Rules of Prayer?
In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches about prayer. His lesson sits in the middle of what we call the "Sermon on the Mount" Here's some of what Jesus says about prayer.
“1 Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven... 5 whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward."
After giving this and a few more bits of advice about prayer, Jesus teaches what we now call the "Lord's Prayer"
Is Jesus telling us not to put our praying on display in public places? If so, is it right to publish a prayer email every week? Is it right to reply to Facebook posts with prayerful words or a promise to pray? Is it right to ask Pastors in worship every Sunday to craft prayers from various requests? Is it okay to advise small groups or committees of the church to open and close with prayer?
When it comes to prayer and Jesus' advice, are we being hypocrites?
Notice, Jesus doesn't condemn the act of praying itself, or the act of praying in public. He condemns the reason behind our praying or praying in public. "They practice their piety before others IN ORDER TO be seen by them... The hypocrites love to pray in public SO THAT they may be seen by other people (as prayerful)."
Praying itself is not bad, and the act of praying publicly is not bad. At the same time, prayer is not automatically good. If someone prays, or prays publicly, just to give the appearance and impression to others that they are prayerful, it would be better for them to be silent, not to pray at all.
Some intentionally include God-language in their public persona, but do so just to give others the impression they are godly people. The reward they want is the affirmation of those people, and they might get it from some of the people, but not from God. Jesus condemns this and calls it hypocritical.
Some insist God-language be used and spoken at public gatherings. Some insist we need public prayer in schools or events. The reward they want is to appear godly and conscientious to others, and it might work on some of the people, but not on God. Jesus condemns that and calls it hypocritical.
Some challenge or insult others who do not publicly use God-language. Some tease and ridicule others they never see pray in public. The reward they want is to be perceived as more pious or more holy than their competitor, and it might work on some of the people, but not on God. Again, Jesus condemns this and calls it hypocritical.
The act of praying isn't the problem, nor is it the solution. The act of praying publicly isn't the problem, nor is it the solution. The motivation for praying determines whether or not prayer is sincere, or hypocritical.
Prayer is corrupted if done for the wrong reason. Prayer is not meant to be seen by others so they will think better of us. Prayer is meant to reveal to us what God already thinks and believes. Prayer is not meant to be heard by others, so they will think better or different of us. Prayer is meant to allow us to hear from God. Prayer is not meant to be practiced in front of others so they will be changed. Prayer is meant to open ourselves to being changed by God.
Too many people use prayer to try to change someone else. They pray, publicly, hoping it will change the other person, or at least change the way the other person feels about the one praying. Prayer isn't meant to change anyone other than the one praying.
Too many people use prayer to try to change God. We pray for God to be different, to do something different, to force God to bring a different outcome onto a situation. Prayer isn't meant to change God. Prayer is meant to change the one praying to be more in tune and in sync with God's will, and God's coming kingdom.
The Lord's Prayer begins by addressing the only audience of prayer that really matters...
"Our Father, the one who is in the heavens, holy is your name."
The Lord's Prayer continues by pointing the ones praying toward the best healthiest reason to pray in the first place...
"Thy Kingdom, come! Thy will, be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
May our prayers today not be for anyone else to see or hear, only God. May our prayers today not seek to change anyone, not even God, but open us to being changed by God. May our prayers today not seek what we want, but boldly listen for what God wants. May our prayers today not be to protect or preserve the things we prefer or treasure, but to grow a community and country that look more like God's kingdom here on earth.
Perhaps, one day, Jesus won't use the word hypocrite with us but will gently whisper to us, "I love the way you pray."
Blessing, Laughter, and Loving be yours,
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert