We often think it rather rude to lift ourselves up at the expense of others. We might grimace when our mother compares us to our sibling, telling us to “Look at Johnny. He always keeps his room clean. Why can’t you be more like your brother?”
But learning through comparing ourselves with others has a place.
I am preaching a series through the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. I’ve arrived at the heart of the Sermon where Jesus teaches about prayer. There Jesus uses the pedagogical approach of instructing us how to pray by comparing that prayer to others.
“See that guy over there praying? Don’t do that.”
One of the reasons Jesus takes that approach is that the wrong things He highlights aren’t just seen in others. They are found in us.
First, He tells us not to pray as the hypocrites do. Readers of my blog will know that I have had serious heart problems recently. The doctors call it a “diseased heart.” What you didn’t know is that it is even worse than diagnosed. My diseased heart produces a toxin that poisons my entire being. That toxin is called “pride” and one its chief symptoms is hypocrisy.
This is a heart disease all of us share. That’s why later in the Sermon Jesus will instruct us to take the log out of our own eye before taking the speck out of someone else’s. Hypocrisy is accompanied by distorted vision. It is farsighted. It is an “invisible” disease—invisible to us, not to others. When Jesus talks about hypocrisy in His Sermon, He is not addressing “them.” He is teaching those who count themselves His disciples.
All of us are prone to channel our inner Pharisee.
Hypocrisy has multiple manifestations. The one Jesus emphasizes is praying for show, seeking the praise of men. We long for the “wow’ from people rather than the “well done” from the mouth of our God.
When we just go through the motions but our minds are somewhere else and our hearts far from God, whether it is in prayer or another religious practice, that’s nothing but zombie religion.
Second, Jesus tells us not to pray as the Gentiles do. Gentiles are those outside of the kingdom of God. Evidently, they thought word count made their prayers count with God. I think that’s called “blathering.” Jesus said it counts for nothing.
Jesus informs us that Gentiles also make widespread use of empty phrases. I’m not sure what those are, but I know it’s easy to think our prayers better if they contain big theological words and pious sounding expressions. The empty phrases no doubt are the filler for wordy prayer. But Jesus urges us on to authentic prayer. He wants us tuned in to the God we know as “Father,” with all that means.
These Gentiles also had a small view of God. They thought God didn’t know their needs until they told Him. Jesus says, “Do not be like them, for your Father knows before you ask Him.”
Now that Jesus mentions it, if God already knows why does He want us to ask? We don’t suppose God needs to be informed of our needs. After all, He is omniscient. We believe Psalm 139. Plus, if God is our father and knows our needs, why doesn’t He just take care of them without us having to ask?
Actually, Jesus doesn’t address that question in Matthew 6. He does elsewhere (see my discussion of the subject in Why Do We Pray?). Instead, He goes on to teach us how to pray. He lays out a model prayer (not “pray this,” but “pray like this”), noted for its brevity but radical in its tone and well-suited for us former spiritual Gentiles and recovering Pharisees.