Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

60. False Prayer (Matthew 6:5-8)*

There is no religious exercise which is more open to abuse than the practice of prayer. The Pharisees had brought their observance of this religious duty to a fine art. For them it must be yet another opportunity for self-glorification in the eyes of the common people who esteemed piety but thought its practice beyond their own capabilities.

It was normal among the Jews to pray standing. But these Pharisees struck an attitude (Lk. 18:11), to be seen and admired by others. Their posturing and open declamations in street and synagogue were all carefully contrived for the sake of effect on others. There were set times for daily prayer, and these hypocrites were even capable of timing their day’s activities so that at the hour of prayer, instead of being at home where petition could be offered privately with sincerity and concentration, they were abroad in the streets. There the ordinary folk would continue about their business, letting prayer go by default. But not so the Pharisee. This was the very opportunity for parading the piety which he revelled in.

On this Plummer has the discerning comment: “As in almsgiving, it is not the being seen, but the wish to be seen, and to be seen in order to be admired, that is condemned. Of all hypocrisies, that of pretending to have intercourse with God ... is one of the worst.”
More than this, with shrewd incisiveness Jesus ‘exposed the calculating hypocrisy which could even cause these sham worshippers to be not only in the street but at the corner of the street when the call for prayer was heard, for then there was the advantage of admiring notice from passers-by in four directions and not just two.

“Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” Both in its form and tense this verb “have” is specially to be noted. It was commonly used in commercial transactions for the receipting of a bill. Thus Jesus declared: They seek a particular reward -- the esteem of lesser mortals than themselves-and they get it there and then; and that is the transaction closed. They need expect nothing from God, because in the first place they are not really interested in what God can do for them, nor do they deserve anything further.

Concentration and Sincerity

True prayer, Jesus went on, will seek the other extreme: “When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father.” It may be that this counsel is couched in the words of an Isaiah passage (26:20) which has the Passover deliverance in Hezekiah’s reign as its background. God can see who are His and respond to their cry, without needing a flamboyant exhibition of piety. Prayer behind shut doors was Elisha’s way when there was special importunity to be made to God (2 Kgs. 4:33). Perhaps Jesus was referring to that, and thus, in effect, was saying: To raise a dead child calls for specially intense concentration in prayer; then let this be the spirit of all your prayer practice; you will achieve it best in complete privacy, not in public posturing.

In such circumstances a man’s mind is uncluttered by outer distractions or by insidious considerations of the effect on others. Then a man can give himself to real prayer which is altogether sincere and “energized” (to use the apostle James’ word; 5:16). The Lord neatly emphasizes essential sincerity by his phrase: “pray to thy Father.” A strong personal awareness that one’s prayer is addressed to the Guardian of one’s life can go a long way towards exorcising any spirit of vainglory.

“Much Speaking”

There is an evil of a different sort besetting the practice of prayer-to mistake quantity for quality. So the Lord’s next warning was: “When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” Jesus built this warning on the Book of Proverbs (10:19 LXX): “In the multitude of words, much speaking (the only other occurrence of this Greek word), there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise.” Evidently the Lord read this passage with special reference to prayer. “He who knows all things does not need detailed information bulletins” (Floyd Filson). But to much prayer-a very different commodity from much speaking -- the Father’s ear is ever open (Lk. 18:1; 6:12).

In modern times the church of Rome and various eastern religions have provided trenchant demonstrations of the need for such admonition. The classic examples from the pages of Scripture are the priests of Baal, who spent six hours howling and capering before the altar of an unknowing god, and the leather-lunged devotees of Artemis who gave two hours’ non-stop vocal moral support to a goddess who could do nothing for herself.

There was, perhaps, some excuse for them. But for Pharisees who piled up phrase on phrase and prayer on prayer in the presence of the God of Glory there could be only censure. Thirtle has provided evidence that it was regarded as good form to repeat each petition twenty-two times, beginning in turn with each letter of the alphabet. (What a contrast the matchless conciseness of the Lord’s Prayer presents!). He has also suggested that this wearisome futile artificiality gave rise to the very word used by Jesus for “vain repetitions”-a far more likely explanation that the ususal one which derives it from the Greek word for “stammer”.

What irony, also, there was in the Lord’s words: “Use not vain repetitions as the heathen do”, for at the time he said this, none were better at it then these Jewish professional religionists. Their own Law had a pointed lesson for them, if only they chose to heed it. The smallest item in the equipment of the tabernacle was the altar of incense-one cubit square and two cubits high (Ex.30:2). And the incense itself was to be beaten “very small” (30:36). “God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few: (Ecc.5:2).

Unresolved Problem

The Lord’s own reason for simple unprolix prayer is a reminder of the obvious: “Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.” To some this is a difficulty of no small magnitude. Let it be a divine paradox to be accepted whether understood or not. From one point of view to tell God what we want or what we need smacks of human presumption. Nevertheless, God seeks the prayers of His children. He wants them to pray to Him, and-somehow-takes account of what they ask for. So there need be no rationalistic inhibitions.

Modern Practice

This brief section of the Sermon on the Mount has important lessons for the Lord’s people in modern times. Especially is it true regarding the offering of prayer in the ecclesia. The temptation to pray so as to make an impression on the rest may prove too strong to be resisted. And, not infrequently, for reasons akin to this, prayers proliferate into long pointless repetitions, mere word-spinning.

It is a sad irony that those best qualified to use with understanding the short pattern prayer given by Jesus have come to avoid its use almost completely, out of respect for the Lord’s warning about “vain repetitions” and out of disgust for conventional abuse of these divine words glibly and regularly parrotted off with hardly a thought to their meaning.

And when thought is given to some of the alternatives- long repetitious platitudes and flat circumlocutions, punctuated by an over-frequent “Heavenly Father” - when consideration dwells on the uninspiring inadequacy of a big proportion of what passes for prayer in the average ecclesia, the irony becomes double-distilled. Assuredly the Lord’s people have much to learn in these exercises in godliness.

Notes: Mt. 6:5-8

Use not. This Greek aorist has a peremptory flavour: Don’t even consider doing this!

Vain repetitions. Another suggestion derives this word battalogeo from Heb: batah, to talk thoughtlessly; Ps. 106:33; Pr. 12;18.

They think; dokeo implies: they are pretty confident.

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