Praying to Impress

Today’s passage: Matthew 6:5-8

Last week, we continued our exploration of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, considering what kind of person a “kingdom of God” person is. At the end of Matthew 5, Jesus said that we – his disciples – should be perfect as our Father in the heavens is perfect.

But immediately after urging perfection – for that is what a person wholly made like Jesus is like – Jesus saw fit to warn us to take heed for what motivates our actions. It is, sadly, quite possible for us to do good things for precisely the wrong reason. It’s possible for us to acts of righteousness not out of love for God or for the world around us, but merely for the love of the world around us. Jesus warns us, however, that if our lives are dominated by a desire for the applause of people, that applause is the only reward we should expect to receive.

In last week’s message, we saw how giving to those in need can be perverted in this way. Jesus spoke strongly against the hypocrites – actors, wearing a mask of piety – who would make their philanthropy obvious for all to see. Their reward: the respect and applause of the people around them.
But Jesus people aren’t like that. The only reward they look for is that from God. When they give, it’s without thought of what others will think. They give out of love for God, and for the one in need.

This weekend, we continue with Jesus’ second illustration of how kingdom people set out to seek God’s reward alone. The first illustration, giving to those in need, had to do with our relationships to those around us. The second illustration, praying, has to do with our relationship with God.

As with giving to those in need, Jesus assumes that His people will spend time praying to our Father. When we pray, we are communicating with God; sharing our lives together. We get to share in the life of God! He invites us to listen to Him, to partner with Him, and to just enjoy being with Him. And we get to share our lives with God: our joys, sorrows, needs, worries, pains, and triumphs. And God listens, and God acts!

You might say that prayer is one of the most “ultimate” things a human being can do: relating to the Lord and Creator of all that is, our Redeemer and adoptive Father. And yet so many of prayers fail to rise beyond the level of our own ego! So many of our prayers, although ostensibly addressed to God, aren’t actually intended for God at all!

Jesus warns against being hypocrites who pray to impress people. As with giving to impress, the impressed-ness of the crowds is the only reward we should expect to receive. And it’s a nice reward! It feels good to have everybody think how wonderfully one prays. It’s nice to have everyone assume that we are so much more spiritual than the average person on the street. It’s nice… as long as we don’t consider what a farce we are acting in!

Jesus is right, I think, to warn us to watch out. Have you ever noticed that you sound different when you pray? Do you worry about what people are thinking about you when you pray? Do you not pray in public because you’re worried about what people will think of you? Do you sometimes pray not so much to share life with God as to gossip about someone, or to make a point against someone else? Do you sometimes use prayer as a way of informing everyone else about something you think is important? I can certainly think of times when these have been true of me, and I suspect that I’m not alone in this.

Rather than praying for public applause, Jesus urges us to pray to God in private. But what exactly does that mean? And does that mean that we shouldn’t be praying when someone else is present?
Jesus also warns us against treating prayer as a means to impress God. Prayer isn’t meant to be about impressing anybody – it’s meant to be about sharing our lives with God, and sharing in His life. It’s about spending time, and sharing our hopes and concerns with our heavenly Father. But how easy is it not for our prayers to descend into rote repetitions, as if God can be forced to act by the mere force of the weight of our many words! But what does such an attitude say about how we really feel about God?

If our ego is our ambition in prayer, it alone will be our reward. God our Father loves us very, very much. And as we spend time with Him, we find that we come away changed. We tend to become like those we hang out with; and in prayer we get to hang out with God! This is one of the ways that God transforms us from the inside, making us like His Son, Jesus. Oh, that we would actually want to, and actually would hang out with God in prayer – not making him a third wheel or the spiritual version of a vending machine.

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