The Lord's Prayer in Hebrew in the Pater Noster chapel in Jerusalem.
The Lord’s Prayer in Hebrew in the Pater Noster chapel in Jerusalem.

Read the scripture here.

Read what Working Preacher has to say here.

This text comes as a part of the Sermon on the Mount, a group of teachings by Jesus, collected in chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel. (Some parallels are found in Luke 6:20-49.) Jesus introduces this section by telling us not to practice our acts of piety so others will be impressed. Similarly, our prayers are not to be piles of empty words.

“When you pray,” Jesus instructs next, assuming that prayer is already part of a life connected to God. Words full of meaning come next, as Jesus tells how to pray, and then gives an example. His lesson has become one of the most famous prayers in the world. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes that both the practice of a rabbi teaching the disciples a prayer, and the language of this prayer, place Jesus in the context of others rabbis of his time.   “From the Talmudic parallels (Tosef., Ber. iii. 7; Ber. 16b-17a, 29b; Yer. Ber. iv. 7d) it may be learned that it was customary for prominent masters to recite brief prayers of their own in addition to the regular prayers; and there is indeed a certain similarity noticeable between these prayers and that of Jesus.” You can read more here.

The prayer, like Jesus’ life, begins with a focus on God. After the connection with God is made, then the petitioner asks for the essentials. Daily bread, calling us back to God’s goodness to the people of Israel in the desert, receiving just enough manna each day. Irving J. Arnquist and Louis R. Flessner observe that this prayer functions on both the level of daily life, and on an eschatological level, pointing ahead to the fullness of God’s reign. “In the context of this relationship with God, Jesus’ prayer reveals the nature of God’s eschatological work. Some would even title it the Kingdom Prayer because it is saturated with the imminent reign of God. Even the more “earthly” petitions, like the request for daily bread, bear striking eschatological overtones. Out of the relationship with God, exemplified by the Lord’s Prayer, comes true piety. The disciple is to give, pray, and fast, but not by the rules or institutional demands of religion. Faithful living comes from the heart, and only God can do this work. When this happens, the reign of God has come.” You can read more here.

For these authors, forgiveness is at the heart of the prayer, and at the center of what Jesus teaches us. “If the Sermon on the Mount is a summary of Jesus’ teaching, and the Lord’s Prayer is at the heart of this sermon, then this petition for forgiveness is at the epicenter of the gospel. Reconciliation is the point of Jesus’ entire ministry. Thus, forgiveness is at the heart of the relationship with God, of piety, and of life in Christian community. No better word can be found to describe the saving work of God or the day-to-day work of Christ in setting relationships right. Perhaps no other theme appears more often in Matthew’s gospel than that of forgiveness. Matthew uses the word aphiemi forty-nine times, nearly one third of the total number of its occurrences in the New Testament. And few are the chapters without several references.”

Once we’ve entered into this immediate kind of prayer with God, we return to regularly scheduled spiritual programming, with instructions on fasting. Following the same pattern, Jesus gives instructions for “when you fast.” This, too, is to be done without any attempt to impress anyone else. Finally, he turns his attention to our relationship with material things, instructing us that seeking treasure, in any form, will distract us from God. Our attention follows our treasure, and so we are to be careful what we store up.

This phrase finds its way into popular culture through the Harry Potter series. In the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, preparing for a final battle, Harry makes his way to the village where his parents lived, and visits the graveyard. There he finds the graves of Dumbledore’s family, with the puzzling (to him) inscription: “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” The inscription reflects a struggle within the once-young Dumbledore, a great wizard by the time we know him in the books, between love and power. Later, Harry and Hermione find the grave of Harry’s parents. That tombstone also has a quote from the Bible. “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”

All of Jesus’ instructions, including the Lord’s Prayer, have to do with fixing our attention on God. We’re not to get distracted by how other people see us, or the impression we’re making. We’re not to try to impress anyone with our spiritual lives, or our material goods. Jesus is calling us to a rare kind of focus on God, in all that we do.

Sermon possibilities:

  • For people accustomed to the Revised Common Lectionary, this text will evoke Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of Lent. How does it feel to hear these words on a random Sunday in the winter? For me, they come with an overlay of Lent, and they feel like a reminder that sacramental living isn’t limited to Lent, or any other season. Our lives need this invitation back to God all the time, not just for the forty days before Easter.
  • Jesus presents forgiveness as the essential food of the spirit, the “daily bread” of relationships, and he connects the measure we receive to the measure we give. The sermon might explore this connection – how we manage to forgive others, and the space it creates in our lives for God’s presence. Is enduring anger, like fancy displays of piety, a distraction from the presence of God? Jesus says: “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Is it possible for God not to forgive us? Or is it just that we can’t experience it until we forgive others?
  • This prayer offers an immediate, direct connection to God, both in the simple words and in the spirit of the one who teaches it to us. Where else do you find that direct connection to God? Are there other places? The sermon might look at our direct connections to God, and how we nurture those practices / places.
  • In contrast to Jesus’ instruction about “when you pray,” the authors of Never Pray Again suggest that “prayer is an idea that has too much baggage to do its job anymore. That is the problem. Maybe the solution is to simply never pray again. But what do we do instead?” (Check the authors out here.) The authors of the book suggest that we’ve traveled so far from what Jesus taught that it’s hard to get back to it. As they say, “we want to live our lives more fully, and in order to do so, we found that we had to set prayer aside. For our spiritual lives to flourish, we needed to be set free from the rock imprisoning us before we could be much use. We noticed as we looked at the ancient structure of Christian worship, and examined each type of prayer usually found there, that if we simply removed the word “prayer” we unleashed something vital and compelling. No longer able to simply clasp our hands and close our eyes, we instead had to find ways to go and do.” Have we lost what Jesus had in mind? How would you feel if you never prayed again? Is there a difference between “praying” and “doing”?

12 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: Humble Pie (Matthew 6:7-21)

  1. I’m not really feeling as drawn to the prayer in it’s entirety so much, but maybe pieces of it as it relates to what has been speaking to me. I’ve been caught up in the “treasures” part, particularly what the difference is between treasures on earth and treasures in heaven. I didn’t preach last week, so that last time I did preach the reading ended with v. 17 “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” Similarly there are the kingdom verses in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come” and “on earth as it is in heaven.” So the question I keep asking is what does it mean to store treasures in heaven vs treasures on earth while we’re praying for earth and heaven to be one or to be mixed?

    I need to spend a little bit of time looking at what the “kingdom of heaven” tends to mean in Matthew, but my recollection (from parables at least) is that it’s about God’s best intention for creation – – what things look like when things are going according to God’s will. Then I’m thinking about what treasures might be – sure money and material things, but also time and energy and effort. I think I’m coming around to a good old fashioned stewardship sermon, but maybe not so old fashioned.

    I’m sort of thinking that treasures in heaven vs on earth is more about things are are of God’s will and not of God’s will – – could even pull this back to that Beatitudes that were read last week in my absence, but not preached in a sermon. Investing our whole selves in things that are of God is storing up our treasure in heaven and the call of discipleship. A simple little example I’m thinking of is how I have wasted days away just stuck in front of a TV, too disinterested to do anything else, how rotten that feels sometimes, like being eaten at by moths or rusting away. I can also lose sense of time when I am in the middle of a pastoral visit or working in our church garden or planning worship or…. But it doesn’t have that same feeling of being chewed away at. In a sense it makes my life feel larger, stronger, fuller. Not saying I’ll use an example of me, but that personal experience highlights the different of storing my own treasure of time and mental energy in things that are not of God and things that are of God.

    I sense that any time that disciples are a part of making room for God’s kingdom to come, or recognizing and joining in the places where the kingdom has come near – – any time we join God’s blessing of the peacemakers, the poor, the merciful, the mourning – – we are storing our treasures in heaven.

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    1. I think you’re right on the money here, so to speak. I am also drawn more to the treasures in heaven that the prayer component. Those last couple of lines and your examples really have tied last week’s sermon to what I’m thinking. May I use those?

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  2. In seminary, I was blessed to take Matthew under Mark Alan Powell. So much of what I learned is class is coming back as I work with these passages. I remember his take on verse 21: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. This passage is often used as descriptive: look at your checkbook and you’ll see by how you spend your money where your heart is. Instead what if Jesus meant it prescriptively: “where you put your treasure is where your heart will end up” (Giving to God, pg 53 – in fact the entire chapter 3 unpacks this verse).

    And I think that view directly ties into the verses on prayer that go before and the verses on worry after. I’m still making connections, but somehow moving from a heart of scarcity/worry to a heart of abundance/prayer happens when we step out on faith and do those things that build up treasures in heaven.

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    1. Nice! That’s a whole sermon right there, the connection between what’s descriptive and what’s proscriptive…and how we might grow from one to the other!

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  3. @Rev Mary Austin, I don’t know that we’ve met, but thank you for the kind comments about Never Pray Again (I am one of the authors).

    Interestingly, this passage from Matthew is the one people most often point to when our book title provokes feelings of defensiveness. They say “but Jesus told us to pray!” Which is true as far as it goes – and hopefully anyone reading our book would find that we’re doing something more interesting than merely inveighing against prayer. What I find when I read this passage is a remarkably sparse and impious take on prayer from Jesus. Jesus’ instructions are more or less, “if you’re going to pray do it in such a way that no one else can tell you’re praying.” The word’s of the Lord’s Prayer itself are almost entirely calls to action. And since the context of this passage is Jesus contrasting what he wants his disciples to do against the extravagant public piety of the pharisees I think there is a case to be made that Jesus would like us to pray more with our legs (to paraphrase Frederick Douglas) and less with our words.

    I have found this sentiment to preach pretty well in my experience.

    Thank you again for including NPA in your reflection.

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    1. Hi Aric — Thanks again for the book. We used it for an adult study at the church I serve (Westminster Church of Detroit) and it was a springboard for great discussion. I had the fun of meeting you — as a lot of people did — at your book signing at the PC(USA) General Assembly in Detroit. I came to see my friend Traci Smith, and was delighted to meet you, as well.

      Thanks for chiming in here — appreciate it! Interesting thoughts on this passage.

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  4. Your final comments regarding ending ‘prayer’ as we know it really strike home for me. It brings to mind an old Keith Green tune which begins ‘Make my life a prayer to you. I want to do what you want me to. No empty words, no white lies. No token prayers. No Comprimise.

    You can listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjcD3oWBJIw

    Peace on your journey.

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