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Sermon: When You Pray – The Lord’s Prayer

Actually, meaningless ritual is an age-old problem.  On more than one occasion God reminds his people that he wants their hearts, not their empty sacrifices.  After asking the question “With what shall I come before the Lord?” Micah answers with this — “And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  (Micah 6:8)  God, in other words, wants their hearts, not their meaningless ritual.

Before Jesus tells the disciples how to pray, he cautions them on how not to pray.  This is actually another way of Jesus saying, “You have heard it has been said…but I say unto you….” —  only now, however, Jesus is using a different phrase to correct their practice.

The First Problem with Prayer:  Praying for Our Own Reward

Jesus has to teach the disciples to pray because prayer has fallen into a meaningless ritual that has lost both its purpose and its power.

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites…”  Of course, nobody wants to be like the hypocrites.  But who were they?  The hypocrites were probably those who would have been considered “righteous men” in Jesus day.  They were men who prayed three times a day, and who did so wherever they were.

But, apparently to show off their own piety, many of these so-called righteous men would position themselves at street corners, or in the most visible parts of the Temple when the time for prayer came.

A quick note here:  Jewish men of the first century prayed while standing, with their arms outstretched, palms up, and their faces either bowed, or lifted to heaven.  We know the posture because Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who go up to the Temple to pray.  They are both standing when they pray, but the tax collector — an outcast and sinner — would not even lift up his head to heaven, according to Luke 18:9-14.

Jesus addresses the first problem of prayer, and that is praying for our own reward.  Now Jesus isn’t condemning the corporate prayer of God’s people gathered together.  Rather, Jesus said those that stand alone praying loudly on the street corners, or in prominent places in the synagogue or Temple, have their reward.  Everybody saw them praying, but their audience wasn’t God, it was those within viewing distance from them.

In some ways we have gotten past that today.  We understand that the purpose of prayer is not to raise our reputation, but to present ourselves to God.

But, the flipside of praying alone to be seen and heard  Jesus said was to go into our room, shut the door, and pray.  They are two sides of the same coin.  Private prayer is part of the “when you pray” assumption that Jesus makes.  And, in some ways we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, for in our recognition that we shouldn’t pray conspicuously, we have often neglected to pray privately.  It isn’t enough not to pray to be seen, private personal prayer is the disciple’s appropriate entry  alone into the presence of God.