READ: Matthew 6:5-18
5 “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.
6 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.
7 “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.
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,
15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,
18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
There is a pattern I’d like to point out that Jesus has set up in his preaching. Almost all preachers have idiomatic expressions they use that mark their teaching. These are patterns of speech and repeated phrases that are the stuff of composition. You can always tell Mozart from Beethoven, for instance because certain phrases and rhythm patterns show up time and again. So it is with Jesus. His pattern here is “And when you…” followed by “but when you…”
There are three of these sayings here. The first (vs. 5-6) has to do with hypocrisy; the second (vs. 7-15) has to do with forgiveness, and the third (16-18) has to do with fasting. We lose sight of the forest here because the trees of what we call The Lord’s Prayer are so dense.
So many of us feel like hyprocrites. We sin during the week and then show up at church and are invited to pray. Is that hypocrisy? Or is that the natural course of life with the Lord? He knows we are sinners. That’s no secret. And he knows we aren’t perfect. As we saw several days ago, when Jesus challenged the Pharisees to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” he wasn’t saying we could somehow become sinless. He was intentionally going over-the-top in order to point out to us just how needy we are before him. No, it is not hypocritical to come and sit down with your brothers and sisters, all of whom share your own same frailties, and speak the truth (Eph. 4:15) with your neighbor and with God. What is hypocritical is when we pray such generalities that no truth is ever spoken, no hurts ever revealed, no lies ever confronted, no power over us ever broken. Anyone can pray for the sick, for the dying, for world and national situations, and feel like they’ve “done a good thing”. But that God should do the good thing in you through prayer? Most of us fear what that kind of repentance would be like, what that kind of intimacy might mean. The real hypocrisy is when you stand and pray in public and begin to like the sound of your own voice.
The section that contains the familiar words of The Lord’s Prayer really has to do with recognizing our need and also the opportunity of forgiveness. Each verse is about recognition of need. In verse 7 Jesus talks about how the “gentiles” (that is, everybody else who isn’t a Jew) make long prayers hoping to be heard. I guess they figure they’re SO much in need that maybe the gods will hear them if they say enough. Verse 8 creates the antithesis: your Father knows what you need before you ask. It also creates a dilemma for anyone who isn’t content with a God who invites us to pray. Unbelief demands of God, “Then why should I pray, if God already knows what I need?” Look, the most beautiful, the most awesome, the most majestic, the most powerful, the most loving Being in, out or beyond the universe has invited you to talk to him about whatever is going on in your world. Why do you want to pass THAT up?
Verse 9 is the answer to that objection: God is Father. God is set apart. We, as children, are in profound need of fellowship with Father God. In verse 10 there is no more helpless position we can put ourselves in than to admit that our world is HIS kingdom and that what makes our world work is HIS will. By verse 11 we’ve realized we are no better than beggars. In many old-world cultures people lived their lives in a particular caste of society. There was no mobility possible except by great effort. Those in a beggar class would go to the same land-owners doors every day and hold out their hand as if to say, “Give me my daily bread, please.” This is a position of abject need.
Verse 12 should be familiar to anyone with a VISA or Mastercard, a mortgage or car loan. Wouldn’t you like to see that revolving charge suddenly disappear? Imagine if you knew someone who could “take care of it” with a snap of their fingers. You wouldn’t be in need any more. What a great thought. And verse 13 is like it, but expresses our helplessness in the face of the greatest enemy we might confront. And there is God, inviting us again to ask his aide.
Now, if I haven’t lost you, here comes the “but when you…” of this rather long thought. It started back in verse 7 “And when you pray… (recognize your position of need),” and it ends with the most startling, terrible word Jesus could have given us, “(But when you pray)…forgive others their debts. There is some kind of maxim to be made when it comes to us being the hardest on those who share our particular faults. If you are a critical person you are most likely to be nettled the most by the behavior of a critic. I have one friend who is so disorganized that he drives me nuts. I think his study habits are atrocious. But have you ever seen my desk mid-week? We need to recognize our need for forgiveness – in fact our complete neediness before God – before we will ever be able to forgive those who have hurt us.
Finally comes a word about fasting. Unless you’ve been made to go without a meal by a well-meaning doctor about to test you for some reason, you may never have experienced what it is like to fast for a day. I can tell you, and my pride is welling up even now as I prepare to tell you, that by the third day of a prolonged fast most of us are feeling pretty virtuous. It is like the compensation for not eating is in getting to tell our friends what we’ve been doing and why. Without going up on some mountain alone, try fasting for a few days and not telling others what you’re up to. It isn’t easy to go about your normal business while fasting. But if you do, there’s an interesting “compensation” to be had: by not telling others you will find yourself telling this and oh-so-much-more to God.
I know this was a long entry, but this teaching is one of the key statements Jesus made in all of the gospels. I pray the Holy Spirit will use it in your life.
Pastoral Relief and Retreat
- Wethersfield, CT, United States
- I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.