Thursday, September 03, 2009

Matthew 6:5–15

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


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.


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.

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