Prayin’ Like a Pagan (Part 1)

A.K.A. Winslow’s Sermon on Prayer (Part 1)

I have asked folks to let me know if there is anything they’d like me to preach on, and a few weeks back Winslow delivered by requesting a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer. I postponed doing it because it’s far less simple than it sounds…and although I still feel like I am not going to do the Prayer justice, here is my first attempt at that important task. I say "first attempt" because, as uncomplicated as the Lord’s Prayer seems on the surface, it actually provides plenty of material to do many sermons.

So, if I fail miserably on this one I know I’ll have ample opportunity to do another. 🙂

Dive Right In

Let’s dive right in by reading the entire section we’ll be going over today and two weeks from now (Rick is preaching next week since I’ll be in California). The only thing I’ll add before that is a reminder this is part of the magnificent Sermon on the Mount. It is fitting that within all the other golden words of advice directly from Jesus lips He would include guidance on praying. Without further ado, let’s look at Matthew 6:5-15:

[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the “extras” that come out in the audio (which is available here). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]

5 "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. 6 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.

7 "And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this:

"Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

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

Now, Winslow, I don’t know if you really only wanted to go over verses 9-13…the actual "Lord’s Prayer"…but to keep it in it’s minimal context we need at least a few verses on either end of it. Please consider verses 5-8 and 14-15 bonus scriptures. 🙂

Initial reactions

Simplicity

So…after reading through those 11 verses, what are your initial reactions? The word that sticks most in my mind is "simplicity." There is no verbal "rub your belly, pat your head" required in communication with God.

Clarity

The second word that comes to mind is "clarity." From the beginning where we are advised not to show off while praying to the end where we are told not to expect forgiveness we are not willing to forgive…along with every word in-between…is it hard to understand what Jesus is saying?

No.

No potentially cryptic parable here…little room for misunderstanding. You may have heard biblical scholars saying the Bible is "perspicuous"…defined by my Mac’s dictionary as "clearly expressed and easily understood." Well, this section is unarguably perspicuous.

Well then, I guess there is no need for a sermon, eh?! Were all done because you understand it 100% already!

You don’t get off that easy… 🙂

Praying in a closet

And I think you’ll find the first couple of verses prove that as clear as this section is, there is plenty to discuss. Let’s look at verses 5 and 6 again:

5 "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. 6 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 (Matthew 6:5-6).

There you go…Rick sinned when he prayed at the beginning of our service, and after I am done with this sermon Warren will publicly transgress God’s Law by giving the benediction after we sing the final hymn.

Well, neither of them prayed (or will pray) in secret…they were (or will be) "seen by others" weren’t (or won’t) they?!

Even though I tried to keep the Lord’s Prayer in context by including more verses…to best understand what Jesus was saying here, we need to pay attention to a repeating theme in this part of the sermon on the mount. For instance, just prior to this pericope, in verse 1 we read:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 6:1).

And immediately following this section we hear Jesus’ counsel:

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward (Matthew 6:16).

Point one in this section on prayer is pretty simple:

Don’t pray like hypocrites.

It just happens that one of the ways the hypocrites of Jesus’ day practiced their hypocrisy was to pray loudly and visibly in public to show their righteousness…so Jesus was countering their very bad (and very visible) example with an emphatic counter-approach.

If prayer is to be communication between you and God…why would you pray in a way that is to show-off or entertain others? Whatever the purpose of prayer, it is does not include "practicing our righteousness before other people."

Praying alone

And although I think all of us should, reasonably often, head off alone and pray to God (just like our ultimate example, Jesus)…our Lord was not saying we should never pray in public.

Either that, or He was a hypocrite Himself since Scripture records Him praying in front of others—for instance, I did a whole sermon about one such prayer recorded in John chapter 17. We can also see the disciples praying publicly in Act 1:24-25 as they ask for guidance…and, if you think of it, when Paul gives a benediction at the end multiple letters to churches…it is a "public prayer." Was he "showing off" or being a hypocrite?

Of course not!

We even have a case that proves that there is at least one condition where we should pray to be "seen by others." Remember Jesus’ words just before he raised Lazarus?

So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me" (John 11:41-42)

Jesus prayed specifically "on account of the people standing around."

A prayer is judged by it’s purpose.

If its purpose is selfish, then it is the prayer of a hypocrite (since it should be about God, not about us).

Additionally, Jesus’ example prayer is in the context of how "you" should pray…and the "you" in "but when you pray" is singular in the original Greek. It isn’t how "we" should pray when we are praying with each other (although we can apply quite a bit of what we learn from it to corporate prayer).

For those of you with siblings and parents you could actually talk to…think about the difference in how you talk to your mom or dad when you are with them around a bunch of people…then how it is when you are just with them and your brothers and sisters (or other other close family)…then how it is when you finally get some time completely alone with your parent.

And assuming your father or mother is a trusted confident…how do you talk to them? What if something great has happened? What if something terrible has occurred?

You understand how human conversations change based on context, conditions, and "attendance"…so it shouldn’t be hard to understand the danger in applying Jesus’ words about personal prayer to other non-personal settings.

But improperly doing so would be hypocritical for someone who claims to call Christ Lord 🙂

Heavenly bank account

One other caution I’ll give related to this section is the potential perception that we have some type of heavenly bank account that comes with a passbook that allows us to add or subtract from it.

I bring this up because as part of His point in verse 5 not to act like the hypocrites Jesus says, "Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward" (Matthew 6:5). We also read verse 1 where it states, "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 6:1).

Does that mean if one of you comes up to me after a sermon and says, "Good job" there is a heavenly ka-ching as money is removed from my reward up yonder? That if sometime the Lord blesses me with the skills and insight to give a really touching message and enough of you pat me on the back that suddenly my account is overdrawn and I’m getting hit with fees by the Celestial Savings and Loan? 🙂

Now…I’m not going to try to discuss whether there are different levels of reward in heaven…personally I am skeptical…but a biblical argument can be made for it. However, in the case of verse 1 and 6 I would suggest they should be interpreted in light of something else Jesus says a few verses later:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).

If you pray…or give…or fast…or anything else…for earthy reward…then that is where your treasure is.

And that is where your heart is.

An earthly heart will not enter heaven.

So, when Jesus says hypocrites have already gotten their reward it is because their only reward is what they can accumulate here on earth..where their heart is.

They have no reward in heaven.

So, don’t worry about my heavenly savings account balance and feel free to tell me how great I am after I’m done.

Just kidding! 🙂

Prayin’ Like a Pagan

Amazing how much time can be spent on just two verses, eh? And I have only scratched the surface…but let’s move on to the verses that led to the title of this sermon series:

7 "And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matthew 6:7-8).

We’ll actually focus on verse 7 …and then start part 2 of "Prayin’ Like a Pagan" with verse 8.

I think the best way to "interpret" verse 7 is to review several different translations of it. I just read from the English Standard Version—next let’s look at the New International Version:

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words (Matthew 6:7).

Now you know where I get "Prayin’ Like a Pagan" 🙂

Let’s follow the NIV with the always-elegant King James version:

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking (Matthew 6:7)

We are up to to a list of three for people not to be like…Gentiles, pagans, and heathen. I kind of like heathen 🙂

Now for the NET Bible:

7 When you pray, do not babble repetitiously like the Gentiles, because they think that by their many words they will be heard (Matthew 6:7).

The NET also went with "Gentiles"…but it mixes the KJV’s "vain repetitions" with the "babbling" in the NIV. (The ESV translated it as "heap up empty phrases.")

Let’s listen to another recent translation, the Holman Christian Standard Version:

When you pray, don’t babble like the idolaters,  since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words (Matthew 6:7)

The New Living Translation:

When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again (Matthew 6:7).

The Good News Translation:

When you pray, do not use a lot of meaningless words, as the pagans do, who think that their gods will hear them because their prayers are long (Matthew 6:7).

The New International Reader’s Version:

When you pray, do not keep talking on and on the way ungodly people do. They think they will be heard because they talk a lot (Matthew 6:7).

Have you kept track of the list of people from verse 7 not be like?

We are now up to:

  • Gentiles
  • Pagans
  • Heathen
  • Idolaters
  • People of other religious
  • Ungodly people

We also got some other interesting takes on why they (no matter what term you use for them) mistakenly think they’ll be heard:

  • For their many words
  • For their much speaking
  • Merely by repeating their words again and again
  • Because their prayers are long
  • (My favorite) Because they talk a lot

The Message has a very interesting take on verse 7…one that isn’t "correct"…but worth bringing up:

The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense (Matthew 6:7).

Hmmm…"prayer warriors." Maybe I’m ignorant of all that term’s uses…but the only context I have ever heard "prayer warriors" with is Christians. Although I might also agree that some "prayer warriors" have a warped and incorrect view of prayer (and how it works with God)…Jesus was not zapping those "within the fold" (in this case, believing Jews). I have not had biblical Greek, but reviewing some books written by people who have, "Gentiles" seems most appropriate (which, if they are praying to other god(s), equals pagans). This is a good example of why in a previous sermon I said to never, ever, ever, ever, ever use The Message for Bible Study.

Having said that…Christians can pray like pagans (that’s the whole reason I titled this sermon series the way I did)…so Eugene Peterson’s point is legitimate. It’s just that it is a point for an application commentary, not a translation (and The Message is advertised as a "Bible").

After hearing 9 different translations of verse 7…and with me basically giving you no commentary on it…I suspect you understand exactly what Jesus is saying…and can think of at least one huge "Christian" denomination that goes against its advice.

Quantity of words doesn’t make prayer effective.

A magical combination of words does not exist. There is no abracadabra.

God does not work that way.

Quality is what matters. God "hears the prayer of the righteous" (Proverbs 15:29).

Pray like you know God

Ten is a great number isn’t it?

As such, let’s go for a tenth translation of Matthew 6:7 to wrap up our sermon, this one from the New Century Version:

And when you pray, don’t be like those people who don’t know God. They continue saying things that mean nothing, thinking that God will hear them because of their many words (Matthew 6:7).

Don’t…

  • Don’t pray like hypocrites
  • Don’t pray like Gentiles
  • Don’t pray like pagans
  • Don’t pray like heathen
  • Don’t pray like idolaters
  • Don’t pray like people of other religious
  • Don’t pray like ungodly people
  • Don’t pray like people who don’t know God

In part 2 of "Prayin’ Like a Pagan" we’ll learn more about prayer…but even more importantly…we will learn more about God.

Because ultimately Jesus wants us…you and me…to pray like people who know God.


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