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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

The Hidden Life of Prayer

Matthew 6:1-18

“The power of paradox opens our eyes, and blinds those who say they can see.” (Michael Card). In these words the singer introduces us to one of the most fascinating aspects of the Gospel: its paradoxes. We are told that we are the light of the world; we should not be hidden. That was last week -- but remember there are no chapters and verses in the original text. Christ now goes on to seemingly contradict Himself:

Against hypocrisy in almsgiving

(Mat 6:1-8 NIV) "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. {2} "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. {3} But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, {4} so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

{5} "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. {6} But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. {7} And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. {8} Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.


(Mat 6:16-18 NIV) "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. {17} But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, {18} so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

In these passages, which surround what is known as “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus teaches us a precious secret: the power of God will shine through us -- if we will just get out of the way and let it. The more we seek the acclaim of others, the less He will reward us. If we wish His reward in full, we must renounce any claim to the reward of others. Here, he gives us three examples; one for our relations with others, one for our relationship to God, and one for ourselves in spiritual preparation.

·         Towards others - charity. “Ego donors” (also called “mega-donors”) are a familiar concept to those who are soliciting funds for charity. My son’s Christian high school is looking for such right now as part of their building fund drive. Give us a zillion bucks, and we’ll name the stadium after you (e.g., Pauley Pavilion at UCLA). If you want your name on the plaque on the wall, you can buy that. That’s all the reward you will get, however. Maimonides, the great Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, classed charity into eight degrees. The highest was to take someone into your shop and teach them a trade. Next to it was giving anonymously to those whom you did not know. The question is, whose reward do you seek?

·         Towards God - prayer. This statement is a preliminary to the Lord’s prayer, of course, so we can wait a bit for that. But one thing: you can have that same ostentation in prayer that is condemned here, even in private. It sounds foolish (and it is) but you can wind up saying, “Aren’t I a good boy, Lord? Look at me praying.” (Satan is always at hand).

·         Towards yourself - fasting. Do kindly remember that we are spiritual/physical amphibians. Fasting is the humbling of the soul, says Matthew Henry. It is commonly thought of as prayer; for it is a way of preparing your body for spiritual warfare.

The paradox is here: towards others, for ourselves and towards God. We are a light on the hill; we are to shine before men -- and yet we are to do this in secret. How can this be?

A book is best hidden in a library

A leaf in a forest

A man in a city

A candle -- in a lighthouse!

Hide yourself in the blazing lighthouse of God -- so that others might see him. That hiding is done in secret; in prayer -- and that prayer our Lord now gives us.

The Lord’s Prayer

(Mat 6:9-15 NIV) "This, then, is how you should pray: "'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 today our daily bread. {12} Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. {13} And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.' {14} For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. {15} But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

This prayer is justly famed. It opens with the two words which form the most radical thought of the ages: “Our Father.”

·         We pray to “our” Father -- prayer is not a solo flight any more than anything else in Christianity

·         We pray to our “Father” -- this is a hierarchy; we are acknowledging his supremacy over us.

·         Combined, they indicate that we are a family. All divisions of class, race, sex, etc. are insignificant, for we are the family of God. The ideal of Christianity is that of the brotherhood of mankind under the Fatherhood of God.

This God is in heaven; we are not there yet. It implies what He told Isaiah:

(Isa 55:9 NIV) "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

The principle of relationships is preserved: we acknowledge Him for Who He really is: The God of Heaven, far above us. No relationship can long stand without such understanding.

Three things for God

The prayer neatly divides into three petitions relating to God, and three relating to His children.

“Hallowed be your name”

“Hallowed” has become a church-only word as of late. It means, roughly, to be kept holy. If you recall that the root meaning of holy is “separated,” then you have no trouble with the idea that God’s name is special, and is to be kept separated.

The Israelites would have had little trouble with this concept. God first announced his name, I AM, to Moses. He then gave Moses the commandments, one of which was not to take the name of the Lord in vain. Throughout the Old Testament, the Name was used as a token of God’s authority.

The paradox for us is that in our culture a name is merely a label -- or so we think. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” We say that -- but our advertisers spend a lot of money getting the name exactly right. The name matters, for in the name of God

·         miracles are performed[1]

·         Christians are baptized[2]

·         sins are remitted[3]

·         we have life[4]

How then, can we treat this as punctuation or just another name? If we really have that relationship with him, how can we be so casual about it?

Your kingdom come

The Greek carries in this section the sense of “Let it come, the kingdom of you.” (Nestle’s interlinear transliteration). The concept is more fully developed later in the Gospels, and is full of paradox:

·         “Kingdom” sounds like power -- but must be accepted as a little child.

·         “Kingdom” sounds like ruling over others -- but the greatest in the kingdom are the servants of all.

·         “Kingdom” is associated with pomp and ceremony -- but we are told the kingdom of God is “within us.”

All other kingdoms will fall, for they are earthly, but this one will last forever. The paradox comes from our limited vision of what a kingdom should be.

Your will be done

Again, the literal Greek would read, “let it be done, the will of you.” This is the solution to the paradox: how can God’s will not be done? The only answer is that He has limited himself on our behalf, so that we might choose to be His. In our “let it be done, the will of you” we are saying that we want His will, not our own to be done.

This includes our troubles, by the way. By our troubles we are driven into the arms of God -- so this section is asking for trouble sometimes. Thomas à Kempis put it this way;

But here, in the midst of these troubles, what shall I say? Your will be done, Lord. I have richly deserved to be troubled and distressed. But I must bear it. Would that I could do so patiently, until the storm passes and calm returns! Yet Your almighty hand can take this temptation from me, or lighten its attack so that I do not altogether sink beneath it, as You, my God, my Mercy, have very often done for me before. And the more difficult my plight, the easier for You is this change of the right hand of the Most High.

Three things for us

Our daily bread

For those in Western civilization who believe that the ultimate source of bread is the bakery, this passage is somewhat difficult. The hard part is the word “daily.” As Tevye put it, “Would it spoil some vast, celestial plan, if I were a very wealthy man?”

It would. “As the Good Book says,” Tevye,

(Prov 30:8-9 NIV) Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. {9} Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the LORD?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.

“Bread” we understand as a symbol for worldly things. We are amphibians; we need these things, as our Father knows (and more on that later). Is there anything more useless than a church which will pray for others -- and do nothing? For indeed, the phrase is not “daily bread” but “our daily bread.” We are to pray for the physical needs of others as well as our own. And to whom should we look for such things?

A side note: how often are we guilty of seeking God’s favor last, rather than first?

Forgive us our debts

Again, the Greek has the literal sense of “and forgive us the debts of us, as we indeed forgave the debtors of us.” There is no sense in the New Testament of the idea that God will forgive us without our forgiving others.

At first blush this appears a paradox: why does God make His forgiveness dependent upon my forgiving others? I could see the idea of His forgiveness being contingent on others forgiving me (and there is thought of this in Matthew 18:18), but it is clearly contingent on me forgiving others. Why?

There are no doubt many other reasons, but one is this: we are a family -- and like children in the family, we learn by imitation. We forgive, and so He is able to forgive us.

Lead us not into temptation

The phrase “lead us not” can also be translated “rescue us from.” (Also, “evil” is sometimes translated “the evil one” - i.e., Satan.) Here is a supreme paradox. The stronger a Christian is in the faith, the more he will pray, “Lead me not into temptation.” How can this be so?

The answer is found for the stronger Christian in pride. It is Satan’s weapon of choice, and it is very effective on mature Christians. As I become stronger, I must hide myself more and more in the Living God, for that is how I become stronger.

Even the new Christian can see the reasoning behind “lead us not.” Thomas à Kempis put it this way:

My child, it often happens that a man seeks ardently after something he desires and then when he has attained it he begins to think that it is not at all desirable; for affections do not remain fixed on the same thing, but rather flit from one to another. It is no very small matter, therefore, for a man to forsake himself even in things that are very small.

A man’s true progress consists in denying himself, and the man who has denied himself is truly free and secure. The old enemy, however, setting himself against all good, never ceases to tempt them, but day and night plots dangerous snares to cast the unwary into the net of deceit. “Watch ye and pray,” says the Lord, “that ye enter not into temptation.” (Matt. 26:41.)

For most of us, this is the common temptation: I want this, that or the other, and then having it, it no longer satisfies. By praying “lead us not...” we are asking Him to remove us from such things -- and bring us into closer harmony with Him. Indeed, a closer walk is the aim of every section of this prayer.

[1] Acts 3:6

[2] Acts 2:38

[3] Luke 24:47

[4] John 20:31

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