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Sunday, February 25, 2018

On the Mount (19)

There are all sorts of prayers, and all sorts of people who pray.

Some prayers are emotional; others are cerebral. Some prayers are full of adoring worship; others pour out of deeply burdened hearts on the brink of despair. Some prayers are thankful; others are needy. Some prayers are so poetic you suspect they have been scripted; others are a chaotic mess. (Those would be mine, in case you’re wondering.)

Whatever their content and whatever emotions attach to them, we can divide all prayers broadly into two categories: personal or corporate.

Personal Prayers

Scripture is full of both sorts, though I suspect personal prayers are by far the most common. Hannah begged, “Look on the affliction of your servant and remember me.” Jeremiah pondered a conundrum: “You, O Lord God, have said to me, ‘Buy the field for money and get witnesses’ — though the city is given into the hands of the Chaldeans.’ ” Jonah complained, “O Lord, please take my life from me.”

These are personal prayers. They are concerned with the beseecher’s state of mind, needs and circumstances. They are often urgent, passionate and not always entirely thought through, as Jonah’s rash request demonstrates.

Corporate Prayer

Then there is corporate prayer. David cried out, “Save us, O God of our salvation,” and all the people said, “Amen!” Ezra blessed the Lord and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Moses asked the Lord, “Teach us to number our days. Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love.”

All are distinctly corporate; one person praying on behalf of all, giving voice to common worship, praise, thanks, aspiration, desire or need.

Bring on the Scholars!

Telling the two kinds apart is no great work of scholarship. Personal prayers are full of “I”, “me” and “my”. Corporate prayer is full of “we”, “our” and “us”. Personal prayers are offered on our own, sometimes in the privacy of bed. Corporate prayer is offered in synagogues, temples and other gatherings. Personal prayers can pour out of the heart and never make a sound. Corporate prayer is offered aloud. Personal prayers are the ones nobody knows about unless you tell them. Corporate prayer meets with an enthusiastic “Amens” from those who concur … or perhaps with stony silence.

Those clunkers are rare, I hope.

Synagogues and Street Corners

Why harp on this rather obvious distinction? Well, our next two sections of the Sermon on the Mount, each commencing with “And when you pray”, deal, I think, with our two sorts of prayer: one personal, one corporate.

The first paragraph is personal:
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
This is personal prayer gone wrong.

Traipsing Around in the Public Square

In case you were wondering, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with praying out loud in a synagogue. A synagogue was a place of worship. People prayed there, as they did in the temple, and that was entirely appropriate. A street corner? Yeah, that’s odd. But the synagogue would be just fine provided you were addressing God on behalf of a group of fellow worshipers, taking your collective petitions, confessions and concerns before the Most High as one.

Sadly, this was not that. It was nothing more than personal prayer traipsing around in the public square expressly for the purpose of being seen and commended.

Bad idea. Might as well just put it on one’s Facebook page.

Much might be said about good and bad personal prayers, but we would be importing those thoughts from elsewhere. In the Sermon, the Lord’s crucial point is that whatever may be the socio-cultural habits of the day, personal prayer is not exhibitionism. Don’t do it like that.

An Illustration from Luke

We get an example of misguided public prayer in Luke, in the Lord’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector. Evidently the practice of praying personal prayers in public in first century Judea was common enough that the Lord’s parable connected with his audience.

In the parable, both men are praying in public places concerning themselves:

The Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”

The tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Neither is praying on behalf of anyone else. The Pharisee is standing “by himself”, the tax collector “afar off”. They are nobody’s representatives. One is self-flagellating while the other preens.

We’ll give the tax collector a pass though. He’s got the tone right, as the Lord pointed out. We can discuss his choice of location and his volume with him another day; no need to be pharisaical about it. But note that it was his attitude the Lord commended, not necessarily his choice of venue.

The Pharisee? Well … wrong on both counts, I’m afraid. As usual.

Empty Words and Empty Gestures

I think there’s a good argument to be made that the Lord’s second paragraph is primarily concerned with corporate prayer. If you’re going to pray on the street corners and in the synagogues, THIS is how you do it:
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ ”
I won’t take you through the “Lord’s prayer” clause by clause; that’s been done elsewhere.

This Ain’t Personal …

Three reasons I think this refers to corporate prayer rather than personal:
  1. It’s contrasted with the way Gentiles pray. If the Gentiles were in the habit of praying discreetly and privately, nobody in the Lord’s audience would have had the slightest idea what they were praying about and how often they repeated what they said. Yet clearly everyone did. I therefore conclude that someone (or more likely a great number of someones) must have observed the Gentiles in action and noted that they tended to run on a bit (much like the prophets of Baal, perhaps).
  2. The entire “Lord’s prayer” is “our”, “us” and “we”, not “I” and “me”. That’s a big hint that it’s a model for corporate prayer rather than private fellowship. The Lord Jesus himself had no difficulty with using personal pronouns when praying, so that’s not the issue.
  3. The phrase “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” If this is about private prayer, we have an apparent contradiction. Elsewhere the believer is encouraged to ask, and to ask repeatedly. James even criticizes those who fail to ask. This potential difficulty disappears if we consider that the Lord is discussing what makes for appropriate corporate prayer.
The Place was Shaken

Note that corporate prayer: (1) is comparatively brief; (2) is heavily occupied with the glory of God and the carrying out of his purposes on earth; (3) is, with respect to its confession and request aspects, universal in scope: none of God’s people is without the need of daily bread, forgiveness or protection from temptation; (4) involves the person praying in asking on behalf of and for the good of others, not just himself (“give us”, “forgive us”, “lead us not”).

The believers’ prayer recorded for us in Acts 4 exemplifies these sorts of corporate concerns. The disciples had obviously taken to heart what the Lord taught about prayer.

May we do likewise.

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