Prayer - not like that! - Matthew 6:5-13

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 28th September 2008.

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I wonder if you’ve seen a programme on the Tele called the secret Millionaire. 

Well if you haven’t let me initiate you.  It’s a programme about secret millionaires.  About millionaires who pretend they’re skint and working in Tesco’s or wherever, and they turn up at various community projects and charities offering to volunteer their services.  On the surface, they’re just like any other charitably-minded member of the community.  But of course, they’re secret millionaires, so they’ve got another agenda.   And the secret agenda of the secret millionaires is to suss out the various projects they’re visiting.  Suss them out to see which ones they’re going to give some money to.  And at the end of the programme they go round and visit the 2 or 3 projects they decide on and come clean that don’t really work in Tesco;  no I’m really a millionaire property developer or whatever and here’s a cheque for £10K or so. 

And a few months later the cameras go back with the not-so-secret millionaire to see what the projects have done with the money.  And more often than not, there’s tears and the project leader describe how the money’s transformed the project and more importantly the lives of the people the project is trying to help.   What could possibly be wrong with that you might be asking?  Rich people giving some of their wealth to help the most disadvantaged in society. 

And at one level absolutely nothing.  Most, if not all, the projects that receive money from the secret millionaires are doing amazing work, sometimes with the most marginalised people in our society.  But actually, the secret millionaire is actually a bit of a misnomer isn’t it?  Because you can’t get much less secret that making a prime time TV programme about your own personal charitable giving.  Now I don’t have a window into people’s hearts.  And so I’m not going to criticise the motives of those individual millionaires on the programme.   


But the point Jesus is making in today’s passage is that, if you do your acts of righteousness in such a public way, then there’s a risk that you’re doing it for the wrong reason.  Of course charities are going to be grateful when they receive 1000s of £ towards their causes, and rightly so.  But if you give away what is a relatively small proportion of your overall assets and announce it to the world through the media, then Jesus says there’s a risk that you’re not engaged in real charity; no, rather than genuine charity, Jesus warns us of the risk of being involved in a crass publicity stunt. 

And it’s that underlying issue of hypocrisy that Jesus is exposing in today’s passage.  So, if you’re not already there, then pl turn back with me to Matt 6 on p [901/    1503]

We’re into the second week in our series on the Lord’s Prayer.  The Lord’s Prayer wasn’t written in a vacuum.  No, in Matthew’s Gospel it forms a part of J's sermon on the mount;  which is why last week we looked at the introduction to that Sermon in the Beatitudes.    And so firstly we learnt, that true blessing means being a Christian;  and secondly, true blessing means growing as a Christian.  And one central aspect of both becoming a Christian and then growing in the faith is prayer:  asking God for things that is.    Which is why in the heart of the sermon on the mount in 6:9-14, Jesus teaches us about prayer; this is how you should pray: the Lord’s Prayer.

But the problem is, that unless our hearts are right before God, unless we’ve rooted out all that hypocrisy, then learning about the Lord’s prayer won’t help us.  In fact, if we’re hypocrites, then learning about the Lord’s prayer will actually be dangerous.  Because for a hypocrite, learning how to pray will simply help them to be a more effective hypocrite.  It would be a bit like sending a Mafia boss on one of those management training courses I used to go on when I worked in the City.    The course might well help him to run the organisation better;   but who wants the Mafia to be more efficient at drug running and knee capping.  Certainly not God.    And neither does God was religious hypocrites to learn how to be better hypocrites. 

And so this whole section in 6:1-18 is all about unmasking the hypocrites.    Look with me at v1:

1"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Our word ‘hypocrisy’ comes from a Greek word for actors who wore masks;  so hypocrisy is all about covering up your underlying sinful actions or motivation with a mask;  a mask of external religious piety.    V1 is the key, but this whole section in v1-18 is all about getting rid of the mask;  rooting out the hypocrisy.    And it’s important stuff isn’t it?  Why?  Because the end of v1 tells us that the hypocrites won’t receive any reward from our heavenly Father;    those whose repentance and faith is a sham, as we saw last week, won’t be part of the Kingdom of Heaven;  on the last Jesus day will say to them:  away from me you evil-doers;  I never knew you;  despite your profession of Christian faith and your external piety, hypocritical Christians won’t make it to heaven;  because they won't have really asked and received the forgiveness that Jesus offers.  The forgiveness that each and every one of us needs because of our sins. 

And that’s why it’s so important to root out hypocrisy in the church.  Because hypocrisy that’s not dealt with will lead people to hell.    And as well as the hypocrites themselves, they might drag others down with them who aren’t mature enough to spot the sham.

So if you were here last week, then you might remember that I briefly mentioned the 2 main types of hypocrisy:  first you could be a conscious or deliberate hypocrite; but secondly, you could be just a hard-hearted or self-deluded hypocrite.  And the hard hearted or self-deluded hypocrite is often puffed up with their own sense of self importance and self-righteousness – literally blind to their own faults.  And it’s this second type of hypocrisy that Jesus is dealing with in these verses.  And to penetrate the thick skin of the self-deluded hypocrite, Jesus gives 3 practical examples of such hypocrisy: And top of the list is our giving and prayer lives. 

Giving (v2-4)

And so in v2-4, we’re back to the secret, or perhaps the not so secret, millionaire.    And in the context of our Harvest Festival next week and our gift day today it’s really relevant isn’t it?  Look with me at v2:

 2"So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men.

In J’s day, when there was a social emergency in Jerusalem, then they literally blew the trumpets at the temple in a certain way, and the men of the city came running with their cheque books.   We’ve just set up a homeless project for refugees from the West Bank;  can you help;  yes of course, how much do you need.    And can you hurry up with the receipt please, I need to get back to work;   O and let’s make sure the TV cameras get a glimpse of the cheque so they can notice how much I’m giving.    Perhaps I’ll frame the thank you letter when it comes and put it in the reception at my office. 

But of course it’s not just a problem for the well off is it?   I wonder if you were planning to bring something to the Harvest Festival next week?   I hope you are, because all the gifts of produce are going to Hayworth Hall, a residential home for the elderly on the Hayworth park estate;  which I hope you’ll agree is a worthy cause.    But if you are planning to bring something, let me ask you why?      Do we really care where the produce is going, or are we more interested in having a good spread on display for our service?    I have to say to my shame, that often when it comes to harvest festivals, we’re often fumbling around in the cupboards to find something to bring, because we’ve been so busy preparing for the harvest service that we’ve only remember the produce at the last minute.  And I’ve heard about arguments in other churches over about who brought the biggest marrow.  Pathetic isn’t it?    So perhaps the best test of how genuine our concern for the poor is, is to examine our regular habits of giving throughout the year:  the poor and the marginalised are a particular concern to God;  and there are Christian charities through which you can give regularly to support a child in an orphanage, or sponsor a whole family trying to get out of the poverty trap;  and of course there are regular appeals for help following disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. 

And I’ve left a few copies of an e-mail I’ve received about the latest appeal for help from some Indonesian Christians who’ve had their homes, their business, their schools and their churches burnt to the ground by Muslim extremists.  And of course, that’s just one project among many needs across the globe that are constantly coming up.

But the point is: how are we doing in our giving to the poor throughout the whole year, not just at harvest.  Are we doing it at all, and if we are, are we doing it discreetly as v3 tell us. 

And of course v3 applies to our giving in church as well.  Which is why giving anonymously is so important in church.    As well as being administratively efficient, giving by DD means that we don’t have to put our regular offerings in the basket on Sundays;  and it also has the advantage that we don’t miss a payment simply because we can’t make church that particular week.  But we shouldn’t be noticing who puts what into the basket anyway.  And I certainly don’t want to know who’s giving what.   Because it would be unhelpful for me in pastoral relationships;  but it could also be unhelpful for you in terms of pride. 

Anonymous giving is meant to protect us from pride; to protect us from falling into hypocrisy.  But anonymous giving isn’t meant to be a good cover for a lack of generosity.     In v2, Jesus assumes that we’re giving;  and the rest of the NT commands us to be giving generously.  Generous, discrete giving then. 

 2"So when you give to the needy [at harvest or to the church on Sundays], do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Not prayers to impress, but prayer to God (v5)

We’ve unmasked the hypocrisy in our giving.  And so next we move onto our prayer lives.    Because in v5 we’re told not to pray to impress people, but pray to God.  And so that’s the first main heading in v5; don’t pray to impress people, pray to God.    Look with me at v5:

 5"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.

And again to understand the force of this we need to do another bit of time travel.  Because in J’s day in Jerusalem the Jews prayed at 3 set times of the day:  sunrise, at 3pm when the afternoon sacrifice was made, and at sunset.  And there were 18 set prayers that pious Jews would recite;    and the super-pious would stand still for up to an hour before the set prayer times so they could prepare themselves to pray properly.    And when it was prayer time, the trumpet would sound;  and so if you were pious, you’d stop wherever you were in the street and start reciting those 18 prayers.  And the super-pious:  well they’d already been on the street corner for an hour waiting for the church bells to start them off with their prayers.

But it wasn’t just street corners.   In the synagogues, they had intercessions just likewise do in church.    And the point Jesus is making in v5 is that clearly some people at the time weren’t simply  presenting their requests to Almighty God;  no they were praying-up to the congregation.  Maybe they were praying great long prayers to show off how much of the OT they knew;  maybe they used flowery over-the-top language or tired clichés;  maybe they prayed things they knew would go down well with the congregation, while at the same time avoiding subjects they knew would be controversial.  Whatever the content of their payer, their aim was clear:  to impress people. 

It’s an issue for all of us, but perhaps those in greatest danger of falling into pride and hypocrisy are church leaders.   I know my own heart.  It’s perfectly possible to be leading public worship and be thinking about something else;  maybe it’s what’s coming later in the service so I’m not concentrating fully on the prayer in hand at the moment.  Or maybe my mind has wandered onto something completely different.  Even at home, I can kneel down at bedtime with my children and pray the Lord’s Prayer;  but I know it so well, the words can come sometimes come out of my mouth without even going through my brain.  Church leaders are especially prone to falling into the trap of pride and hypocrisy.  And so we need your prayers.

But it’s not just church leaders.  If you lead the intercession here in church; if you pray out loud at a church prayer meeting or in your HG, or if you lead the grace or other prayers in your family units at home as I hope you do, then what are your motives;   and J's diagnosis is that often are motives are at best mixed;  and if we don’t identify and root out even the slight twinge of hypocrisy, then our hearts will become progressively harder  until eventually we become blind to our faults. 

So let’s reflect on this test for hypocrisy:  do you pray more frequently and reverently when you’re alone with God in private then when you do in public?  Do you love your secret place of prayer, wherever it might be?    Is your public praying simply an outflow of your private prayers?  Because if any of these answers is no, then you’re a hypocrite and your prayers are a sham. 

Who will rescue us from this mess of hypocrisy?  Thanks be to God for our Lord Jesus Christ and the forgiveness he offers for all sin.    Yes the sins of hypocrisy can be forgiven like other sin.  But only with repentance;  and genuine repentance will mean a turning away from sin and hypocrisy towards a new and purer prayer life that seeks to please God and God alone.  Don’t pray to impress people then, but pray to God; and God alone, even when we’re praying public.

2.      Not mindless repetition, but prayers from the heart

We’ve covered a lot of background, but the key issue this morning is how not to pray.  The unmasking of hypocrisy.  So we’ve looked at the show off prays in v5;  and so now in v7 we commanded not to pray with mindless repetition, but with prayers from the heart.  Not mindless repetition, but prayers from the heart.  Let’s read v7 again. 

7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.

So how do pagans pray?  Well remember the story of Elijah and the prophet of Baal in 1 Kings 18?  Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a prayer contest.  And the prophets of Baal went first:  and they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon.  And there was no answer; so after lunch, they continued praying the same stuff, but louder and louder;  they became more and more hysterical and started slashing themselves with knives to get their god to notice.    And of course he didn’t because he doesn’t  exist, but that’s another story.   

And if you know the background to the OT, then you’ll know that Baal was just one of many made-up pagan gods.  And it’s always been standard pagan practice to cover all the bases so to speak;  to offer the same prayers to this god, that god and the other god to make sure they’re all happy. 

And it’s still the same in India and other places today where Hinduism and other pagan religions have multiple gods.  God needs to be nagged in prayer to get him or her to listen, but there’s lots of gods, so they all need to be nagged so none of them feel left out.  Pagan prayer is a sort of giant celestial insurance policy. 

Pagan prayer then.  But the most shocking thing of all is that God’s people have always tended to slip back into similar pagan babbling;  or as the more literal New American Standard version of the Bible puts it:  mindless repetition.    It’s not just the Jews with their 18 set prayers on street corners.  Let’s come back to the Lord’s prayer in v9:

“This, then, is how you should pray;”  The whole point of the Lord’s Prayer is that it’s a model prayer, not just a set prayer we repeat.  Back in the second century, the church issued a ruling that said all Christians should prayer the LP 3 times a day.    And of course many of us like to say the LP every Sunday, or maybe even every day.  But do understand the LP?  Do we know what we’re praying about, or is it just mindless repetition?   

Or what about other prayers that some people repeat:  quite apart from its questionable theology, what’s the point in saying prayers like Hail Mary more than once?  God’s not deaf.  But there’s a similar danger even with more theologically sound liturgies like the BCP:  good prayers and liturgy can be, and have been, a great tool for god-honouring worship.  But with any set prayers, Jesus is warning us about the danger of mindless repetition. 

It’s not that repetition in itself is the problem.  After all, on another occasion Jesus taught us the parable of the persistent widow;  and the whole point of that parable was that we’re to be persistent in prayer;  we’re not to give up on prayer;  no we’re to be faithful and persevering in prayer.  There’s nothing wrong in praying the Lord’s prayer or other good prayers on a regular basis.  The thing Jesus wants to root out is hypocrisy.  The mindless repetition of prayers, even good prayers;  mindless repetition that treats God like some celestial slot machine in the sky;  you know, say the right words the right number of times and God comes up with the goods.  Well he doesn’t.  God’s a person not a machine, and he won’t be manipulated by an empty mantra that’s endlessly repeated.  God hates hypocrisy.  Which is why Jesus warns us about it. 

So when you say your private prayers, are you just going through the motions?    Are you thinking about what you’re saying when you say grace or lead family devotions;  or are you rattling through the prayer so you can get on with eating?  ‘Dear Lord Jesus, thank you for this food. Amen’.   Pass the salt darling.   And when you’re in church, is your mind engaged with the liturgy, the prayers, the readings and the sermon;  or are you thinking about the football, your lunch or the Christ Factor?  Because if our prayers and devotions really are just mindless repetition, then they’re a waste of time;  just like the prophets of Baal, God won’t be listening;  indeed, it’s worse that useless;  because God hates hypocrisy and God won’t be mocked. 

So let’s root out the hypocrisy;   how not to pray then;  not like a hypocrite; 

Not prayers to impress people, but prayers to God.     Not mindless repetition, but prayers from the heart.    How not to pray then.  And next week, we’ll have some more positive examples of how we should be praying.  So let’s pray.

Closing Prayer

Dear HF, have mercy on us for our hypocrisy, when we give to impress, when we pray to impress or when we pray with mindless repetition.  Forgives us we pray and teach us to pray to you sincerely, with clear minds and engaged hearts that we might honour your name and see our prayers more frequently answered.  For our spiritual growth but your ultimate glory we pray, Amen. 

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