Monday, September 28, 2009

Matthew 7:7–11

Matthew 7:7–11 (ESV) : Ask, and It Will Be Given

Synopsis

This passage continues the sermon Jesus has been delivering since the beginning of Chapter 5, and is a further passage on the topic of prayer. Jesus tell us to simply ask the Father for “good gifts,” and He will give them to us. It’s a short enough passage that I won’t do a synopsis this time, I’ll just quote it:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (verses 7–11 (ESV) )

Thoughts

This passage can be misinterpreted to mean that God will give you anything you ask Him for, but that is not what Jesus is saying. The whole passage is about the Father giving good gifts to His children. If you ask your Father for good gifts, then He will give them to you. Obviously people—even Christians—have prayed for things and not received them. So the key to when God will give you what you ask for, and when He won’t, must be in whether what you’re asking for is a “good gift.” Which raises the obvious question, what is a good gift?

The cop-out answer is to say that anything which is according to His will is a good gift. If God plans to do something, and you ask Him to do it, then he’ll answer that prayer. Which may not be as much of a cop-out answer as it seems; if we were always praying perfectly according to the Holy Spirit, all of our prayers would be for things that He has already planned to do; because of the fallen world we live in, and our own sinful hearts, that’s not always the case, and we’re not always 100% in tune with Him.

(I don’t think our being out of tune with Him is always a direct result of our own sins; I think there’s also an aspect that because the world is generally sinful, we are not able to be in tune with Him. But, then again, since we are sinful, that’s a pretty fine distinction to make. Along the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin,” or “what the nature of ‘is’ is,” kind of an argument.)

So one prayer that it is always good to pray would be to pray that the Holy Spirit would guide us. Is that a prayer that the Father would ever turn down? I don’t think so. (Again with the caveats: That doesn’t mean that He will simply strike you with immediate insight, every time you ask Him for the Holy Spirit. (“Please help me understand this passage of the Bible.” ZAP! You understand the passage!) You may still have to work at things, and you may still have to puzzle through things, and a decision may still be hard. But that doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit isn’t there with you. Even with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, there is still an element of faith involved in the Christian life.) (Which reminds me: faith would be another good gift that we could ask Him for that, I doubt He would ever turn down.)

There is one aspect of this passage that I’ve always wondered about, though. Jesus says that if your children ask you for good gifts, you will not give them bad gifts in response; if your children ask for a fish, you won’t give them a serpent. The obvious implication is that if you ask God for good things, He will not answer by giving you bad things. He may not answer the way you want Him to, in some cases, but if you ask for good things, He won’t give you bad things. But what if you ask for bad things? To use Jesus’ illustration, what if your children come to you and ask for a serpent?

“I won’t give you a serpent,” you reply, “because that wouldn’t be good for you. I’ll give you a fish instead, because that would be good for you.”

“No!” they continue, “we don’t want a fish! We want a serpent!”

The only reason I wonder about this are passages which show God getting tired of people not wanting to follow His ways, and simply giving up on them, and letting them do whatever they want. For example, in Psalm 81, it says this:

But my people did not listen to my voice;
  Israel would not submit to me.
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
  to follow their own counsels.

(Psalm 81:11–12 (ESV) )


Or in Romans, where Paul says:

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (Romans 1:28 (ESV) )

I’ve heard my pastor say from the pulpit a few times that passages like this scare him; they scare me too. People refuse and refuse and refuse to submit to God, so He finally says to them, “fine, do whatever you want.”

So what if your children do keep coming to you and asking for “bad gifts;” will you finally just give up, and say, “fine, take the serpent—but you’ll be sorry!” Would God ever do that to us? If I were to keep going to Him, and say, “I don’t care about the Holy Spirit or about your wisdom—I want to be rich in this lifetime!” might He ever say to me, “fine, I’ll make you rich, but you’ll be sorry…”

Frankly, in the context of this passage, in terms of good gifts and bad gifts—gifts according to His will and gifts that are not—I don’t know that this question applies. But it is all the more important to ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit in knowing what to pray for.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Matthew 7:1–6

Matthew 7:1–6 (ESV) : Judging Others

Synopsis

In this passage—which is still part of the sermon that Jesus began in Chapter 5—he moves on to the subject of judgement. He tells us that we should not judge others, and that if we do judge others, God will judge us in the same manner. In verses 3–5 (ESV) , he uses a metaphor of having a log in your eye, and then accusing your brother of having a speck in his, or, worse yet, offering to remove that speck, without getting rid of your own log.

He ends the passage with this, although I’m not sure how it fits in:

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (verse 6 (ESV) )

Thoughts

We should probably talk about the word “judge.” Jesus is not using the word “judge” in a legal sense—recognizing that someone has committed a sin—he is talking about judging in a moral sense. (If you’re appointed a judge, and people are bringing legal cases before you, you are not committing a sin in presiding over those cases!)

Let’s look at an example, to see what I mean: Imagine that a friend of yours tells you that he has committed adultery. How does this passage apply?

  • You can safely conclude that your friend has committed a sin, because adultery is a sin. In talking to your friend you can decide on the best way to phrase it (see below), but a sin has been committed, and it’s not wrong to come to that conclusion. This passage doesn’t mean that when someone commits a sin you can’t recognize it.
  • You are not allowed to decide that this friend is a terrible person, and/or that you’re better than him because you didn’t commit adultery. Yes, he committed a sin (see above), but how bad that sin is will be between him and God—just like the severity of your own sins is between you and God.
  • Along those same lines, you can’t decide that a sin hasn’t been committed, either. You can’t decide that you like your friend so much that it was probably okay in this instance; it was still a sin, even if there were mitigating circumstances. Again, it’s between God and your friend as to how serious this sin was, given the circumstances; you can’t decide that your friend is a terrible person, but neither can you pretend that the sin didn’t happen or that it wasn’t that big of a deal.
  • Without knowing any other details—pretend you don’t know much about your friend’s personal life—you can’t just assume that his wife probably did something to deserve it. Or that his was probably raised badly by his parents, who never told him that adultery is wrong. Or that the person he committed adultery with was probably some kind of harlot. We can look at the facts we know, and make conclusions—in this case, adultery is a sin so he committed a sin—but we can’t start assuming other facts.
It adds a lot of complexity to life, but there are mitigating circumstances that can make God judge sin more or less harshly. If I’m a Christian and give seminars on how wrong stealing is, and then I steal, I’ll be judged much more harshly for that particular sin than a non-Christian would be for committing the same act. Similarly for the fictional friend above; depending on the circumstances surrounding his adultery, God will have a lot of factors to look at, in deciding how severely to judge that person, some of which you might know, and many of which—including the state of your friend’s heart, and other “internal factors”—you will not. This is the type of judging that Jesus tells us we are not to do. It’s not our job; it’s God’s job.

I’m still stuck on why Jesus mentions the pearls to swine piece in this context, however. It’s generally recognized that he is talking about giving the Gospel; if you’re giving the Gospel to someone, and they adamantly refuse to accept it, you should move on. (How do you decide when you’ve reached that point? I have absolutely no advice on that.) Maybe he included this in with a passage in which he’s been talking about judgement because this is an exception to the rule? As in, you have to “judge” that this person is not accepting the Gospel, and decide to move on? Or maybe the people who put together the ESV just chose their section headings badly, and this verse really should have gone in with the next passage, on “ask and it will be given,” or even on its own? But the NIV and NKJV also include verse 6 under the same heading as the rest of this passage, so everyone seems to agree that this pearls before swine verse is related to Jesus’ teaching on judgment.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Matthew 6:25–34

Matthew 6:25–34 (ESV) : Do Not Be Anxious

Synopsis

One way to sum up the last few passages would be to say that Jesus has been talking about “true religion”—something that comes from the heart, and is not about outward appearances. In this passage, Jesus moves on to the topic of worry.

Jesus urges us not to be “anxious about life,” worrying about what we will eat or drink or what we will wear, and then asks a rhetorical question: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (verse 25 (ESV) ). Jesus then gives some examples from nature: birds don’t cultivate crops for themselves, and yet God feeds them; wild lilies don’t make clothes for themselves, yet God clothes them—in fact, He clothes them even better than He clothed Solomon, the richest king Israel ever had. With both of these examples, Jesus reminds his listeners that we are more important to God than any birds or flowers, and if He takes care of them, He will take care of us, too.

Jesus also asks another rhetorical question, which puts worry in its perspective: “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (verse 27 (ESV) )

Jesus sums up with the following words:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

(verses 31–34 (ESV) )


Actually, I like the NIV translation of that last verse even better:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (verse 34 (NIV) )

Thoughts

The first thing to note about this passage is the very first word that Jesus uses, in verse 25: “Therefore:”

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on…” (verse 25a (ESV, emphasis added) )

That tells us that Jesus has not abruptly changed subject. This is a continuation of what Jesus has already been talking about, and what he is about to say is a direct result of what he has already said. And what has Jesus just said? Let’s look back at the passages we’ve looked at, in Chapter 6:
  • Do good deeds to please your Father, not just to be seen by others (verses 1–4)
  • Pray from the heart, to your Father, not just to be seen by others (verses 5–15)
  • Fast because you want to worship God, and be closer to Him, not so that others will see you and think that you’re holy (verses 16–18)
  • Lay up for yourself treasures in heaven, not here on earth (verses 19–24)
I’m not sure if this “therefore” refers to verses 16–18 or if it refers to all of Chapter 6—or all of Jesus’ sermon up to this point, for that matter—but the point is clear: What Jesus has already been talking about should result in a Christian who does not worry. (Or, as it is phrased in the ESV, is not anxious.)

The other thing to note about this passage is that God is not ignorant of our needs. This is not theoretical Christianity, where Jesus is pretending that we don’t have physical needs. God knows that we really do need to eat, and drink, and be clothed. He knows it. And He is able to supply our needs—which brings us to a couple more instances of the word “therefore:”

But if God so clothes the grass of the field … will he not much more clothe you …? Therefore do not be anxious … But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow… (portions of verses 30–34 (ESV) )

Jesus isn’t pretending that these needs don’t exist; he’s pointing us to the God who loves us, and is able to provide for us, and telling us that we “therefore” do not need to worry. What we should be concerned with is seeking the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and letting Him worry about our needs.

But it’s not just that we don’t need to worry; that’s only part of the picture. Knowing what we know about God—who He is, and what He is capable of—what does it say about us when we worry? Let’s look again at verse 30:

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (verse 30 (ESV) )

Ouch! “O you of little faith”—that’s Jesus’ summary of us, when we worry. We don’t have enough faith in the God who has promised to supply our needs. If God is going to supply our needs, then we don’t need to worry—unless we think that He is not capable of it. Or unless we think that He was lying, when He said that he’d supply our needs. But if God is all powerful, and if God never lies (Titus 1:1–4 (ESV) ), then there is nothing to worry about; nothing to be anxious about. We have to have faith in Him.

I think this is—at least in part—what Jesus means by his rhetorical question in verse 25: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” If your whole life is work, then where is the time for worship?

A final thought that occurs to me:. Does this passage mean that a Christian will never die of starvation, or of exposure (from lack of clothing)? I don’t think so. And I say that because I’m sure there are Christians around the world who are dying of starvation right now. Interestingly, as I went back and re-read this passage, Jesus never specifically says that the Father will feed us—just that we shouldn’t worry about being fed. He does say that the Father will clothe us, in verse 30 (ESV) , but he doesn’t specifically say that God will feed us. (He does say in verse 33 (ESV) that “all these things will be added to you,” but he doesn’t specifically say, “God will feed you.”) I may very well be splitting hairs, but if so, then what are we to believe about Christians who do die of hunger? Are we to assume that it’s because they haven’t properly lived out what Jesus said in verses 1–24 of Matthew 6? Personally, I can’t go there. I think the message in Luke 13:1–5 (ESV) applies equally well to Christians as it does to non-Christians; if someone suffers, we can’t assume that it’s because they are being punished, for displeasing God.

But I can say this: A Christian doesn’t need to worry even if that person is in danger of dying of starvation. It may be that God will feed that person, even if it doesn’t seem possible—because nothing is impossible for God—and even if He doesn’t, that person can have the same attitude as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3:8–30 (NIV) , especially verses 16–18 (NIV) (which I’m linking to the NIV version again, because I like that version better for this particular passage).

Of course, all this is very easy for me to say, living in North America, having a good job, and currently being in very little danger of starvation. But it’s where the passage takes us.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Matthew 6:19–24

Matthew 6:19–24 (ESV) : Lay Up Treasures in Heaven

Synopsis

In this passage Jesus continues the sermon he’s been delivering, by urging us not to “lay up” for ourselves treasures here on earth—“where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (verse 19 (ESV) ), but to lay up our treasures in heaven, where they don’t.

He then goes on to say something that seems unrelated:

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (verses 22–23 (ESV) )

He ends this passage by telling us that you can’t serve two masters; you will hate the one and love the other, or you will despise the one and be devoted to the other, but you can’t love them both, or be devoted to both. One has to win out over the other. Meaning: “You cannot serve God and money” (verse 24b (ESV) ).

Thoughts

You could view this passage as the conclusion of the last few passages; when Jesus told us that we shouldn’t do good deeds just to be seen in verses 1–4, and then taught us the right and wrong ways to pray in verses 5–15, and then talked about the right and wrong ways to fast in verses 16–18, in essence they all boiled down to this lesson: don’t lay up for yourself treasures on earth, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. In other words, don’t look for rewards and material possessions during this life, but look for rewards in the next life, and live your life on this earth in such a way as to earn those rewards. (I shudder any time I mention “earning something” from God, but of course I’m not talking about earning salvation, I’m talking about rewards in addition to salvation—Jesus already did the work for salvation—that’s a gift, not a wage.)

The verses I quoted, 22–23, almost seem to be a non-sequitur. Jesus is talking about rewards on earth vs. rewards in heaven, and stops to talk about the eye, and whether your body is full of light or darkness. But really, it’s a continuation of the same thought; Jesus is talking about serving God properly, from your heart, rather than improperly, with false motives. In order to do that, you need to have His love, meaning your body must be full of “light,” not full of “darkness.” One would usually expect to see Jesus talking about the heart here, instead of the eye, and I’m not 100% clear on how the imagery of the eye works. I guess it’s something along the lines of the eye being the window to the soul.

Jesus ends the passage by saying that we can’t—can’t—serve two masters:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (verse 24 (ESV) )

My gut reaction, almost every time I read this passage, is that there is a level of my mind saying that Jesus is incorrect. That he’s being too black and white, in this instance. Just because you love the one master, doesn’t mean that you hate the other one, does it? Isn’t that a little harsh? (To be clear, this is the sinful part of my mind—or rather, one of the sinful parts of my mind—that’s disagreeing with Jesus. The higher levels of my mind recognize that Jesus is obviously correct—he is God, after all.) Remember, though, that God demands sinless perfection of us, and He demands to be the focus of our lives. Anything that takes our attention (and our love) away from Him is sinful. To choose a seemingly trivial example, any time I decide to lie on my taxes, because I’d rather get a bigger return (or pay a smaller amount) than to be honest, I am, in that moment, choosing money over God; I am, in fact, deciding to obey my love of money, rather than to obey God. I’m saying that I’d rather have more money than to do what You want me to do, oh God. That Jesus calls this an act of hate reinforces what a slap in the face this is to the God who loves me (though I don’t deserve it), and, in fact, sent His Son to die for me, to purchase the redemption that I could never have accomplished on my own.

When you consider how fleeting that little bit of extra money will be, is it really worth it to throw God over for a few dollars? “Thank you, God, for sending your Son to die for me, and buying my soul at an incalculable cost, and giving me the gift of Grace that I could never repay—but I’m going to ignore You and Your desires for a few minutes, while I fill out this tax form, and then come back to You after and pretend that nothing happened.” Is that not a slap in His face? No wonder that Jesus calls this hate.

Sometimes, as Christians, our problem is one of perspective. It just doesn’t seem like a big deal.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Matthew 6:16–18

Matthew 6:16–18 (ESV) : Fasting

Synopsis

In the previous passage, Jesus had discussed prayer, contrasting how you should pray with examples of how you shouldn’t. In the passage before that, he discussed doing good deeds, and gave examples of bad ways of trying to do good deeds. In both cases, Jesus was chastising people who do good things just to be seen, instead of having a proper heart in doing them, and in this passage, he continues on this theme, to talk about fasting.

The people who do it the wrong way are making it obvious that they’re fasting. They’re walking around looking “gloomy” (verse 16 (ESV) ), making it as obvious as possible that they’re fasting.

But Jesus tells us that this isn’t the proper way to fast; when you fast, you should compose yourself, and not make it obvious that you’re fasting. Fasting is between you and the Father, and He will see the fasting. Others don’t need to.

Thoughts

Once again, as with the last two passages, the focus of this passage is on the Christian’s heart, whereas the people of Jesus’ day (and ours) were more focused on the outward appearance. “If I’m going to do a good deed, I’m going to make sure that everyone knows about it, so that they’ll know what a good person I am; if I’m going to pray, I’m going to stand on the corner and pray loudly and eloquently, so that everyone will know what a great orator I am; if I’m going to fast, I’m going to look gaunt and hungry, so that everyone will see what a great faster I am.” Jesus is making his point by talking about rewards; if you do these things to be seen, then you’ve already got your reward, which is the adulation you’ve been craving from your fellow man. But if you do them with a proper heart, your reward will come from God the Father—and the obvious implication is that the reward from the Father will be much more satisfying than the reward of having people think you’re righteous.

Jesus doesn’t explain to us what fasting is, or why fasting is important. He simply makes the assumption that we will be doing it; he says “when you fast,” not “if you fast” (verse 16 (ESV) ). Simply put, fasting is going without something—food, drink, sex, sleep, etc.—in order to focus on spiritual matters, and/or get closer to God. I would assume that fasting would normally be accompanied by a lot of prayer; the two just seem to go together.

This isn’t a concept that comes naturally to 21st Century North Americans; the idea of going without anything, for any length of time, scares us. (Or, at the very least, makes us nervous.) There may even be those who worry about fasting from a spiritual sense—who are uncomfortable with an act that seems like we’re trying to earn our way into God’s good books, and in fact which is seems similar to asceticism. There may be some truth to this—any time we’re doing anything that seems like we’re trying to add to what Jesus has done by our own works, it deserves some thought—but you can’t deny the fact that Jesus is assuming we will be doing this. And, for that matter, did it himself (Matthew 4:1–2 (ESV) ). So we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water; fasting is a good thing, which Jesus did and assumes that we will also do. But we also need to make sure—as this passage points out—that we do it with a proper heart.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Matthew 6:5–15

Matthew 6:5–15 (ESV) : The Lord’s Prayer

Synopsis

In this passage, Jesus continues on with the sermon he has been giving and moves on to the topic of prayer. He starts with a negative example, by talking about what the “hypocrites” do: they stand and pray out loud in public places, to be seen by others. Jesus says that these people have received their reward (meaning that there is no more reward coming). In contrast, Jesus tells us how we really are to pray: we’re to do it in private, whether others can’t see us, so that we’re just talking to our Father “who is in secret,” and He will reward us (verse 6 (ESV) ).

And what should we pray? Again, first Jesus gives an example of what not to do; the Gentiles think that God will hear them because of “their many words,” so when they pray they tend to “heap up empty phrases” (verse 7 (ESV) ). Contrarily, in verses 9–13 (ESV) Jesus gives us an example of a prayer—which we now call The Lord’s Prayer—as an example of the type of things we should be talking to God about. (I’m not quoting it here; just click the link to read it on BibleGateway.)

Interestingly, Jesus ends this passage by reemphasizing the part about forgiving others:

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. (verses 14–15 (ESV) )

He’s already included the concept of forgiveness in his example prayer, but he specifically mentions it again to his audience.

Thoughts

When Jesus is talking about public prayer vs. private prayer, I find it interesting that he talks about being “rewarded.” I don’t think of prayer as something to be “rewarded;” I think of it as part of the relationship between us and God. (After all, how can you have a relationship without communication?) In a sense, yes, prayer is its own reward, but the concept of being rewarded is something that just doesn’t come to mind, when I think about prayer. But that’s the language that Jesus uses in this passage.

Speaking of which, I don’t believe that Jesus is outright condemning praying in public, and I haven’t seen anyone else saying that he is either. For example, in our services on Sunday morning the service leader prays out loud, and the Pastor does too, before the sermon. At the very least we have these two public prayers during our service, and we often have others, too. (We also have a moment of silent prayer, at the very beginning of the service.) Praying in public is a good thing to do—and in fact, Jesus himself prayed in public. (See, for example, his giving thanks to God for the loaves of bread and fish, in 14:19 (ESV) and 15:36 (ESV) .) Jesus is talking about the purpose of the public prayer; the “hypocrites” he is condemning here are praying in public not because they want to communicate with God, but because they want to be seen by others, and that is what Jesus is condemning.

In verse 6 (ESV) , it mentions the Father “who is in secret.” I’m not sure what is meant by this phrase, but the different versions I’m looking at all say the same thing, except for the NKJV, which adds in the word “place,” to make it “your Father who is in the secret place” (verse 6 (NKJV) , italics in original—italics in this case indicating words that the translators added to the text, for clarity). Whenever I read this passage, I assume that it’s meant something along the lines of the way the NKJV has translated it, but it’s interesting that none of the other translations I’m looking at do so. So I’m not sure what Jesus meant by talking about our Father who is in secret. Frankly, I haven’t put much thought into it before now. (One of the benefits of this blog, I guess, is that I put more thought into these things—because, remember, I do this for my own benefit, not necessarily my readers’.) This was one example where I specifically went to the ESV Study Bible to see what they’d say about this phrase, but they were silent on the point.

I also find it interesting that when Jesus talks about praying in public vs. praying in private, he says that the “hypocrites” are doing it incorrectly, whereas when he talks about praying empty words vs. his example of the proper way to pray, he says that the “Gentiles” are doing it incorrectly. I would infer from this that the Jews are actually doing it right. Which shouldn’t be surprising; despite the fact that the Jews have got a lot of things wrong, that Jesus has been correcting in this sermon, they have been God’s chosen people for thousands of years by this point, so they must have got some things right—apparently a proper attitude in praying to God is one of them. The ESV Study Bible points out that some other religions simply repeat the names of their gods, or mindlessly repeat phrases or chants, over and over—that’s not prayer, and that’s not what God is looking for from us. But Jesus is using general examples; it doesn’t mean that every Jew prays correctly. Nor that every Christian does; I’ve been to meetings where some people’s ideas of praying were simply saying, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” over and over again—is that real prayer? I don’t know much about Catholicism, but if a priest tells someone to “repeat five Hail Mary’s” (as one sometimes sees on TV or in the movies), is that real prayer?

How about an example closer to home: When I was younger, in elementary school we used to stand up every morning and repeat the Lord’s Prayer—was that real prayer? In my case, I can say with authority that it wasn’t; I didn’t become a Christian until I was well out of elementary school. The Lord’s Prayer is an example of how to pray, but does it do any good to repeat it mindlessly? No. I’m not saying that it’s not a good prayer to pray—it is an example, after all, given by the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ—but like anything else, you have to check your attitude. In fact, on rare occasions we even say it during services at my church; but when we do, I have to really watch my own heart, to make sure that I’m actually praying, and not just reciting.

Now, after all of this prologue, I should probably talk about the Lord’s Prayer itself. Some thoughts on it:

  • Notice that the prayer starts by praising God’s name, and a desire for His will to be done. God should always have the highest priority in our lives—not us. Which is a very difficult thing to do, if we’re honest with ourselves; does anyone really consider God to be more important than himself? I do in my head, but in my heart, I’m still number one.
  • The prayer moves on to ask God to provide for our daily needs—our “daily bread.” Which brings to mind two thoughts:
    • It’s not wrong to pray for your physical/temporal needs. God is in control of everything, so of course He’s the right person to ask to help you have your needs be met. Sometimes people think that prayer should be “purely spiritual,” and that you shouldn’t be bothering God with petty requests like “please help me eat,” but obviously Jesus didn’t agree with that.

      This does not conflict with the first point, by the way, where God should get higher priority than your own needs. You shouldn’t neglect your own needs, when praying to God, but He’s still more important than you are. In fact, even if you have very urgent physical needs—you haven’t eaten in days, and are in danger of starvation—it’s still right and good to praise Him, even as you’re also asking Him to supply your need.
    • But the other point to notice is that in Jesus’ sample prayer, he’s asking for his “daily bread.” He’s not asking God to make him rich; he’s not asking God to give him fame and wealth and power. He’s asking God to meet his basic needs. He’s not even asking for tomorrow’s bread—just today’s. We’ll probably touch on this point in greater detail when we get to verses 25–34 (ESV) —in fact verse 34 (ESV) especially applies here: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Truth!
  • Jesus’ prayer than goes on to ask God to forgive us our “debts” (our sins), and then he says, “as we also have forgiven our debtors” (verse 12 (ESV) ). As humans, we are going to sin, and we definitely need forgiveness from God for our sins. But then Jesus points out—twice!—that we can’t really expect to have our sins forgiven if we don’t forgive people who sin against us. It’s hypocritical to say, “No, I’m not going to forgive that person,” and then go to God and ask Him to forgive me.
    • Another question to ask about this, though, is how literal is Jesus being when he says that the Father won’t forgive our trespasses if we don’t forgive those who trespass against us? If we take this too literally, it would mean that we could lose our salvation, if we don’t forgive people! I think we can safely say that’s not the case, because the Bible says that we can’t lose our salvation, once we have it. So I think that he is: A) using hyperbole, to emphasize how important it is to forgive people, and maybe, B) making the point that if you’re a Christian, you will forgive people—there’s not a question about it. It’s just something that you would do naturally, as a result of the fruit of the Spirit.
  • The prayer ends with a plea to God not to lead us into temptation, but to deliver us from evil. (Or from “the evil one,” depending on which version you have, or if you look at the footnotes of your version for the alternate translation.) Which, again, is an interesting way to phrase it, as we know that God never tempts people (James 1:13 (ESV) ). However, although God Himself will never tempt us to sin, we know that He is in control of every aspect of our lives—and He does sometimes test us. (In fact, the ESV Study Bible points out that the word translated “temptation” can indicate either temptation or testing. They say, in their footnote, “The meaning here most likely carries the sense, ‘Allow us to be spared from difficult circumstances that would tempt us to sin.’”)
Another point that I got from the ESV Study Bible, that I didn’t know before: Many people comment on the wording of “our Father” that Jesus uses, at the beginning of the prayer; they say that the word Jesus used, “Abba,” is a word more akin to our word “daddy.” However, the ESV Study Bible tells us not to make too much of that:

Father (Gk. patēr, “father”) would have been “Abba” in Aramaic, the everyday language spoken by Jesus …. It was the word used by Jewish children for their earthly fathers. However, since the term in both Aramaic and Greek was also used by adults to address their fathers, the claim that “Abba” meant “Daddy” is misleading and runs the risk of irreverence. Nevertheless, the idea of praying to God as “Our Father” conveys the authority, warmth, and intimacy of a loving father’s care, while in heaven reminds believers of God’s sovereign rule over all things.