Without doubt, the model prayer known as The Lord’s Prayer or Our Father is the best known of all prayers. Many of us memorized it as children, as part of our religious upbringing. While reciting it over the years, however, some of us understood its meaning while most of us were only repeating words. This is ironic, as Jesus instructs us in the immediate context to not do the very thing we were told was required—repetition of the prayer itself.
I remember the first time I read this prayer in its biblical context, shortly after my conversion. I thought to myself, “Clearly, this is not a prayer to merely be repeated, but a pattern for our prayers. In other words, Jesus is not encouraging religious ritual apart from a transformed heart. Jesus is so concerned about the heart of the person who prays that he precedes His teaching on prayer with a warning against pretending to be righteous.
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4)
The key words “in order to be seen” are critical to a proper interpretation of the entire passage. Impressing men with outward displays of righteousness was a key problem among the scribes and Pharisees, the hyper-religious people of Jesus’ day whom He rebuked as hypocrites (mask-wearers). In the verses that then follow, we learn how not to pray like them.
We should not pray for the praise of men (vv. 5-6).
Clearly, it is not practicing righteousness through prayer, or any other means, that Jesus rebukes here. It is the self-centered motive underneath the acts of righteousness. A belief in self-righteousness is what Jesus attacked. See, for example, Matthew 23:1-8.
When we pray, we are not to do so in order to be recognized or praised by men. If we do, then the only reward we will receive is the one we craved in the first place—praise from others. Instead, we are to pray only with God’s glory in mind.
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.
We should not pray with pointless words (vv. 7-8).
Jesus continued His instruction on how not to pray. More than once, He expressly tells us to not be like the hypocrites. 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. [For more on God’s hatred of empty prayers, see Matthew 15:1-9.]
Prayer is not a means by which we impress God. It is simple communication of a child of God with his or her heavenly Father who already knows what we need and thoroughly understands our heart. Therefore, to gain an audience with Him we do not need to repeat meaningless words and phrases, or use a higher form of language than our common speech. Take off your religious masks and pour out your heart to Him. He knows what we need before we even ask Him. What a wonderful promise! This assurance of our heavenly Father’s love and care for our every need should compel us to pray from our hearts.
[This post is adapted from last Sunday’s sermon, Pray This Way, Part 1.]
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