And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Matthew 6: 5-8
One thing that is a real feature of the Sermon is that Jesus constantly takes ideas or observations and then turns them around. We have already seen how Jesus reveals that legalism and literalism lead to a walk that falls short of what is required of the Father. In this chapter Jesus challenges behaviours that are commonly seen.
Such behaviours have not died out with the days of Jesus 2000 years ago, but we can see many of the same things in the modern age. We have the public announcements by wealthy people or celebrities of huge donations to charities – and yet their lives at home are somewhat questionable. Hypocrisy is what Jesus confronts here. And this is also what He confronts in today’s reading.
And so we have a second reference by Jesus to the hypocrites. You know, it is very easy to think to yourself that almost anyone else could be a hypocrite and yet not you yourself. We know that hypocrisy is not good, a weakness of character, and we like to think of ourselves as good and with strong characters. But bear with me for a minute. Both with yesterday’s subject and today’s – think about this carefully. What is it that you allow to be seen publicly about your life and what do you try to hide away?
Does your life in secret match up to what you do in public? Honestly, I think we all need to ask ourselves such questions from time to time. Because, honestly, please do not be offended by this, but I think we can all be a little bit hypocritical from time to time. So take a good long look at the person in the mirror first of all when you think about hypocrisy. Check that you are not guilty in any way. And if you are – then as with so many things in these studies, we have the wonderful work of Christ on the cross of Calvary. We can reckon this sin as pinned to the cross, dead with Christ, and our lives redeemed and sanctified for service to the Father. Amen.
But do you notice that Jesus also speaks about rewards? And for the second time, talking about the hypocrites, Jesus says that they have received their reward in full. Why? Think about it: what is it that the hypocrite really wants? We know that there is a strong element of self-righteousness with any form of hypocrisy, but what is really happening?
The hypocrite wants to look good before other people. He or she wants others to think that they are the ‘bees knees.’ They want to receive praise, to be told ‘well done.’ They wish to be placed in positions of authority because of their well-received deeds. They want a degree of control over others.
May I quickly rush in to say that you should not automatically be feeling guilty if someone recently told you ‘well done’ about your life. It is good and right that we encourage one another, and improve the motivation in each other to do well. But the problem is when you are looking for this approbation from men and women rather than from the Lord in heaven. It really does not matter what people on earth think about what you do and the way that you do it, if you know that you are pleasing your Father who is in heaven.
But then think of those who are receiving praise, who are looked up to by others. Who are known to give large amounts into all the collections. Who are always heard speaking up when it is a time of open prayer. Those who always seem to be in the ‘public eye’ in your congregation. Yes – they have their reward in full!
I bet that there are some people who really look up to this kind of person. I bet that there is a virtual queue of people to hug them or shake their hand after a meeting (or maybe before the meeting). Maybe people are hoping for the invitation to that person’s home for coffee or even a meal. This person is receiving the praise of men and women, has influence over those who worship him or her, and is the centre of attention. That is what they wanted and that is what they received. So indeed Jesus was telling the truth: they have their reward in full.
But here is an interesting thought. Is that person ever first in the queue to do the washing up after coffee and cakes in church? Does that person ever help to put out the chairs or to put them away again? Does that person ever help with the gardening around the church building? Does that person ever get their hands dirty when there is a work party in the church to do repairs or decorations? Does that person go to visit the sick and the lonely? Does that person bring into the church new people? And if so, has this person only chosen from the ‘elite’ or has he or she dared to talk to the ‘riff-raff’? If someone is new in the church, smells a bit and does not know how to dress appropriately, does this publicly favoured person let themselves shake the hand of the newcomer or hug them? Or do they criticize and complain about letting ‘low-lives’ into the church?
I could continue with many more such questions, but I think you get the idea. And I will be fully open with you and say that there are some things in this list of questions that are a challenge to me and leave me slightly red-faced… Maybe you can think of something that has the same effect on you?
And so, the next time there is open prayer in church, are you already thinking that you can guarantee that a certain person will publicly pray and use florid language and take a long time? You know, sometimes these people (and maybe you?) find it embarrassing or difficult to cope with a time of silence. And yet, I am sure that there are many silent prayers being said during such times. These prayers are just as valid and just as effective – and maybe more so than that loud and florid prayer.
But the other side of the coin is this – and it is certainly implied in today’s reading – there is supposed to be a prayer life at home. Do you have one? Every day? And do you get to the point and ask what is needed? God does not need an explanation, because He already knows. He even knows what you will pray before you pray it. And yet He still wants us to ask. It is part of our ongoing relationship with Him.
Just listen to small children with their parents or grandparents when you see them in the shops or in the park. You will often hear the phrase, ‘Mummy, can I…’ or ‘Daddy can I have…’ And you know that the requests will often be predictable, that the parent knew before the words that their child would ask this. This is part of the normal ongoing relationship between parents and children.
We are children of the Father who is in heaven, and so why not have such a relationship? And again think of the children. Are the requests full of florid words? Are they lengthy requests full of explanation about what they want and the history of the… whatever it is? Of course not! Children in this situation are direct and to the point. And this is what Jesus tells us we should be like in our relationship with the Father. It is not being over-familiar or disrespectful. We do not need to use archaic language with ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou.’ Could you imagine that child in the park using such language?
I will not comment on the reference to pagans. The crux of this teaching has already been touched on here. But I think that we would hope that pagan prayer is mostly ineffective (because they do not actually pray to the Lord who rules in heaven). And so it is with these florid prayers. Get to the point!
I could say more about the language of prayer… Who has heard the request for a ‘balm in Gilead’ for someone? Who has heard a request that the Lord ‘undertake’ for someone? (Actually that last one either makes me laugh or fills me with horror depending on the subject of the prayer – because we all know what an undertaker is in modern usage…). These are examples of the florid language.
When I was 16 and a newly baptised member of an evangelical church, I began to attend the weekly prayer meeting. I have to admit that I stayed nearly always silent. Why? I could not pray like the others. It seemed almost like a completely different language was being spoken!
So let that also be a lesson – because use of this florid language actually makes it harder for young or new people to join in and take part. And as today’s reading says clearly: it is unnecessary.
Remember, Jesus is teaching us how to have a better relationship with the Father in heaven, and to walk more closely in relationship with Him. It is He who we should want to please, and not men or women. Walk close with the Lord every day!