The Preface to His Prayer

Matthew 6:1-18,  Luke 11:1-13

The disciples of Jesus had prayed all their lives.  They belonged to a culture and to a religion that had taken prayer very seriously.  Prayers in the homes, prayers in the synagogue and prayers in the temple were ongoing activities.  The scriptures were filled with prayers for almost every possible occasion in life.  These disciples knew how to pray.  Or so they thought.

1.         The Problem of Prayer

Then they met a man who was wired very differently.  He too prayed.  But prayer had a significance in his life that it did not have in theirs. 

The practice of Jesus was to pray in secret.  Prayer was a private practice.  He would leave his friends rather frequently and head off to the mountains alone. He left them so he could pray by himself.  There were those many mornings when they awoke a great while before day only to find him missing. They would look for him and catch him praying in a solitary place.  That’s why Judas knew where to find him on that Maundy Thursday.  He would be praying in Gethsemane.   Jesus had taken his friends with him, but even there he leaves his disciples near the entry way, while he went off to a quiet corner to pray.  We know from his teachings that He encouraged his followers to pray in secret, in the inner room with the door closed. 

For months the disciples were aware of his practice of prayer.  It puzzled them.  They were puzzled by its frequency.  Puzzled by its effect upon him.  What does he talk about for so long?  How come he gains such pleasure from his time spent in prayer?

One day they see him praying off in the distance.  They talk among themselves about his practice.  Perhaps they express to each other the difficulties they have in praying.  Perhaps they agree together to talk to Jesus about it.  When he rejoins them one of them speaking for the group makes a request.  “Lord, teach us to pray.”

As I’ve said.  These men had prayed all their lives.  But not like he did.  They knew that John the Baptist had taught his disciples to pray.  They wanted to be instructed too.

2.         A Pattern for their Praying

Jesus takes them up on their request.   And in the next few moments gives to them a model or a pattern to use in their praying. Listen to his words found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6.

“When you pray do not be like the hypocrites standing out in the open, speaking their prayers out loud to be heard by others.  You pray to God, not to the crowd. Find a private spot and pray there.”

And secondly, he says, “When you pray, do not be like the gentiles heaping up empty phrases, piling words on top of words trying to impress God with your fervent piety.”  Instead, he says, “Pray like this, or pray in this fashion.” And then he gives them the Lord’s prayer.

But he does not want them necessarily to pray these words every time they pray.  These words are not a new incantation to repeat endlessly and mindlessly.   His words are a perfect synopsis of legitimate prayers.  The Lord’s prayer is an outline that needs to be filled out by our own words.  This prayer is a skeleton which needs to be fleshed out.  The prayer is a guidance system.  He is saying, “There are some things you need to include in all your prayers.  Do not rush into praying simply by impulse or instinct.  Do not just run off words by the hundreds and the thousands and not know what you said after you had said it.  Here is an outline for your praying. 

I wonder if this was the pattern that Jesus Himself followed? I had always imagined him praying so spontaneously that a pattern would have been an imposition.  I have always seen him as a free spirit from whom prayer poured forth rather easily.  But on second thought I think he may have used the pattern himself.   It may well have been the way he prayed, with a bit of alteration for his followers.  Why do I think that?  Because if the pattern for praying is good for the goose, it’s good for the gander.  If the pattern did not assist him in his praying, why would it help them?  They had seen him praying, and wanted to pray like he did.  He may be giving them then the pattern of prayer that he himself followed in his times of normal praying.  

But a pattern is not a straight jacket that binds a person. This pattern comes out of his own experience in prayer.  A pattern for someone making a suit is not a hindrance.

Did you hear the story about the wonderful tailor in this small village in Europe?  He made clothes for his customers.  The word on the street was that he could tailor-make clothes that could fit perfectly any shape or size of body.  No challenge was beyond him.

One of the wealthier residents of a nearby village heard of his fame and decided to have a suit made to his own specifications.  He entered the shop and was measured for the fit.  He chose the fabric and was asked to return in two weeks when the suit would be ready.  Two weeks later he entered the shop, and began to put the suit on.  But the pants did not seem to fit very well.  One leg had this strange twist to it that made his leg feel odd.  The other leg was very tight, and the waistline was really constrictive.  He tried on the jacket.  But the arms came out of the body of the jacket at strange angles.  The padding on one shoulder was enormously thick and made his whole body look lopsided.  But finally, he had the suit on, after considerable contortion, and came out of the change room.  He did not want to say much in criticism to this world-famous tailor, but he did say that the suit was a bit binding.  The tailor assured him that would soon disappear with wearing the suit a few days. 

The customer paid the bill and left the store.   He could hardly walk with the pants binding him.  His arms came out of the jacket at strange contorted angles.  His one shoulder was six inches higher than the other. He managed to make his way to the car, but could hardly bend to sit down behind the wheel.  But as he was closing the car door, he heard someone on the sidewalk say, “That tailor is a marvelous tailor.  He can make a suit to fit any body, no matter how misshapen.” 

And the pattern for prayer that Jesus offers is not one that forces prayer down strange channels.  It is not a pattern that restricts the body, mind or spirit.   The pattern was created by one who knew how to pray.  

Why do we need a pattern?  Some of us find prayer difficult because we have been wearing a suit of clothes that causes more discomfort than help.  We have donned a suit of our own fashioning and wonder why it doesn’t fit well.  

We need a pattern for our praying, if only to give balance to our prayers.  What do I mean by balance?  Most of our faces are fairly normal.  We are even attractive in that we do not attract undo attention to ourselves.   But take the most beautiful face you know and put one of its features out of balance.  Double the size of the left eye, and you have instant ugly.  Double the size of your right ear and people will remark every time they see you, “Did you see that ear!?”  To have one feature out of balance can make beauty turn ugly.  Make one leg of your kitchen table one inch longer than the rest and table becomes unstable.  

And when prayer is unbalanced and any of its features become exaggerated, a thing of beauty can become a bane.  So Jesus gives us a pattern to bring balance to our praying.

3,         The Structure of this prayer

Let me give us a fast overview of the pattern of this prayer.   A bird’s eye view will give us a chance to see what the whole prayer looks like. 

First, it begins with praise to God and ends with praise to God.
There are 68 words in the traditional prayer. 37 of them are words of praise to God, that is, 54%.
There are 31 words that are petitions for ourselves. 46% of the prayer. 

Immediately that speaks volumes to me. At least half of our praying should be giving, not getting; praising not petitioning; adoring, not asking. 

But let me clear up a point of confusion here.  There is no power in praise.  We do not praise God to butter Him up so we can then hit him up for what we want.  We do not praise him so that we can pry more things out of him.  That would be shear flattery.  There is no power, no leverage, no manipulation brought about by praise.  Insincere flattery is not praise, it is presumption, the presumption that we can con God into giving us more than his wisdom and goodness would grant.  

There is no power in praise, but the praise of God is what those bring to God who have seen God’s goodness and greatness and come with adoration and affection and thanksgiving.  All healthy praying begins and ends with the praise of God.

Does that make God vain? Conceited?  Oh no!  The praise of God may very well be intended to help redeem us from self preoccupation, and self adulation.  

4.         The Content of this Prayer.

The First lines begin with the reminder of the One to whom we pray. I would draw our attention to three items in the very first line.

His name is Father.  He is the Father who is in Heaven. 

He is “OUR” Father.  That is another reality in this first line. He is not “MY” father. He is ours. And notice the ongoing litany: “Give US our bread…Forgive US our debts…Lead US not… deliver US from evil.”  This prayer has no place for selfishness. If you come alone, please don’t come!  If you come with others on your heart, by all means come boldly to the throne of Grace and find help.

This prayer has 6 petitions all together.  It is interesting to see how they are divided.

The first three requests are concerned with the praise of God. They are prayers that we are to help fulfill. They are prayers that the church and world are intended to fulfill. 

Hallowed be Thy Name
Thy Kingdom Come
Thy Will be done.

The last three requests are concerned with the needs of the family. They are prayers that we are asking God to fulfill.

We ask for bread, for forgiveness and for safety. 

But notice these three more closely.  

The request for bread is a present tense concern.
The request for forgiveness is asking God to deal with our past. 
The request for safety is a concern for the future. 

That says to me that as I pray, the past, the present and the future of my life is to be brought before God.  Nothing is to be left out.

But I also notice that only one of these requests deal with the needs of my body, while two of these requests deal with my spiritual needs.  It is interesting that the needs that are so paramount in our culture are only a minor part of this pattern for prayer.

Conclusion

When I lower this pattern over my own prayers, I immediately sense that so much of my praying is lop sided.  Some things get far more emphasis in my prayers than in this prayer.  It is at that moment that I feel like saying with those first 12 disciples, “Lord, I have been praying for a good part of my life, but would YOU teach me how to pray.”  

Hymn #435 “What a Friend We Have in Jesus

About prodigalprof

Professor of Christian Studies
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