Bible Study Wednesday: The Gospel According to St. Matthew 6:5-8

As promised on February 7, 2013 (from Spiritual Formation Thursday: The Jesus Prayer), today’s post of Bible Study Wednesday will be about Jesus’ teaching about prayer from Matthew 6.  I wanted to do this to show that praying the Jesus Prayer over and over again is not against the Bible.  This is a bigger problem than some of you might think, many very conservative evangelical Protestant Christians who, frankly, think the practice of the Jesus Prayer is against the Bible and a totally useless prayer.  I cannot agree with this because of the personal experiences I have had with the Jesus Prayer and the experiences I have seen other people have with it.

First off, I should acknowledge that this passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount.  If you will indulge by rabbit trail, the Sermon on the Mount was not one sermon, but most likely pieces of several sermons, preached many times and in many places.  But St. Matthew, most likely did not want to say well in this place Jesus said this and then over here he talked about this, etc. (he also probably did not remember where Jesus said all these things).  Alright back to the main point.  Jesus starts his preaching on prayer, by bringing up something that his audience would have seen.  He brings to mind someone, everyone in his audience, and pretty much any audience for that matter, would hate: the hypocrite.  They make a show of their pious nature, going out onto the street corners and in the middle of the synagogue to pray.  Most of the people Jesus was talking to would be praying rote prayers, like the Shema, binding their hands and foreheads with leather straps and boxes.  But in contrast Jesus tell people to go into a private place and pray there.  God will hear their prayer, even if no one else does.  So Jesus does not want use going out into the middle of the local church building and pray loudly, possibly interrupting other people’s prayers.  Or going out to the busiest part of the city and calling out to God, so that everyone can see how religious/spiritual we are.  This does not change us as prayer should, it puff us up.

Jesus then moves on to talk about how the Gentiles pray.  He does not want us to pray the same way the Gentiles do.  We are not to heap up empty phrases and call that prayer.  So how the Gentiles prayed was to ask, let’s say, Zeus for something.  Then right after they asked Zeus for something they would ask the same thing from Hera or some other got in the pantheon.  They thought if they asked enough gods for favors then maybe they might get what they asked.  So saying the Jesus prayer is not like heaping up empty phrases, it is asking Jesus for mercy and acknowledging who God is.  It is a prayer of praise and petition.  I know that I constantly sin and thus I need mercy and forgiveness all the time, so by the time I say one prayer I might have sinned or might need more mercy.  Jesus also does not want us to make requests as much, because God is a good Father, he knows what we need and he will give us what we need.  This is another reason the Jesus Prayer is good, because it only asks for mercy which God is rich in, it does not address any other needs we might have.  Instead it lets us just focus on God.  It is also not that we should not ask God for things, because in the Lord’s Prayer which follows this teaching, there are requests for things, like food, forgiveness, and protection.

Question: What have you been taught about these teachings on prayer?

About Jesse

I am a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary with a Masters of Arts in Theology focusing on Church History. I am a Third Order Benedictine monk, in the Company of Jesus. I am married to a wonderful woman, we just had a baby Michaela Rose. You can follow me and be alerted of new blog post by following me on Twitter @jtalexanderiv. Or following this blog.
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1 Response to Bible Study Wednesday: The Gospel According to St. Matthew 6:5-8

  1. Sarah says:

    I’m always reminded by family that using prayer books and wonderful things like the Jesus Prayer are “vain repetitions” that should not be used. After all, Jesus wants what’s in our heart. I think this stems from my childhood denomination’s stance on the Bible: Follow it to the letter as best as you can. This means avoiding anything that might seem the least bit repetitious: prayer books, written prayers, and for goodness sakes, stay away from worship guides.

    It took me a while to get over this, but eventually, I overcame it to understand that prayer books and the Jesus Prayer are often just what I need. For example, last night I was very anxious about my future, but then I stopped, and said the Jesus Prayer over and over. This allowed me to realize that I am not in control of my own life and that God has all things taken care of. Also, these prayers allow me to have words when I have no words to pray.

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