9. "The Greatest Power in the World"
Matthew 6:5–8; 7:7–11
In the first passage, Jesus is talking to his audience about the way to pray and not pray (". . . do not pray like the hypocrites. . .), as well as the results of prayer, which is reward. These two ideas, namely, the way to pray and the results of prayer, are merged together here by Jesus with the resulting subject being: "the kind of prayer the Father rewards."
The second passage tells us that God will answer our prayers, but what the precise answer will be is not indicated. Let's see how powerful prayer to our Father can be.
"The Greatest Power in the World"
Praying to Impress Others
Matthew 6:5–8 [Click to open, re-click to close, this and all other links.]
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. 6But 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. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
In last week's passage (Matthew 6:1–4) 1"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. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.", Jesus spoke on "almsgiving." In today's first of two passages, he addresses "prayer." These two sections are very similar.
The desire to be recognized by others in one’s prayer life is interesting because prayer, by definition, is our communication with God. In our prayers, we're speaking not to those around us but directly to God himself!
So what happened with those people we learned about last week who Jesus calls "hypocrites"? They're the ones who announce their giving to the needy with trumpet blasts. In addition to their hypocritical giving, Jesus rebukes them for hypocritical praying.
Why did their prayer life become something that "had to do with people around them"? Jesus said that these people had come to a point where they loved to pray in public places so that they may "be seen by men." Sadly, no longer was their primary purpose in praying to communicate with God. Their main reason to pray was to impress others, to build themselves up by receiving admiration, or at least gaining the attention of those around them.
Praying to Be Heard by Others
Don't miss the point! It's not a bad thing that we want to be heard and accepted. It's woven into the deepest part of our being. Because Jesus speaks negatively about the hypocrites who are driven by the desire to be heard by people, it can be tempting to believe that the longing itself to be heard is selfish, sinful, and wrong. But it's not the longing that Jesus is condemning here. Last week, Minister Nancy Ortberg told us that a hypocrite is someone who is divided between their outside behavior and their inner convictions and motivations. These people were praying supposedly to God, but they were doing it in such a way as to intentionally be heard by those around them.
Just as he said in Matthew 6:2, Jesus again tells his listeners that these people "have received their reward in full." In verse 6:5, they desire to be "seen by men"; and so they are. Jesus’ purpose in this verse's teaching is to encourage his listeners to pray.
Praying to the Heavenly Father in Secret
To motivate his listeners to pray, Jesus tells them about their heavenly Father. He is a Father, Jesus assures them, who "is in secret" and "sees in secret." Though we don't see him, God is always paying attention. He doesn't need us to be loud or out in public places so that he can find us. God is already actively listening to us in those private places where no one else can hear our thoughts and feel our aches.
Jesus tells us that our Father will reward us when we pray to him in secret. There's no need to do something religious or impressive to get God to pay attention. Jesus tells us that God is in secret, watching and listening for his children to come to him, ready to reward them with his divine attention. That's what prayer is really all about.
In verses 7 and 8, Jesus continues to talk about prayer and teaches his listeners how to pray. Jesus adds an admonition to the Gentiles to "not keep on babbling like pagans" when they pray. The reason the Gentiles pray this way, Jesus goes on, is, "for they think they will be heard because of their many words." The Gentiles, who believed in many gods, thought that it was necessary to get a god’s attention and to secure a god’s interest.
Jesus tells is listeners that they're not to pray like the Gentiles because "your Father knows what you need before you ask him." The problem with that kind of prayer, Jesus says, is that it betrays a lack of knowledge of or trust in God. This is the underlying point in the previous passage on prayer as well. Jesus wants his listeners to understand the character of their loving Father so that they'll pray in a way that reflects the One to whom they're praying. In order to know how to pray, we first need to know something about the One to whom we're praying.
Seek the Father's Golden Rule
Matthew 7:7–11 [Click to open, re-click to close, this and all other links.]
7"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
9"Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
In this passage from chapter 7, Jesus encourages his listeners to seek out their heavenly Father. He goes on to compare our heavenly Father’s supreme ability and willingness to give to his children with what we, as earthly parents, are willing to give to and do for our children.
In the context of the entire sermon, it's clear that Jesus is encouraging his listeners to "ask" (and to "seek" and to "knock") (1) for God’s good rule to be done and (2) for his reign to be active in their lives. He's already taught them to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” He's helped them to see how good and life-giving this kingly rule of their Father is. And when we apply this rule to our lives, God also helps us appreciate him and his wholesome rule.
We keep The Golden Rule only when we live as if we have a good and giving God who lords over us and our neighbors. We can treat others in a way that we'd want them to treat us (whether they do or don't). In a similar vein with r12's "surrendering to God," when all our strings are attached to God instead of ourselves, we can love each other with no strings attached.
A Few Practical Questions
Hearty brothers: This week, our Savior teaches us how to pray; and how not to pray. He also shows how righteous we become when we apply God's good rule to our lives. Having studied both of today's passages, how would you answer these questions?
- If God knows what you need before you ask him, is Jesus then suggesting that you don't need to pray?
- Do you pray to and with God on a regular basis?
- When praying "in secret" to God, do you believe that he'll reward you in full one day (If he hasn't already)?
- Can you fill in the blanks? "For everyone who asks _____________; he who seeks ______________; and to him who knocks, the door will be _______________."