Teach Us To Pray (Matthew 6:7-21)

After a long hiatus, it is hard to get back on the horse. But this feels like a good week to jump back in.

This week, we learn how to pray with Jesus. And, really, we learn a lot more than that.

But before we dive in, let’s stop and take stock of our surroundings. Where are we? And how did we get to this point?

In seminary, I picked up some fancy Latin phrases. One of them was lectio continua- “continuous reading.” That is the fancy ecclesial term for reading the Bible the way we would any other book. Each time you read, you simply pick up where you left off before.

Beginning December 23, the Narrative Lectionary is taking us lectio continua style through the Gospel of Matthew.  So we have an opportunity to really dig into Matthew’s distinctive vision of who Jesus is and what Jesus is about.

At the risk of reductionism, I would say Matthew’s characteristic emphasis is on the Jewishness of Jesus, i.e., his continuity with the Scriptures and faith of Israel. At the end of the 1st century—and particularly after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Rome in the year 70—Christianity and Judaism begin to go their separate ways. Matthew most likely belongs to (and represents the viewpoint of) a community of Jewish-Christians who have been expelled from the synagogue and are feeling hurt.

Part of Matthew’s response to this familial trauma is to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus. We see this in lots of little ways. Let me offer just two examples:

  • Especially in the early parts of his Gospel, Matthew is fond of fulfillment formula. So he will cite some incident from the life of Jesus and then quote from the Hebrew Bible to indicate that Jesus fulfilled this or that prophetic prediction. So, e.g., Matthew is the only Gospel writer who speaks of Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing from Herod and sojourning in Egypt. And when Matthew tells the story, you almost get the sense that he values it primarily as an opportunity to invoke yet another fulfillment formula:

                  13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,                            ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for                    Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph* got up, took the child                      and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod.                      This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet,Out of                        Egypt I have called my son.’ -Matthew 2:13-15.

                  

  • Matthew also defers to Jewish sensibilities. Mark and Luke both record a lot of Jesus’ speech about “the kingdom of God.” But “God” is a sacred word to Jewish ears, not to be thrown around casually. Matthew seems to take some notice of this by changing the phrase to “kingdom of heaven.”

I could go on but you get the idea. Matthew is invested in portraying Jesus as a Jewish figure in a Jewish milieu bringing good news for Jewish people.

And this even shapes the Sermon on the Mount.

So far in Matthew’s Gospel, we have had stories of:

  • The birth of Jesus
  • The genealogy of Jesus
  • The visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt
  • The Baptism of Jesus
  • The Temptation of Jesus

All of this was, in a sense, prelude to last week’s text, when we began the Sermon on the Mount.

Note how Matthew frames the sermon: Jesus goes up on a mountain and gives his followers a law to live by. This is, clearly, a portrayal of Jesus as a 2nd Moses figure.

The sermon goes on for a couple of chapters. Last week we heard the beginning of it, including the Beatitudes. This week, Jesus will teach us to pray.

Matthew 6:7-21

7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; 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.

“Pray then in this way:

                                              Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our  debtors.        13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 

This passage is so rich –so caloric, so dense- that it needs to be taken in bite-size chunks:

7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; 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.

Jesus’ first and perhaps most important advice about praying is this: Prayer should proceed from the assurance that you already have a relationship with God. Mathew has Jesus draw on Jewish tropes about “pagan babble.” The central idea is that God does not need to be manipulated with “many words” (polulogia can also mean “wordiness or “loquaciousness”). God is not a self-important dignitary who needs to be flattered and cajoled. Our relationship with God is so close and so intimate that God already knows what we need. In prayer, all we have to do is speak our truth.

“Pray then in this way:

                                            Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.      13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

 

Like other religious teachers of the 1st century, Jesus offers up a model prayer for his followers. I want to make a series of quick observations:

  • The Greek reads “Pater,” (“Father”), but most biblical scholars believe that this is a translation f Jesus’s practice of using the Aramaic abba to refer to God. Abba is a diminutive term of affection (“daddy”) and suggests a close, intimate relationship with God.
  • The first thing we ask in prayer is not for our own needs but rather for God’s kingdom to be established and God’s will to be done. Priorities!
  • When we do get around to asking about our own needs, we are limited. Given the economy of words, it is striking how the prayer makes use of repetition: Give us today our bread for today. It is (I’m pretty sure) a reference to the stories of mana in the Hebrew Bible. What does God give us? Enough. Enough for today. And, really, what more do we need?
  • The prayer is short, but it makes provision for the asking and offering of forgiveness. In 12-step work, one often hears that praying for someone can be a great way to make yourself ready to forgive, or to let go of resentment.
  • Is it debts or trespasses? According to Matthew: both! So not helpful.

 16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

In the Sermon on the Mount there is a lot of teaching about not performing piety in some ostentatious or attention-seeking way. And this is a problem…in some places. (I spent 4 years in college pretending to pray over my food because people would notice if you did not). But what about churches that are not especially pious? Is there a word here for churches like Plymouth? I am not sure, but if I were going to preach I might start by recognizing that Jesus assumes his followers are fasting (“whenever you fast…”)

 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 I grew up on Sesame Street. And it sure seems like “one of these things is not like the others.” After all of the instruction about prayer and piety, a passage on possessions seems out of place.

But I don’t think it is.

In vs. 19-21, Jesus speaks to the anxious, consumptive, hoarding mindset. I think he brings it up here because worrying about and acquiring stuff is the opposite of praying.

And so the passage concludes with one of my very favorite insights into the nature of human transformation. I don’t want to worry about money. I don’t want to be anxious about my stuff. But how do I become a person who does not worry about money?

Give it away!

Jesus articulates something here that you can learn in any 12-step program: Feeling follows action. I cannot think my way into a new way of feeling or acting, but I can act my way into a new way of feeling or thinking. Act generous and you will become generous.

It seems completely backwards, but it works. It is, in fact, the only thing that works.

By the time we come to verse 21, one thing becomes clear: Jesus not only teaches us how to pray; Jesus teaches us how to live.

In the end, it comes down to the same thing.

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