Real religion is tied up in good deeds like charitable giving, prayer and fasting. When we do good deeds in public what is our motive? When we pray, how ought we talk to God?
Religion that is pure is giving, but motive must also be pure.
We will look at Jesus’ discussion of religious duties and the Lord’s Prayer.
The problem with public giving
In one place Jesus taught us to let people see our good deeds and yet in another place he taught us to do good deeds in secret not to be seen by others (Matthew 6:1-17). Is this a contradiction? It may sound so, but the key to the whole puzzle is our motive. If our motive for charitable giving, praying or fasting is to show off to other people then it is far better to do those things in private. We see this quite frequently in the public arena. Some people like to toot their own horns so to speak by making a big to do when they give. Others like to give anonymously. If our motive it to glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16) or that others may believe (John 11:41-42) then it is good.
The problem with public prayers
Jesus taught us to pray in private rather than show off. When he prayed in public his motive was that they may believe (John 11:41-42). Our public prayers will never really be totally devoid of wrong motives, so we will be exposed to prayers that may be manipulative, gossipy, a show, long and tedious, trite, irrelevant, repetitive or even self-righteous. Some churches use repetition by first announcing a prayer and then praying the exact same thoughts to God. Others avoid this tedious repetition by dispensing with a “let's pray about” discussion. Prayer is very important and churches ought to be houses of prayer, but Jesus taught us not to pray like hypocrites where our motive is to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5-8). Public prayer is difficult for imperfect humans and so we must overlook each other’s faults.
The pastoral prayer
Are pastors disobedient to Jesus when they lead prayers in church? Did not Jesus teach to pray in our closets, a private place, and not in public like hypocrites? Yes he did. But, he said more than that. He said that pretenders do so to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5-6). It was their motive that was wrong. It is better to pray in a closet than pray to show off. In John 11:41-42 and Matthew 14:19 Jesus set an example by praying in front of others, but his motive was totally unlike hypocritical show-offs. He prayed for the benefit of the people standing there, that they may believe. And that is the origin of the pastoral prayer. It is still a prayer to God but motivated by a desire to encourage the faith of the hearers.
To whom ought we pray
Who should we pray to? Contrary to our Protestant bigotry, the Bible nowhere forbids Catholics from making requests of Mary or of any other departed saints in heaven. Neither Jesus nor the apostles taught or forbade this practice. The Bible also nowhere indicates whether those departed saints even listen to our requests on earth. Another more modern practice is to pray to the Holy Spirit. This idea is also nowhere specifically taught or forbidden in Holy Scripture, and I’m certain that the Holy Spirit can hear what we pray. However, this practice also deviates from what is taught in the Bible. Who is our teacher? If he is Christ then we might be interested in what Jesus specifically taught us about who we should pray to? Jesus taught us to pray in this manner, “Our Father who is in heaven…”
Are we humbled by the Lord’s prayer. God is OUR Father, not one person’s alone. The very first word that Jesus wanted us to learn as we focus on the model for prayer is that we have no exclusive claim on God. Most of us must admit that we are bigots when it comes to our faith. We may disagree with the vocal outward show of some Christians, dislike the dogmas of others, abhor man-made rules, differ over traditions, theological interpretations, music, liturgies, authority, polity, social stances and so on, but our opinion does not gives us exclusive access to God the Father. When we pray, the very first thing that we need to acknowledge is that others also have access to heaven. We do not have a sole franchise on faith in God. He is OUR Father in heaven.
In Matthew 6:9 Jesus taught us to pray to God as our FATHER. That really annoys some people. The word patriarch is almost a swear word today. Some people argue that because God is gender-less, he could be called our Parent, the Universe or even our Mother. Such bigotry overlooks the lesson that addressing God as our Father in heaven teaches. Fatherless homes have increased, causing crime and social maladjustment. Children with fathers at home have greater success in life, are far less likely to be in trouble, more likely to show initiative, exhibit self-control, and are at less risk of alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, less likely to cause sexual violence or have an unwanted pregnancy.* If God wants us to understand him primarily in patriarchal fatherly terms, it is we that need to learn something, not God.
Have you ever noticed the interesting contrast in the opening line of the Lord’s Prayer? First of all Jesus taught us to pray to God as a Father, one who is a protector and provider for his children. Yet, at the same time, he taught us to pray to a Father who is IN HEAVEN. God is a Father who transcends everything that we know physically and has power to provide and protect in a way that no human father can. We may love our human fathers, but they all ultimately fail. Though most fathers try hard, they are ultimately incapable of rescuing us, providing for us and protecting us from life’s greatest difficulties. Without an all powerful heavenly Father, we’re all sunk (Matthew 6:9) but God has the power and the resources to solve all the world’s problems.
Is anything treated as HALLOWED today? Something is holy when it has been set aside for only divine purposes. It may not be used as commonplace. Everything is regarded as either holy or common. An object became holy through an act of sanctification. It became common by an act of profanity. When we treat the things of God as common, we profane them. Yet, we ought to respect the things of God as sacred. Many things can be holy. If we have dedicated them to God, we have hallowed them, made them holy. That act is called sanctification, making them sacred. They have been set apart for holy use. God’s name is also holy. The petition in Matthew 6:9 is purposefully said in a manner which shows that we have a part to play in making God’s name holy.
...be your name
In ancient society people were often named because it meant something important to the family. It may have been a significant event, or even a character quality. So, people were named David (beloved), Barnabas (son of consolation), Elijah (Yah is God), John (God is a gracious giver). God’s name has everything to do with who he is. It is already holy. And so the petition of Matthew 6:9 in the Lord’s Prayer is not a request that something common be made holy, but rather that we all treat it with holiness that it has. How many times is God’s name used as a common swear word or used as an exclamation for surprise? God’s name is not an expletive, but the holiest name in the universe. How do we treat the name of God? May his name be hallowed.
...your kingdom come
In a world programmed to think in democratic ideals it seems strange to pray that a kingdom would come, yet that is precisely the administrative comparison chosen to represent God’s rule. There is however, a democratic component of sorts. We get to choose whether we want God to rule over us or not. Most of us probably would agree that democracy is as good as it gets in the human sphere. However, a problem with democracy is that a largely ignorant majority elects candidates based upon popularity, not real qualification for office. There is no question that God is the only one qualified to be who he is. He is a reasonable king who does not force himself upon an unwilling humanity. We get to choose. This world’s governments cannot save us. Let us pray to God, your kingdom come.
...your will be done
When we are indoctrinated with the fear of submitting to someone else’s will, praying that God’s will be done, can seem scary. Is not mindlessly obeying God what fanatics do? That’s the lie. Extremists actually follow the stupid and destructive ideas of men, not God. If we really would get to know God then we would have no problems in wanting his will to be done. It is God’s will that our planet be blessed with flowers and trees and rain and food. It is God’s will that we have life and live in happiness and peace. It is God’s will that we thrive and do well in our lives. It is God’s will that we be called his children and that we be given a magnificent life forever. Yes, let us pray your will be done (Matthew 6:10).
...on earth as in heaven
The first three petitions of the model prayer in Matthew 6:9-10 are set in a passive third person tense. That means we pray: may your name be hallowed, may your kingdom come, and may your will be done. We do not pray, I will hallow your name, I will bring your kingdom and I will do your will. Though we also play a part, we are praying that it may be done by others as well as ourselves. It can also be understood that we are praying that all three requests are fulfilled on earth as they already are in heaven. Humanity’s worldwide troubles come because we have turned our backs on God’s will. Those who hallow God’s name now are already citizens of that kingdom. Doing the will of God is a powerful summary of a disciple’s life.
We live in a fortress society where neighbors often do not know each other. This is partly fostered by the fear of crime and partly by commercialism which incessantly entices us to spend our money greedily on ourselves. We are often unaware and unconcerned about the needs of others in our own communities. The first statement of the Lord’s Prayer is OUR Father in heaven, not my Father. The model prayer then shifted to requests for everyone. Beginning with the fourth petition the model prayer shifts to back to a focus on community using the word US. No part of the prayer is selfish, but always includes others. That is not to say that an individual request is wrong. It is just not the prayer modeled in Matthew 6. We were taught to pray, give US our daily bread.
...this day our daily bread
In the fourth petition of the Pater Noster or Lord’s Prayer, the focus is on our needs for the coming day. In the context of an itinerant ministry, we can understand the immediate dependence of Jesus and his disciples upon God’s daily provision. First century workers also lived the precarious life of a day laborer, paid at the end of each day’s work. Today, we live in a different world and especially in wealthy modern countries may find the need to pray for daily provision of food to be rather pointless. But, we all have things which could worry us. The point of praying for our daily needs is that we don’t worry incessantly. As the old saying goes, if you are worried, pray; if you have prayed, don’t worry (Matthew 6:11) and consider the daily needs of others.
...and forgive us our debts
It is a burden to carry a debt. Why does the Lord’s Prayer use the word debt when it means sins? Why did Jesus teach us to pray, forgive us our debts? Debt is the word used in the original Greek in Matthew 6:12. The concept is that sin which has not been forgiven is maintained on the heavenly balance sheets as a debt owed to God. In other words, sin is not just an offense against our fellow humans, but an offense against God and he demands just compensation. We pay for that debt with either our lives or the substitute death of Jesus Christ. Many churches include a prayer for forgiveness in their weekly service. Certainly in private prayer, we ought to habitually include a request for God’s forgiveness. That’s why we pray: forgive us our debts.
...as we forgive our debtors
When people do us harm, they become our debtors. They owe us compensation for the injury. Whether or not any court of this world recognizes our right, the supreme court of heaven may. In Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus defines those who sin against us as our debtors. They owe us. Yet, he encourages us that when we ask God for forgiveness of our debts towards heaven, we also should have forgiven others their debts towards us. This is the only part of the Lord’s Prayer which Christ specially commented on. If we refuse to pardon others, our heavenly Father will not forgive us. In other words, how can we expect to be forgiven of our faults by God, if we habitually and stubbornly refuse to exonerate others? The obligation of God’s forgiveness is that we forgive too.
...and lead us not into temptation
Sin can ruin everything that we treasure – family, health, reputation, finances and careers. How do we protect ourselves from our own human weakness? Even the strongest of us eventually give in to temptation and sin. Human will is too unreliable. There is a more reliable approach. Jesus described a simple two-step petition in prayer in Matthew 6:13. The first of those steps has to do with avoiding traps. The best way to battle a temptation is not to get near it at all. As we gain experience and wisdom, we become more aware of potentially tempting circumstances and avoid them. However, there are always those situations that come along unexpectedly. That’s why we need to ask God to back us up with his extra help to avoid a dangerous ambush. So, we pray lead us not into temptation.
...but deliver us from evil
Although we may be aware of many of life’s traps, we need God’s help to avoid the majority of those ambushes which seduce us to sin. We could live ascetic and isolated lives like monks, or some very exclusive religious sects, or we could just hang out with Christians and never go anywhere with non-Christians. But even monks fall into temptations and sin. In any case, such a radical approach makes being a light and spreading the good news very difficult. We are called to be “in the world, but not of the world,” and as a result we fall into many doing the wrong thing, we sin. It’s almost inevitable. That’s where a second petition is needed. Jesus’ encouragement in the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer, is to pray for God’s deliverance. Deliver us from evil (Matthew 6:13).
As James wrote pure religion involves charitable giving, but it also involves prayer and fasting. It involves a close look at our hearts and our motives for what we do.