a certain answer.  God is going to bring these requests to pass whether or not we pray this passage.

The prayer opens with the address to God as our Father.  This is an intimate personal address.  We should also note that it is to Him as our Father.  It is a prayer expressing not just my own personal worship and desires, but those of all the family.

The three requests that follow are all having to do with Him – with God, not ourselves.  All three are modified by the phrase “as in Heaven so on earth.”  I believe they express the desire for the coming Kingdom to be set up on earth, with God’s Name ultimately being regarded as holy by all, and God’s expressed will – His moral will – carried out.  This is a wish similar to that expressed by John in the last prayer in the Bible, “Amen, come Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).  It is a prayer for that which is certain to come about.  And yet, though it looks to a future coming, it also expresses a desire for the present, for these matters to be lived out in the believer.

The next requests all are personal, having to do with the disciples’ lives. Yet these are just as certain of fulfillment as the previous requests.  God has promised that He will provide “our daily bread” (see 6:25-34).  He has promised forgiveness.  In fact, the believer is already forgiven.

The last two are really one request, expressed as a contrast.  God will not “bring us into temptation”; He doesn’t do that (see James 1:13).  Rather God is the One to be counted on to “rescue us from the evil one.”  That last expression could be speaking of a particular evil situation, or more likely, to Satan himself.

This model prayer is a prayer of dependence, a prayer of trust, a prayer of certainty.  It’s an expression of the relationship of children to a loving Father Who knows and cares about our every need.

Also see: FORGIVENESS.

1 comment:

Judy said...

Hi Bill,

Harry Cohn, the coarse long-time president of Columbia Pictures, had an argument with his brother about the Lord's Prayer. His brother claimed to know it by heart, and Harry bet him $100 that he couldn't quote it. His brother took the bet and said, "...Now I lay me down to sleep..." Harry stopped him, handed him the $100 and said, "OK, OK, I didn't think you knew it."

Bob McCollum