Jesus' Introduction to Prayer
We saw a principle emerge from Matthew 6:5-15 last week: Resting in the eternal love of the Father leads to a consistently active prayer life. Prayer in most religions are weighed by repetition or length. But Jesus gives us a pattern of prayer that is short and simple. Let me help you remember what we said. Muslim prayers in the Koran are poetic, very sublime but they must be repeated at the five appointed times of prayer in order to be properly executed. Hindu — and Buddhist prayers in particular — depend on the principle of repetition of certain mantras or syllables (om, hari, nembutsu, etc) can identify you with God or work you into a divine state. Even the pagan rule of prayer emphasizes repetition. Seneca (Ep 31:5) called his disciples to “fatigue the gods”, “to let each one wear himself out with his petitions” (Martial, 7:60:3). In each case repetition is the soul of the prayer. This idea de-thrones God by making him a grudging giver and it dehumanizes people by making them beasts of burden.
Even the original audience of Jesus, the Pharisees, prayed impressive-but-long prayers which had to be recited more than once a day. Later the Orthodox Jewish community codified these prayers into The Eighteen Benedictions, which every devout Jew prays three times every day, standing up and facing Jerusalem.
Jesus’ words challenges these assumptions, confronts them like a brick wall. Jesus says to the his disciples and to you, “They think that the more they talk the more likely they will be heard. Don’t you be like them!” The people of God in Jesus’ time were confronted not as a prayerless community but as a people overburdened with prayer.
Jesus knew OT wisdom too. Ecclesiastes 5:2, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.” Isaiah 65:24, “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.”
Jesus releases his people from having to jump through hoops, clean themselves up, say the right things to gain access to God. Instead Jesus turns prayer once more into a child’s conversation with their loving heavenly Father. We said last week that the key to prayer is resting in the eternal love of your Heavenly Father. Resting in the eternal love of the Father leads to a consistently active prayer life.
Objection 1: “Okay, I hear you, but what about the NT command in 1 Thess 5:17, “pray without ceasing!” Aren’t there parables in Luke 11 and 18 that encourage repetitive, importuning prayer.” They do. In fact, later in the SOTM Jesus teaches that we should, “Ask… seek… knock!” in persistent prayer (7:7-11). What does this teach us? It does not teach that we have God’s ear by our activity. It does teach us that we already have God’s ear and so we are to be bold in our persistence. There is a reason why Jesus encourages us in Matthew 7 to ask, seek and knock after teaching us in Matthew 6 the foundational truth that it is not by how much we pray that gets a hearing. Augustine once said, “Remove from prayer much speaking, not much praying” (Ep 130).
Objection 2: “Okay, I get that, but if God already knows our needs and what we are going to pray, why pray at all? Could he actually be saying, that we don’t need to say much because much doesn’t need to be said. He already knows!” Yes, but consider who you talk to the most freely in your personal relationships? Isn’t it precisely those friends or family members who know us best, who sometimes know our needs better than we do, that we talk with freely? Therefore the words “he knows” does not need to inhibit prayer, but invite prayer without fear of rejection. For if the Father did not know he would not be God and we have bigger problems. The fact that God knows the situation encourages us all the more to come to him and talk about it. Prayer is not an intelligence briefing for God; it is intelligent conversation with God. The “not much” principle frees us from the amount of time we think we have to spend in prayer in order to get through, and the “he knows” frees us from the amount of information we think we have to give before we are understood. One commentator puts it this way, “Because the Father is good the much is not required; because the Father is God the information is not necessary” (Bruner 1:291).
Martin Luther once preached,
“The gentle delusion [is] that prayer is meant making both God and oneself tired with yelling and murmuring…. But the Christian’s prayer is easy, and it does not cause hard work….It presents its need from the heart. Faith quickly gets through telling what it wants…. God… has no need of such everlasting twadle…. Therefore the ancient fathers have said correctly that many longs prayers are not the way. They recommend short, fervent prayers, where one sighs toward heaven with a word or two, as is often quite possible in the midst of reading, writing, or doing some other task. But the others, who make it nothing but a drudgery, can never pray with gladness or devotion…. [But] the man who is serious in his intentions and takes pleasure in prayer neither knows nor feels any toil and trouble; he simply looks at his need, and he has finished singing or praying the words before he has a chance to turn around. In other words, prayer out to be brief, frequent and intense.” (SM, 142-43)
The Old Testament has this wisdom too. The priests of Baal “called on the name of Baal from morning until noon” (1 Kings 18:20-29) to no avail. Our parents knew this wisdom. As we look to Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, it should make Jesus’ work on the cross even more beautiful and believable. After all, Jesus, who loved us and gave his life for his people himself prays even right now for us at the Father’s right hand.