When I was growing up, I went to church every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, and every Wednesday night without fail. From the time I was three weeks old, I went to church through colds, the flu, sprained ankles, chicken pox, vacations, heartbreaks, earthquakes, and storms. Growing up, I never missed. Ever.
And, then, a couple of times a year, we would bring in a special preacher that was called an “evangelist.” It’s a bit of a misnomer because an evangelist, at least what the word means, is a person who helps those who do not know Christ to meet Jesus and see that he is their savior. But, in those days, evangelists went to churches and held church for seven straight nights, teaching people who already go to church and already know Jesus why they should meet him again. And, on those weeks, a couple of times a year, I would be at church on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday – all 7 days!
And for seven days, we would have some man preach at us hellfire and brimstone so hard and so heavy that we actually might consider accepting Jesus again just to get the man to stop screaming at us.
One of my earliest memories of having an evangelist come and preach, was when I was five or six years old, and sitting in the sanctuary while this fellow was praying. We all had our eyes closed and he prayed and prayed and prayed… “Father God, convict the poor sinners and save them from the depths of hell. Father God, let them know the burning that you want to save them from, Father God….” It felt like hours too. His prayer felt like twenty minutes of a bunch of yelling at us mixed with a bunch of floofy words.
As I got older, even as I struggled with my faith, I developed a taste for reading the Bible. When I finally got old enough to read and understand it, I remember reading this verse: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases… [you] will not be heard because of your many words.” My eyes lit up and I said to myself, “I knew it!” All along, even when I was five years old, I knew it!
David Bentley Heart translates that verse, “Do not babble repetitious phrases.” We read and understand it, but we don’t always follow it. Sometimes we know what we should be doing, but we aren’t quite able to hold up the mirror to ourselves to see what we are actually doing. We often have bad vision when it comes to this life of faith. We’re not exactly 20/20; we’re more likely to be judged, spiritually, at least, as legally blind.
A couple of weeks ago, the news media, social media, and many of our Monday-morning conversations were centered around vision or “poor” vision. We were making jokes and sending memes to one another because of a certain referee in the Rams/Saints game. The one that I liked the best was someone who had photoshopped Sandra Bullock’s head from the movie Bird Box (the recent horror movie where everyone had to remain blindfolded to keep the monster at bay) onto the referee from that game.
This meme is really funny because it brings two diverse parts of our culture together, and they met up at the same time (both the movie and the game) and spoke the same truth – sometimes we don’t see what we’re meant to see! This moment taught us that we need help to recognize what is actually right in front of our eyes.
During this sermon series, in which we have talked about the New Year and our resolutions, this has happened a few times; we have seen a lot of ways that Jesus shows us how poor our vision is, as Christians. With the Magi, we learned that we are often lost, even when we don’t realize it, and how to go from lost to found. With John the Baptist, we learned that we have built a Christian Church that wouldn’t include even him. With Jesus and his temptation, we learned that his suffering became his strength. And, with Jesus’ many followers, we learned that being “blessed” doesn’t always sound like a good thing. And, today, we learn with those same followers, in Jesus’ same sermon, one chapter later, that many of the outward displays of religion that we do are rejected by Jesus as being good, and we have to ask ourselves why we do them.
And the first thing that he starts with is being holy in public. The scripture says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others….” For many years, the church I grew up in had a program that provided very cheap food for low-income people. Every week, volunteers would come and unload trucks and carry food to the cars of many needy people. But, every once in a while, the news media would come to do a story about this program, and, without fail, our local politicians would also show up and would be seen on the news carrying boxes… just long enough for the photo op. “Beware of practicing your piety before others….”
Then Jesus says, “When you give to charity, do not trumpet it aloud before you….” When you give gifts to God, or to ministries of mercy, don’t spread it around. But, let me tell you, in seminary, the first thing that they tell you to do about money in the church, especially in regard to teaching good habits of giving, is to make sure that the leaders of the church know that you and your family tithe. It’s step one according to them: make sure that everyone knows. Yet Jesus says that, when it comes to charity, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
And then it gets real because this is a big part of doing church together. Jesus says, “When you pray…” don’t pray like the Pharisees, out front and out loud, “standing in the synagogues,” so that people can see them. Don’t do that. “When you pray, enter into your private room and, having closed the door, pray to your father who is in secret….”
Up until now, in regard to public piety and charity, we could explain it away and feel pretty good, like we were doing okay. But, if Jesus said, explicitly, do not pray publicly, what are we doing here? In just a moment, I am going to pray for a couple of minutes, several minutes, for the needs of our people. If Jesus said no, then what are we doing?
Redemption in the Bible
Discovering this is the heart of how to read the Bible. We have a big question to answer and the Bible seems to contradict everything we do as a church. So, if Jesus said when you pray, pray privately, why do we do it?
As good of a question as that is, there is a more important one: Is Jesus speaking to us in this chapter? We take that for granted. Of course, Jesus is speaking to a problem of his time, but often in scripture, he’s also speaking to us. Is this one of those times? Is Jesus speaking to us? Is he telling us to stop it, to stop praying publicly?
The first thing to do in a situation like this is to check what the rest of scripture says. So what do other places in scripture say about public prayer? Jesus has already told us one thing. In our passage, he has said, “Do not pray like the hypocrites.” And he gives examples of praying in the synagogues (Jewish churches) and on the streets. In our time, his words bring up a picture of those street preachers with signs and screams of hell and damnation. “Do not pray like the hypocrites.”
But, then, in a different place in scripture, we hear the Apostle Paul, in 1 Timothy 2, say that he wants them to pray everywhere, lifting up their hands to God, as an instrument of peacemaking.
Then, on the other side, again, Luke 18 gives the example of two men entering the synagogue to pray. One, a Pharisee, prays aloud, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this [man beside me].” The other, a tax collector, could barely get words out, but with tears and trembling voice he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” It is immediately clear who Jesus thinks is the righteous one and which one he thinks is a hypocrite.
And, Paul, in 1 Thessalonians says, again, “Pray without ceasing.” So, what’s going on here?
If we were to read only our passage this morning, we would feel like we have been mistaken and that Jesus was calling us away from one the most powerful ways that we worship together. But, when we look at the whole of scripture, together, we realize that Jesus was calling us away from self-righteousness and being hypocritical.
When we pray, we can’t use empty and boring words; our prayers can’t be full of froo-froo phases. They can’t indict our neighbors; we can’t use prayer for judging our neighbors. They can’t be used for judgment at all. They have to be used for confession. We can’t talk about other people’s sins in our prayers; we must focus on our sins.
The biggest proof that this is what Jesus means is found when he gives us an example of how to pray, The Lord’s Prayer.
It is a prayer of praise, a prayer of begging God to make things right, a prayer of asking for God to take care of our needs, and of confession and of keeping us from evil. It is much more the prayer of that tax collector than it is of the Pharisee.
It is not a prayer of judgment and empty words, like the prayer of the evangelist from my childhood. It is a prayer of plain words, plain thoughts. It is a prayer to God that assumes he is close to us and knows our needs before we ask.
And so, may we pray that our prayers be made plain, may they be earnest, and may they be heard by a God who loves us more than we can know, in Christ Jesus. Amen.