There is a special prayer that appears in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. This prayer is often called the “Our Father,” or “The Lord’s Prayer,” or simply, “The Prayer of Jesus.” I personally like “The Prayer of Jesus.” The writers of the gospels of Luke and Matthew attribute the origin of this prayer to Jesus. Among the many prayers we have as followers of Christ, the “Our Father” is considered one of the most important. I remember that this was one of the first prayers I learned when I was a little boy. When I was ministering in a rural parish in Sarawak from 1999 to 2008, many people in the kampungs wanted to become Christians. In the Roman Catholic tradition in Sarawak, a person who wants to become a Christian needs to go through at least a year of religious instruction and faith journeying before he or she is baptised. One of the requirements to become a Christian is that this person needs to learn 5 major prayers: (i) the “I Believe” or the Creed, which is a summary of the Christian faith; (ii) the “Glory Be,” which is a prayer of praise to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit; (iii) the Act of Contrition, or prayer of asking God for forgiveness when one has committed a sin; (iv) the “Hail Mary,” which is a prayer to the Mother of Jesus; and of course, (iv) the “Our Father.”
We must remember that as a good Jew in his time, Jesus addressed God as his father, his abba, his dad. When a human being calls God “Father,” it is not the same as a human being who calls another human being “father.” It is not a biological relationship. When a human being calls God “Father,” he or she is actually using the word “father” to indicate a loving relationship with God. That is why the Bible is full of the imagery of God as father. But the Bible also has other images to show a loving relationship between human beings and God. One such image is that of God as mother. The author of Isaiah has God saying in chapter 66, verse 13, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” And again in Isaiah, chapter 49, verse 15, “Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even if these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Any human relationship can be used to describe a relationship that we have, or want to have, with God.
This afternoon, I would like to take us on a brief reflection on the Prayer of Jesus. To do that, I now turn to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, verses 5 to 15.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever 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. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,
but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6: 5-15)
This afternoon, I would like to reflect with you on three major issues based on the Prayer of Jesus.
- First, I would like to talk about the sincerity and intimacy of prayer.
- Second, I would like to reflect on how prayer benefits us, not God.
- Lastly, I would like for us to think a little bit about right attitudes to prayer.
The Sincerity and Intimacy of Prayer
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus said, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” Jesus also said, “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.” If we just listen to these words in passing, it seems as if Jesus is encouraging private prayer, and discouraging public prayer. “Don’t pray like those who like people to see them pray,” says Jesus. “Go to your room and shut the door. Then pray!” If we accept this very narrow interpretation of the Bible, then our praise and worship, our coming together to worship on Sunday, and our cell group meetings are all useless.
I do not think that Jesus is against public worship, or that he prefers private prayer. Instead, I believe that Jesus is trying to convey an important truth. First, Jesus teaches us that prayer is only truly prayer when it is sincere. He asks that we not be like the hypocrites, who pray so that people can see them praying and think, “Amboi, such holy people.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a hypocrite is “a person who claims or pretends to have certain beliefs about what is right, but who behaves in a way contradicts those beliefs.” So a hypocrite says one thing, but does the exact opposite. According to Jesus, people who pray in a hypocritical way “have received their reward,” because they have already received praise from people for their pretended prayer. Their intention to pray is not a sincere intention. They pray not because they want to connect with God, but because they want people to think highly of them. The words of Jesus tell us that the primary reason behind our prayer needs to be the desire to be connected to God. And the primary reason behind our desire to be connected to God is because we want to become intimate with God. To become intimate with God is to have a good, strong, personal relationship with God. And we can only cultivate a solid relationship with God if we are sincere. We can only have a solid relationship with God if we are honest with ourselves as to why we want to have a relationship with God in the first place. Therefore, my friends, when we pray, we need to pray sincerely. We need to pray with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength. I am not saying that we need to be in a perfectly good mood every time we pray, or that every occasion of prayer will be a comfortable or fantastic one. There will be times when we will pray under very uncomfortable, difficult circumstances. What I am saying is that our intention to pray needs to be sincere, and that our objective of prayer needs to be an intimate union with God.
Prayer benefits US, NOT GOD
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus also says, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” What is important for us to take note of is that Jesus says, “Do not heap up empty phrases.” Do not “heap up words” means, “do not use many words.” Do not “heap up empty phrases” means, “do not use meaningless words.” In other words, Jesus reminds us that when we pray, we do not need to use a lot of words because we think that God will not hear us or understand us if we use only a few words. More importantly, Jesus reminds us that when we pray, we should not think that we need to convince God of our needs, or that we need to explain what we need to God in great detail, as if God does not know the details. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” says Jesus.
Even before we express our needs to God in prayer, God already knows what they are. How can God not know? If we believe that God lives inside us, in our hearts and our minds and our bodies, then God is always journeying with us, and knows us through and through. God respects us, and allows us to make our choices in life. But God is always within us, inviting us to what is life-giving, and supporting us at every step of the way. So, if God already knows what we need, why do we pray? Why do we still tell God what we need? It is because prayer is for our benefit, not for God’s benefit. There are many ways of understanding how prayer is for our benefit, and I would like to mention only one. But first, I would like to ask each of us a question. Have we ever experienced how much better we feel sometimes when we tell somebody about something that is troubling us? When we share our lives with somebody, or when we go to someone for counselling, we often feel a lot better. Even if that person is unable to help us, we often feel better because we have mentioned our problems out loud, and someone else knows what we are going through. Sometimes, when we mention our concerns or problems out loud, they become more manageable. We become more focused. We feel a sense of relief, because we have shared the burden of our difficulties. When we pray and tell God our needs, God shares the burden of our needs and fills us with the knowledge that we are not alone in our problems. Praying does not benefit God—prayer benefits us because we become even more aware that God journeys with us in the difficulties we encounter each day.
Right Attitudes to Prayer
In the “Our Father,” Jesus teaches us how to form right attitudes to prayer. In other words, Jesus teaches us how to pray. It is important to note that Jesus teaches us to pray based on his own strong, sincere and intimate relationship with God. Jesus calls God his father, his abba, his dad. Just as Jesus has a very strong, sincere and intimate relationship with God, so too does he want us to have a strong, sincere and intimate relationship with God. But an intimate relationship with God does not mean that we can only have one image of God as “Father.” As I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, God is also our “Mother.” And in many ways, God is our “brother,” “sister,” “uncle,” “aunty,” “grandfather,” “grandmother” and “friend.” I also mentioned that these are human terms we use to describe our relationship with God.
Jesus tells us that when we pray, we need to “hallow” or make holy God’s name. Jesus also tells us that when we pray, we ask that God’s “kingdom come,” and God’s “will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In simple terms, God must lie at the centre of our prayer, and of our lives. When we pray, we do not place ourselves or our needs at the centre. We place God at the centre and we say, “You are God, you know what I need even before I ask you. I know that if you and I work together, we can work out what is best for me.” Jesus reminds us that when we pray, we ask God to “give us this day our daily bread.” I believe that when we pray, we need to adopt an attitude of humility. We need to be humble and remember not to take what we have for granted. We need to be humble and remember to be thankful for what we have. So often, we keep thinking of and wishing for what we do not have, instead of being grateful for what we have. We need to be humble and remember that everything we have today, now, is a gift, including life itself. Jesus also teaches us that when we pray, we must pray with forgiveness in our hearts. We ask that God “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” This means that when we pray, we must not bear any hatred or grudges towards others who have caused us harm and injury. We must also realise that we have caused harm and injury to others. I am not saying that we have to easily and quickly forgive or ask for forgiveness. The issue of forgiveness is very complex. What I am saying is that our attitude of prayer needs to be one where we realise that nobody is perfect. This attitude of prayer reminds us that not one person is more worthy than another to approach God. Nobody is more worthy or less worthy in God’s eyes. God loves us each uniquely. Finally, Jesus tells us that when we pray, we ask God to “not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” In other words, Jesus reminds us to pray for strength and courage to always place God at centre of our lives.
To Bring Home …
My friends, I invite each of us to bring home a summary of the message that we have heard today. When we pray, we need to do so with sincerity. The aim of our prayer is that we develop a strong and intimate relationship with God. When we pray, it is for our benefit, not for God’s benefit. God already knows what we need even before we ask God. It is for our benefit because it makes us realise more deeply that God shares the burden of our human concerns and difficulties. When we pray, we need to place God at the centre of our lives. During prayer, we remind ourselves to be thankful for all we have. We also remind ourselves to be humble and remember that although not one of us is perfect, each one of us is uniquely loved by God. There is nobody who is more worthy or less worthy than someone else in God’s presence. Finally, when we pray, we do so with an attitude of asking for God’s strength and courage to continue to place God at the centre of our lives.
This reflection is based on a sermon delivered at Good Samaritan Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Sunday, November 2, 2014.
© Joseph N. Goh | josephgoh [at] josephgoh [dot] org