….for The Catholic Weekly. This week: “Jesus on Prayer”:
If the first Lenten discipline Jesus discusses in the Sermon on the Mount is almsgiving, the biggest (at least by word count) discipline he discusses is prayer (Matthew 6:5-15).
I could literally do an entire series of articles, just dissecting the Our Father line by line, but for our purposes, I want to instead focus, not on the Our Father itself (I’m reasonably certain you are familiar with it), but on the two prefatory remarks Jesus makes before he teaches it and (in my next piece) on the one postscript commentary he offers after it.
Jesus’ first prefatory comment should have a familiar ring:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)
If that sounds a lot like his comments on almsgiving, that’s because it is. As with his teaching on almsgiving, Jesus warns against using prayer to virtue-signal and try to win praise from people.
Only the thing is, the culture Jesus is addressing is very different from ours. In his day, ostentatious public prayer was a way to earn social brownie points. People thought it was cool if you made a big show of prayer in first century Judea. Nowadays, not so much. People who stand on street corners and make a big thing of prayer are seen as weirdos, not as living saints. So the irony is that today, one particularly excruciating form of penance might be for somebody who would not be caught dead offering a public prayer to be asked to, say, offer a blessing at a family meal, or convene some sort of gathering with a prayer, or lay hands on a sick person and pray for them. Very few Catholics, beyond a smattering of charismatics, would dream of offering an audible prayer in a public setting outside of the Mass and would be aghast if they somehow found themselves in a situation that required them to pray on a street corner. And nobody in our culture would admire them if they did.
So what are we to take from this counsel against doing something nobody today would be caught dead doing?
The same thing we take from the warning against doing almsgiving to be a show-off. Sure, public prayer is not wildly popular in our culture. But there is still a ton of performative piety out that we can fall into. Anything that is popular in our social circle that we do, not unto God, but to be seen and admired by our peers, is what Jesus warns against. You don’t even have to believe in God to do it. People who prattle about climate change and recycling, not because they care about these things, but to impress a girl, are doing it. So are politicians who blather insincerely to win votes and not to serve the common good. But Christians are betraying their consciences more deeply when they virtue-signal because they are betraying their Father for mere human praise.
That brings us to Jesus’ second prefatory comment, which boils down to reminding us that prayer is about a relationship with a Father who gives us grace in a living relationship of love, not about a magic spell being cast on a capricious pixie in a fearful attempt to gain power over him.
The reason the Our Father is the Our Father and the reason it is so brief is that it is not an elaborate magical invocation in which you have to either be a wordy windbag to really wind up the charm and talk the spirits into listening, or else you have to get the legal language just exactly right lest the genie find a loophole and betray you.
Jesus’ teaching on prayer is predicated on the shocking revelation God is our Father and is for us, not against us; that prayer is not an attempt to talk him into loving us, nor a legal contract, nor a magic spell, but communion of our heart with him and his heart of love with ours.
And it is because the heart we bring him is so often broken that we must talk next time about the one and only commentary Jesus makes on the Our Father: his absolute demand we forgive all who sin against us.