April 2, 2012: The Thirty-Fifth Day of Lent
April 2, 2012 § Leave a comment
“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him.”
~ Matthew 6.7-8 ~
Christ continues to instruct his audience in the ways of prayer. In these verses, he takes issue with “meaningless repetition.” This Greek word (battalogeo) has also been translated as “babbling.” This “babbling” is associated with the Gentiles, and Christ challenges his disciples to not be like them.
In the time of Christ, Judaism’s adherence to only one deity (YHWH) would have been unique compared with the surrounding pagan Greco-Roman culture. When these pagan worshippers would pray about their needs, they would pray to any number of gods so that their prayer would be more likely to be heard. They would also use incantations and prayer formulas to attempt to bend the deity to their will. Even before then, pagan cultures went to astounding lengths to gain an audience with the gods. 1 Kings 18 retells the story of Elijah on Mount Carmel, in which the many prophets of Baal not only feverishly repeated their prayers, but also mutilated themselves in the hope that such action would cause Baal to be sympathetic to their cause.
In the eyes of Christ, the pagan model of prayer should be avoided because it represents a wrong view of relationship between human and deity. Pagans thought that repeated, formulaic prayers would somehow wear down the barriers that stood in the way of getting help from a god. However, things are different in the Kingdom of Heaven: God the Father knows what we need even before we ask him. We have his attention right from the start.
Christ would still tell us to practice faithful, persevering prayer. However, as Shelton says, “…The issue at stake here is not repetition but relationship.” (LinSNTC, pg. 164) Our prayer life should not consist solely of trying to get God’s attention, and then invoking all the spiritual laws we know so that our prayer is answered. Rather, prayer should be based on a relationship of love between God and his creation. Prayer is both a means by which the relationship is developed and an expression of the relationship itself.
Shelton sums the matter up: “Repetition and decibels do not make God better able to hear us. A god with an attention deficit and a hearing impairment is a pagan concept. A good father stands ready to listen for the cry of his own children.” (LinSNTC, pg. 164) The words of Christ challenge us, as they so often do. If we think the primary goal of prayer is to bend God to our will, then we have missed the point. However, if we engage in prayer to fellowship with our creator and loving father, then we enjoy prayer as Christ intended.
Lord Christ, it’s difficult for me to move past where I am in prayer. Let me know your presence; help me to find you in times of solitude and silent, times of joyful praise, and times of daily conversation and interaction. Change my conceptions of who you are and what prayer really is. Amen.
Quote taken from Dr. James B. Shelton’s contribution on the Gospel of Matthew to The Life in the Spirit New Testament Commentary. Edited by French L. Arrington and Roger Stronstad. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.