The Power of a Prayerful Private Piety

With one specific address to begin followed by six petitions to God, the Lord’s Prayer is no doubt the world’s most famous prayer. As we approach this text we must remember the first rule of proper hermeneutics (interpretation) is that every text comes to us in a certain context and it’s in that context where we find the meaning of a particular text. What is the context for the Lord’s Prayer in v9-13? Matthew 6:5-8, where see the warning against inappropriate prayer.

Inappropriate prayer was being done and prized in the community. How so? We see this in v5, “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.” We also see this in v7, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words.” Two things come to the surface when inappropriate prayer comes into view. First, a desire to be seen by others as holy, and second, a desire to be recognized by others as scholarly. Holy and scholarly, a well ordered life and a well ordered mind. These are two things that in and of themselves are great and commendable even. But when sought after for the sake of public recognition or personal fame, the end of v5 becomes the appropriate response to these kinds of inappropriate desires, “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”

The root of both of these false desires in v5 and v7 is simple but seems to be ever entangled around the human heart. When these people pray on the street corners in the middle of the day as people are walking by, or when they use many words with multiple syllables within earshot of everyone else around them they desire their fellow man to recognize them, honor them, and esteem them. This error in prayer is the same error with giving to the poor in v2 and with fasting in v16. So, taking v2, v5, v7, and v16 all together we can see this is all really just another way of saying, these people want their fellow man to praise them and give them glory. Jesus warns us against this. He warns us against using religious external practices, like prayer, to gain applause by our demeanor or language.

In every age believers need to be enormously cautious of this. We may think this only happens out in the world of sports or in Hollywood, but do not be deceived. We do not have a spotless history. Ever since Genesis 3 back in the garden mankind has been eager to exchange the glory of God for the glory of self. One current example is that we now live in the day of the celebrity pastor, where those pastors who are cool, hip, and trendy are making waves in the culture, gaining thousands of church attendees, and earning million dollar salaries. Even in our own reformed circles we prize pastors and theologians of the past and the present. We look to them for guidance, buy and read their books for wisdom, and go to their conferences to be near see them in person.

I remember the first time I went to Together for the Gospel conference in 2008. John Piper was one of the speakers and between sessions he was up front waiting to speak and a line of hundreds of people formed to meet him and get his autograph. I couldn’t understand why such a thing was happening at a conference for pastors, and for a time was a bit put off…until reflecting on that later and saw that was I jealous of those at the front of the line who actually got to meet him. The same Genesis 3 desire to make much of self, if we’re honest, is never far away. Of course there is a fine line here right? Biblical guidance, good books, and helpful conferences are a thing we could grow immensely from. But nonetheless the temptation remains, even for us, to do ministry or be ministered to, for our glory.

Well, as v5 and v7 show the evil and inappropriate kind of prayer, v6 and v8 show us the remedy. v6, “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.” v8, “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” Also, as before this parallels the rest of this first section of chapter 6. v4 shows a true reward comes from God to those who give in secret, and v18 shows a true reward comes from God to those who fast in secret. Here Jesus reminds us of the importance simplicity and sincerity in prayer. Prayer, though informed by deep theology, isn’t meant to be a theological treatise that is performed before an audience of some kind, but simple, an activity of sincerity. Craig Blomberg, in his commentary on Matthew, says Jesus shows us that “…the remedy for our sinful streak aiming at self-glorification is the power of a private piety.”

There is one passage that clarifies these principles very clearly, Luke 18:9-14, which says, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

In the first verse of this parable, Luke tells us that Jesus is talking to some people who thought they were righteous and viewed others as lower than themselves. Then Jesus gives his parable. Two men went into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector, or a Publican. Jesus then says some things seemingly crazy and ridiculous. But if we’re to see this parable as crazy or ridiculous, we must view the parable from Jesus’ culture and context rather than our culture and context. You see, when we read that there was a Pharisee and a tax collector here, our minds immediately go to one place: the Pharisee is the bad guy and the tax collector is the good guy. Why? That’s what our world has been taught. This was not what Jesus’ world would have felt or believed after reading or hearing this parable. They would have been shocked and astonished because Pharisee’s in their day were the spiritual superstars. If one of them showed up in a church today the people would be so impressed with his “godliness” that within a few weeks that they’d probably make him an elder or a deacon, they might even want him to be the pastor after a few months. Everything about the Pharisee’s life looked perfect, his faith would be robust, his singing would be loud and confident, his praying would be full of knowledge and eloquent, his family would be neat and in order, his dress would be proper and put-together…from the outside looking in it would look like this guy is the real thing, a leader among leaders, a Christian among Christians, and a saint among saints.

We can see this in the text, look in v11-12, “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Everything Jesus warns us against in Matthew 6:5-8 is present in this Pharisee’s prayer. His so-called righteousness was really unrighteousness. Look back at his prayer. He says God once, and then says “I” five times, boasting about how squeaky clean and morally upright he is. This isn’t a prayer, it’s a boast. It seems that to this guy, God ought to be impressed with him. The harsh reality here for us in this example, is that when we come to God like this, or have these thoughts within us, we don’t find mercy from God, we find judgment.

Now to the Publican. In Jesus’ day, the average tax collector was nothing less than a crook who robbed people of their livelihood. They not only were traitors to their own people by being employed by the Jewish enemy, Rome, these people would take Jewish money and give it to Rome. And to make matters worse, most tax collectors were filthy rich because they took more money than they needed from people, and kept it for themselves. These people today would probably be included with the likes of those who sell drugs to children, pimps and swingers, and those leading, using, and trading in the sex trafficking industry. These are not good people, and everyone knew it. For one of them to walk into the temple like this guy not only never happened it would simply be astonishing.

This guy’s prayer was really different. He came in, couldn’t even lift his head to heaven or stand up, but bowed down, probably crouched in the corner saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He knew who he was, he knew he was a fraud, and that he had stolen more than he could count from innocent people. He knew that he was more wicked than he could ever imagine. He knew that he had sold out to Rome and was bankrupt morally. What’s crazy about this, is that after he prays, he received mercy and was made right with God. You see v13-14? “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” While everything Jesus warns against is present in the Pharisee’s prayer, everything Jesus encourages us toward is present in the Publican’s prayer.

So, in beginning to teach us about appropriate prayer Jesus begins by telling us what inappropriate prayer is. What then is they way to pray appropriately? We’ll answer that question over the next many weeks as we unfold the Lord’s Prayer phrase by phrase.

 

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