Beyond the Lectionary Text: Matthew 6:5-15

by Lora Copley

Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

Helmut Thielicke preached to the church in Stuttgart in the declining days of Germany’s “reign of terror.” Screaming sirens, underground bomb shelters and fear surrounded his congregation. When Rev. Thielicke started a sermon series on this very text, his congregation was still worshipping in the Church of the Hospitallers. The series ended in a parish house. The venerable church had been bombed to the ground.

Yet for all this chaos and despair (as Thielicke wrote it), “the Lord’s Prayer was able to contain it all. There was not a single question we could not have brought to it, and not one question that was not suddenly transformed if it were put in the form of a prayer.” For a congregation desperate for “a valid comfort” able to stand up to a world where “the furies” had been unleashed, the gospel- contained in the Lord’s Prayer- became that very comfort.

One of the great problems we have in preaching this text is that it is too great. Every word is a diamond and every facet a sermon. Yet like many treasures, priceless and wonderful (think family, water, education, life itself), we take it for granted. We yawn. We run through the “to do list” while intoning the words of the Prayer on autopilot.

This prayer- one of Jesus’ best gifts to His church- becomes a cross-stitch to prettify the walls of our liturgies or table graces, rather than the “valid comfort” that can stand up to the furies of Hell itself.

In order to taste what Thielicke’s congregation experienced about prayer and specifically the Lord’s Prayer, we have to see the gospel running in and through and surrounding this text.  The text is all about a relationship with God grounded in grace over against religious activity grounded in self. Jesus’ teaching on prayer is nestled in the larger teaching (Matthew 6:1-18) of how we practice righteousness. For centuries, rabbis argued the most essential faith practices were three—almsgiving, prayer and fasting. (Or we could say: faith in relation to others—almsgiving, faith in relation to God-prayer, and with self-mortification of flesh through fasting.) It’s natural that Jesus, the great Rabbi, when he talks about piety, turns to these three.

We immediately notice Jesus assumes his disciples are doing all three. (Uses “when” not “if”.) Jesus does not need to make a case for these practices; it’s a given. (Is it still?) What Jesus does for all three practices is prop open the hood and motion us to examine the engine underneath. Is our righteousness running on the cylinders of Self? Or is something else powering it? How do we know?

As applied to prayer, we ask is our prayer-life powered by notice from others or notice by (a hidden) God? To put another way: do we want to get glory or do we want to get God? Jesus says it’s possible for even a good thing like prayer to be driven by very bad motives– a desire for control, for applause, for image-management. (See textual point.)

A good way to check our heart on this, says Jesus, is secrecy. Move prayer from the street corner to the inner room. “The truest measure of a man is who he is when no one is looking.” But Someone is looking; the One with whom we want a relationship. (How would a lover feel is you only paid attention to him or her in public? Used. Might the Lover of our souls feel the same way?)

If our prayers are about a relationship, then it’s not manipulating outcomes. In verses 7-8, Jesus challenges the kind of prayer that thinks it can merit a hearing from God, given the right prayer statistics. If I just pray long enough, intensely enough, with the right words, and repetition of words, then God has to answer my prayer. This too is Self-powered prayer–prayer becomes a formula or technique to control God. The point here, again, is not about a relationship, it’s about what I want.

(What an anxious way to pray, by the way– having to make the correct diagnosis, given in the proper petitions and with the right quality of fervor. What peace that our Father knows the diagnosis even before I kneel, vs 8.)

After Jesus exposes the wrong engine for prayer, he gives us the blueprint for what a grace-engined, child-postured prayer looks like. We enflesh this structure, this skeleton, with the particularities of our times and place. (Many note that this prayer is better termed “The Disciples’ Prayer” than the “Lord’s Prayer, but look how much John 17’s ‘Lord’s Prayer’ flows out of the structure given here.)

Right off the bat, we see two things: 1) the prayer is not, first of all, about us and 2) it is predicated on a familial relationship. (The literary center of the whole Sermon on the Mount is the phrase “Our Father.”)

We see the first half of the prayer puts first things first–adoration of God. Actually the prayer adores God all the way through: He’s above us in the heavens, He’s holy, He’s personal- having a name, He’s King, His will is good, He cares about big things (like “earth becoming as it is in heaven”), He cares about small things (like being a giver of groceries), He’s a forgiver, a sovereign and a deliverer.

One of the most important things for our faith is to get our magnifying glass off “the furies,” off our fightings and fears, and on to our Father. Only then will our hearts find rest. Only then will His concerns be given priority (Your Name… your Kingdom… your will.)

As Pastor Ron Hutchcraft put it, the Lord’s Prayer moves “from the galaxies to the groceries.” While the prayer places our needs in a second-place position, it does not eliminate them. All our cares–from physical (food) to spiritual (forgiveness) to communal (we too forgive) to moral (deliver us from evil) are to be brought to our Father.

Did you notice the predominance of the 1st person plural in the second half of the prayer? Eight times–us, our, we. We are not just “supplicating” for our own needs, this is intercession for others. We automatically are made concerned for those who have no bread, who are “in debt,” or temptation. (2 Cor 11:29.) We take horizontal gospel so seriously, that we ask God not to forgive us until we forgive others.

The teaching on prayer ends with the acid test of whether we live out of a grace-based relationship with God or out of a merit-based, self-based one: forgiveness. The former forgives others and keeps open the conduit of God’s forgiveness; the latter blocks both. This “forgiveness postcript,” wrote Bruner, shows that forgiveness is “almost single-word summary of both the Christian gospel and the Christian ethic.”(Matthew, pg 257)

Textual Points

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