This segment of the Sermon on the Mount starts off bluntly: “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.” Jesus then names three specific acts of piety as examples: almsgiving, prayer, fasting.
Why these three?
They were particularly esteemed in the Judaism of Jesus’ day as expressions of piety.
Was Jesus against almsgiving, prayer, and fasting?
Jesus fasted, himself, as we’ve already read, though he kept it a secret. He participated in synagogue prayers. He gave alms by curing people without charge. So, no, he wasn’t against these expressions of piety. His concern is that people are apt to do things that are good in themselves for the sake of cultivating our own reputation for piety rather than as an aspect of our relationship with God.
The question, basically, is “Who is the audience for your piety?” If our audience is other people, then this isn’t really a part of our life with God and is not rewarded by a deepening relationship with God. This is why Jesus commends almsgiving in secret, praying in private, and a kind of fasting that disguises itself and puts on a good face for the rest of the world.
All of this applies as much to the modern Christian context, of course, as to Jesus’ contemporaries. I might add that Christians, both on the Right and on the Left, are also fond of demonstrating their piety by publicly announcing the details of what they believe and condemning those who disagree. Probably Jesus would say that this, too, is open to the same kind of corruption.
So it’s just a matter of keeping a low profile?
Yes, in a way. But, of course, it’s more complex than that. If no one is ever seen giving alms, praying, and exercising self-control of the appetites, how will anyone know that such things are of value? Each generation learns about these things in part from prior generations. It’s not that they can’t be thought up anew, but if we start from scratch in every generation how long would it take to figure it all out again? If Jesus is counseling complete secrecy, he would be crippling human community and the educational process that shares past experience with new generations. This is more a warning against the temptation to misuse piety for unholy ends.
What Jesus calls for is integrity of purpose. The purpose of our religion, our faith, our piety is to form a relationship with God that can then shape and strengthen us and pervade and transform our relationships with one another. This whole process is undermined and even invalidated if we turn our attention instead toward impressing other people. We’re then using our piety as a kind of social credit and it no longer has anything to do with God at all.
Why does the Lord’s Prayer come at this point? It seems to interrupt the series of instructions about not doing pious acts in public.
Yes, that’s always seemed a bit strange to me, too. It’s introduced with “don’t be like the Gentiles”—which parallels the thrice repeated “don’t be like the hypocrites.” I don’t actually know whether Gentiles were any worse about long-winded prayer than Jews. But what Jesus is attacking here is a magical understanding of prayer—an expectation that if you can just pray long enough, often enough, and with the right formulas, you can more or less make the divine powers do what you want.
Jesus will affirm, later on in this chapter, that God does care about what people need, even making “his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (6:45). But—as I read long ago in an essay by a monk of the Order of the Holy Cross (I regret that I have lost the reference)—true prayer is not about getting God to do what we want; it’s about becoming more of what God wants us to be. The Lord’s Prayer is a model of that kind of prayer.
I’m not sure I even hear it any more, it’s become so familiar.
Yes, encountering it here in Matthew’s Gospel gives us a chance to think about what sort of prayer it models for us and to rediscover how subversive it is. To start with, it says very little about what we want. Instead it starts out entirely focused on God and then goes on to how we can participate in what God is doing.
Addressing God as “Father” is not a literal ascription of masculinity or parenthood to God. It is a way of saying that we confess ourselves as directly and intimately related to God. We come from God; we owe who we are—our very identity— to God. And note that we say “our Father,” not “my Father,” because this relationship with God is something we share with the whole of humanity.
We say “in heaven” to affirm that this relationship overarches, includes, and subordinates all earthly ones. “Heaven” also serves as an image for what human life can become in its best, freest, most generous and loving state. The phrase expresses not only God’s power, but the joy of our communion with God and one another.
Isn’t that a lot to pick up out of so few words?
Yes, they’re dense with implications. And only after we’ve established the context of our prayer in this way do we begin to make requests—and they’re not focused on us. First is that God’s name be hallowed—that we may approach God with due awe and reverence. Then we ask that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” We admit that our earthly existence is a long way short of the love, beauty, and joy that heaven images for us and we express our desire to be drawn closer to that goal—a prayer that we may become more of what God longs for us to be.
Only then do we ask for some tangible thing that we need—something variously translated as “daily bread,” or “bread for today,” or “bread for tomorrow.” (The Greek epiousion is a rare word and its exact meaning isn’t perfectly certain.) This prayer is one for sustenance, not riches or distinction or success or long life or any of the other things we might want to ask for. And Jesus assures us that God is sufficiently caring and attentive to us to know what we need (vs. 8).
Then comes what may be the most difficult part of the prayer, the bit about forgiveness.
Yes, that can be painful. And Jesus doesn’t give us any wiggle room.
Right! He actually says that God’s forgiveness of us depends on our forgiving those who have done us wrong. It seems unfair—or at least ungenerous of God. But the fundamental truth is that, if I want to have God’s free forgiveness for myself, I can’t refuse it to someone else. God’s forgiveness isn’t for one person at a time. It’s for the whole human race. We can fully open up to receiving it only in the company of all the other sinners in the world who need it as much as we—maybe, in some cases, even more.
God’s forgiveness isn’t just a gift to me; it’s something I’m invited to take part in. God wants us to become agents as well as recipients of forgiveness. What God gives freely to us, we are to share with one another.
The next line of the prayer seems almost as difficult. Would God actually bring us “into temptation” or “to the test” or to “the time of trial,” or however it gets translated?
The confusion is partly in the English language. “Temptation” has now come to mean essentially the same thing as “enticement.” But the more basic meaning of the Greek word is “testing.” Perhaps we should compare the prayer here with Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane to be delivered from the cross. In the mystery of God’s love and grace, perhaps God may ask for our cooperation even in very difficult ways. We are given the freedom here to ask that we be delivered from such a role.
In any case, we pray to be delivered from evil (or “the evil one”—either translation is possible). That is to say, we pray not to fall away from our hope in God because then we would find ourselves flailing away in the world as if we had only ourselves to rely on. Evil feeds on the loss of all trust, hope, purpose, love.
So the Lord’s Prayer really does belong in the context of Jesus’ sayings about public piety. All true religion is fundamentally a trusting relationship with God that is shared with others. It is not a bid for public notice or respect. If my reputation becomes more important to me than my relationship with God, I have effectively cast in my lot with evil.
Next up: THE PITFALL OF DIVIDED LOYALTIES