First Presbyterian Church of Santa Rosa

    Roadblocks to Authentic Religious Devotion

    Matthew 6:1-8


    by Pastor Kent Webber

    Jesus addresses various roadblocks which sometimes invalidate our acts of personal religious piety – specifically our financial giving and prayer. We are still in a section of Matthew’s Gospel known as Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.”

    The first roadblock is “practicing our piety” in order to be seen by and impress others. Jesus applies that warning first to the giving of alms, finan-cial giving to the church and other religious causes. He says not to announce our generosity in order to be praised by others. Quite the oopo-site, Jesus says when we give, not to let our left hand knows what our right hand is doing, “so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” In other words we shouldn’t announce our generous giving to godly causes. The same holds true for prayer.

    In the Jewish religious culture of Jesus’ day, it was not unusual to see people standing to pray on street corners in the usual posture of prayer, standing with raised arms, head bowed, and speaking outloud. Jesus warns that while we may be impressing other people, God isn’t impressed by such displays! He calls such people “hypocrites.” In ancient Greek that word of referenced an actor, someone who plays a role, who lays aside his or her true identity and assumes a false one. In ancient Greece actors wore masks to play a part. That that may be appropriate for a costume party, but Jesus calls his followers to be transparent and congruent and to care more about what God thinks than what people think.

    Jesus advises us to go into our room (or closet) and shut the door and prayer to God our Father in secret who will sees us and will reward us accordingly. So rather than speaking with others about our devotional life, we should pray in order to connect with God, not to impress other people! The Greek verb translated “in order to be seen” is theatenai, from which we get our English word “theatre.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “Don’t do your religious activities before others in order to “be theatre” for them!

    Then in verses 7 and 8 Jesus issues an additional warning about prayer. The Greek verb translated, “Do not heap up empty phrases” in the NRSV translation appears only this single time in the entire New Testament, so it’s difficult to discern its meaning with precision. Today’s English Version renders it, “do not use a lot of meaningless words” whereas the New International Version translates Jesus’ warning, “do not keep on babbling.” The parallel phrase follows clearly focuses on needlessly lengthy prayers; “for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” Jesus is warning that “longer prayers aren’t necessarily better prayers.” Jesus’ own model prayer is very brief – just six short sentences that takes just thirty seconds to recite! Long prayers are fine if that’s what it takes to express what we need to say to God, and to listen for God’s response. However, longer prayers aren’t required to get God to listen! In effect Jesus is teaching, “Don’t worry about the length of your prayers; what really matters is their quality and frequency and intensity!”

    May our discipleship practices of financial giving and prayer be offered to God in Christ in ways that are honest and heartfelt, designed not to impress other people, but God alone!

    Published on August 15, 2021


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