Where to pray
How to pray
1. General Content
a. Overview of the Lord’s Prayer
i. Our Father who art in Heaven
ii. The Name, the Kingdom and the Will
b. Give us this day our daily bread
i. The problem of translation
ii. Bread baked daily
iii. Differing provisions but all needs met
iv. Conditions for receiving our daily bread
1. Living for God
2. Asking according to His will
This passage can be divided up into three specific parts which deal respectively with almsgiving (6:2-4), prayer (6:5-15) and fasting (6:16-18) - each of which were a necessary part of first century religious life but which needed a redefining for the life of the disciple of Christ seeing as their exploitation had produced a society that was demonstrable in its outward observance of its service of God but which was running on empty most of the time (the three actions are linked together in Tobit 12:8 where almsgiving is considered to be more worthy of a believer than either of the other two).
No amount of ostentatious show, no amount of pomp and ceremony can substitute for a correct relationship with God that gets on with serving Him and relies not on the praise of mankind but on being commended by God Himself.
There are many areas of the world where ‘show’ is everything but, to the follower of Jesus, such acts are superficial and meaningless and, though he may take some part in them for whatever reason, they do not substantiate and neither prove that the participants have a relationship with God that is acceptable to Him.
To use the media of christian music as one example in our present day society, an artist who writes and performs the most lyrically amazing and musically compelling albums is not proven to be close to God simply because of the religious product which is visible to the world.
In the quiet place where no man or woman can see them and where the troubles of the world weigh heavy on their lives, in the areas where they meet up with the weak of society and have opportunity to do a good deed when they will not be seen by anyone - this is where the disciple of Christ makes his mark before the Lord and where he gains either acceptance or rejection before Him
This entire passage, therefore, although dealing with just the three religious principles of almsgiving, prayer and fasting, are a good summary of the principles of true religion and what it means to offer false service to God.
There is much which is common in all three passages which make it difficult to comment on specifics in each one, but one word which occurs in each of these three and which warrants special dealing with is the word ‘hypocrites’. This word certainly summarises the passages well but the true meaning and implication of this word is often shrouded under a wrong or misguided understanding of what the English word means which is then tried to be imposed on the text.
Jesus associates this word (Strongs Greek number 5273) with all three religious duties (Mtw 6:2,5,16), a word that He directly puts on the scribes and Pharisees at a later date shortly before His crucifixion (for example, Mtw 23:13). This word is more a transliteration than a translation and the Greek word seems to have come across into the English language long before the translations began to appear.
Just like some of the other loan words from the Greek, however, such as ‘baptism’ which rightly means ‘immersion’ rather than ‘sprinkling’, it is too easy to implant one’s own understanding and meaning onto a word that means something rather different in the original language from which it comes.
Today, a hypocrite is the label given to someone who generally proclaims something verbally but who fails to live out the reality of it in their own lives and it’s normally associated with members of a Church organisation or fellowship.
The Dictionary defines hypocrisy as
‘...a feigning to be better than one is, or to be what one is not: concealment of true character of belief (not necessarily conscious)...’
and the Oxford Reference Shelf 1994 edition defines it as a
‘false claim to virtue; insincerity, pretence’
Both of these definitions get much closer to the original meaning than my original definition, but a simple statement is not really possible for this word seeing as it has a meaning that is borrowed from the acting profession of the first century society in which it was used.
The first thing to note is that the NT uses the word in a negative sense which is implied by the context in which it’s used, whereas Barclay comments that
‘...in classical Greek, these words have no ill flavour and no bad meaning whatsoever...’
going on to mention that the word stems from another which simply means ‘one who answers’. The idea of a verbal response caused the word to be used in a number of different contexts but, for the purposes of its NT context, the usage that is significant here is that of an actor who played out a part on the stages of the society of their day.
As Barclay notes
‘A play is a work which is made up of question and answer: and an actor can be described as a hupokrites, an answerer’
but, as the play actor pretended to be something which he was not, the Greek word which represents the English ‘hypocrite’ is best understood as meaning someone who takes up his part in the world but who gives a false representation of who he really is. Personally, I would prefer the translation of the word as ‘play actor’ for that gives more of the sense of the word but, so long as the original intention of the Greek is understood, ‘hypocrite’ is still a good translation (or, rather, transliteration).
Vines notes at this point that
‘It was a custom for Greek and Roman actors to speak in large masks with mechanical devices for augmenting the force of the voice’
so that the ‘hypocrite’ of the NT is normally a religious observer who gives a good outward show of his piety but who, inwardly, is not the type of person that his actions would otherwise indicate. Therefore, concerning the Pharisees, Zondervan comments that they
‘...had sacrificed truth to appearance; they were concerned more about reputation than they were about reality’
and Matfran notes that the Pharisees
‘...are performing to an audience’
and both these statements summarise what the passage which runs from 6:1-18 is mainly about. Jesus is concerned about his followers thinking that they should aim at something superficial which reaps the praise of men and women because of the display which is put on in front of them when, all along, God is displeased with what is being done.
Instead of being concerned to lay part of their lives down with no thought of receiving any gain on their part, the false worshippers are actually concerned to reap a reward based upon their spirituality before God. As Mathen comments
‘...while they pretended to give, they really intended to receive, namely, honour from men’
and Matmor (on almsgiving) notes that they
‘...were people who acted a concern for the poor whereas their real concern was to establish a reputation for piety...who...play a part and whose words are spoken for effect and not in order to convey the truth’
Real religion here, then, is not what goes on on the outside but is a matter of the heart and of a relationship with God that does not need ostentatious acts to justify its own relevancy. False service or worship of God has nothing to do with pomp and ceremony - neither with religious acts performed in the sight of men - but with a personal walk with God which does that which is right in the secret places where no man or woman necessarily witnesses what takes place.
To think that one can, at the same time, reap the praise of mankind and the praise of God is misguided and, to do religious works (whether almsgiving, prayer, fasting or some other such service) in order simply to be regarded highly by their fellow men and women is all the reward that the performer will ever receive.
It is only when deeds are done in secret that God rewards and, should praise come from men and women through this, it is only a by-product not the raison d’être of the religious act itself.
Before we go on to consider this introductory verse, we need to note that some ancient manuscripts have the Greek word for ‘almsgiving’ in place of the one translated by the RSV’s ‘piety’ and commentators normally regard this alternative as having weak textual support.
Mattask comments (my italics) that
‘Alms was a later but natural substitute for piety, partly because it brought the sentence more into line with verse 2 and partly because almsgiving was so essential a part of righteousness as the Jews had come to understand it, that the words had become almost synonymous’
Mathen also notes succinctly that the rendering
‘...righteousness...has the strongest textual support’
while Matmor objects that the Greek word translated
‘...[almsgiving] can scarcely be original. It seems to be an explanation made by a scribe who thought the verse was concerned only with almsgiving instead of being the introduction to the succeeding sections as well’
Although this does appear to be the logical explanation of the opening verse, the logic of consigning the translation ‘almsgiving’ to the rubbish heap appears to me to warrant a careful reevaluation in the light of what the reader will shortly read in the next section on alms.
Greenlee’s argument certainly sounds persuasive when he explains the reason for opting for ‘righteousness’ by stating that
‘If “alms” was original, it would hardly have been changed by a scribe to the much less obvious “righteousness”. It is much more likely that a scribe thought that “righteousness” in verse 1 meant the same thing as “alms” in verse 2, so he changed the more general word to the more specific word for the sake of charity’
But the Jews of first century Israel tended to view almsgiving as an act of righteousness and so translated (as below) some of their Hebrew words from the OT by this Greek word in the version of the OT known as the Septuagint (LXX) produced many years prior to the time of Christ, and it may be that we gloss over the unusual translation here with a bit too much ease. Certainly, Mattask’s ‘later’ as italicised above is not strictly accurate as the equating of righteousness with almsgiving was much older than the period in which the NT documents were written.
After all, there is an equally weighted argument which would suppose that, fearing misunderstanding of the original Aramaic’s meaning (see my comments on this here where I suggested from the early Church fathers than the apostle Matthew may have composed certain sayings in Aramaic which were subsequently used as one source by a scribe in his composition of this Gospel) which was translated as ‘almsgiving’, a scribe decided that the better word to be used and which offered no misunderstanding was ‘righteousness’. Having said that, the manuscripts which contain the variant reading are listed by Matmor as covering a range of ancient manuscripts which are dated to no later than the seventh or eighth centuries and are, therefore, considered to be less reliable than older manuscripts still in existence.
I am certainly following the line of interpretation which takes the word in Mtw 6:1 to be properly translated ‘righteousness’ or ‘piety’ (as the RSV) but it is necessary to note that ‘almsgiving’ is an equally valid possibility for the text at this point and is not without foundation (the on line Aramaic translation of Matthew uses the phrase ‘charitable acts’ which indicates the tradition amongst this line of manuscript).
This verse, then, is taken to be an introductory summary of what will follow and Jesus warns His disciples at the outset against the false service of God that had become a part of the religious life of the nation of Israel.
Jesus says that the three religious exercises (almsgiving, prayer and fasting) are done by the ‘hypocrites’, the ‘play actors’, so that the people who do them can be both praised and seen by men and women (Mtw 6:2,5,16) and, that by doing such things publicly, they are receiving any reward they are likely to get (Mtw 6:2,5,16).
This reward theme is taken up as a summary in Mtw 6:1 and leads us to understand that we are not simply to apply Jesus’ words to these three areas of religious life but to all aspects where service before God can be demonstrably displayed in the sight of men with the sole intention of reaping a reward from men and women rather than of pleasing God Himself.
Therefore, in Matthew chapter 23 where the scribes and Pharisees and called ‘hypocrites’ on more than one occasion, Jesus accuses them of doing
‘...all their deeds to be seen by men...’
going on to outline not just almsgiving, prayer and fasting as their problems but details them making
‘...their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honour at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men’
Therefore Jesus condemns the religious of His day for giving a great ostentatious display to those around Him when their hearts were actually a great distance from the things that pleased the Father. What is in mind in Mtw 6:1, then, is not just a summary of three specific religious acts but a warning directed at the disciple in all areas where religious service would find expression.
Jesus speaks of practising one’s piety before mankind in order to be seen by them where the Greek word translated ‘piety’ (Strongs Greek number 1343 - though Strongs follows the Textus Receptus which has ‘almsgiving’ as the Greek word here - Strongs Greek number 1654) is the regular word employed throughout the NT for ‘righteousness’ and it is, perhaps, strange that the RSV should translate it differently.
The usage in Mtw 6:1 accords with Kittels’ interpretation of the word as meaning
‘...right conduct that accords with God’s will and is pleasing to Him’
What is in mind here, then, is the overflow of a disciple’s life which is an expression of what is within themselves (as opposed to the ‘hypocrite’ mentioned in the following three passages where an outward act that does not represent true inward religion is in mind) and which will naturally come about as the disciple seeks to do the Father’s will in all things.
If the disciple performs religious duties before God, he must be careful to do them solely for Him and not have, as some ulterior motive, the desire to be seen and regarded highly by men. The Greek word translated here by ‘seen’ (Strongs Greek number 2300) conveys the concept, as Kittels suggests, of
‘...spectators and denotes attentive seeing’
tying in well with the Greek word translated ‘hypocrite’ (see above) which indicates a ‘play actor’. In everything here, the idea is of a stage upon which the religious act out their part in order that they might receive the applause from an attentive audience.
Service to God is only acceptable to God if service is performed according to His will and purpose and that includes turning one’s back on the eyes of men, so to speak, so that only the eyes of God can witness - for wanting the praise of man forfeits praise from God and it shows that a man’s heart is set on gaining acceptance amongst men, consequently disregarding true service towards God. On the other hand, loving God and seeking to please Him finds its reward in the Father and disregards acceptance in society if a relationship with God has to be put aside. A lover of God proclaims his deeds to God in secret but a lover of man proclaims his deeds openly.
The subject of ‘reward’ figures prominently not only in this opening verse but in each of the three passages which deal with almsgiving, prayer and fasting though, in Mtw 6:1, the thought is of receiving no reward from God the Father whereas the three passages speak of the reward from mankind which has already been received.
The Greek word for ‘reward’ which is the same one used not only in Mtw 6:1 but throughout the passage in each of the three religious services (Strongs Greek number 3408) means, generally, ‘wages’, Kittels defining it primarily to yield the meaning ‘reward for work’ and then, going to note that it was also used as a ‘professional fee’ and as ‘soldiers’ pay’.
The inference in its usage, therefore, is that it is inferring a payment bestowed upon someone who is receiving some sort of benefit from the person who is performing such an action rather than as a gratuitous award which comes about even when the person is not performing some function or task on their behalf.
‘Reward’ is, perhaps, a little bit of a misleading translation here, then, as it hovers between the interpretation of ‘gift’ and ‘wage’ and could be taken as meaning either, but the implication is definitely that the person who does such religious acts in order to be seen by men and women receives praise from them as the due wages for such an act and, if those wages are being paid, there is no longer anything that God feels obliged to bestow upon the doer - after all, the actions are performed not for His own service but for the doer’s personal gain.
In the present day Western society when both praying and fasting would be considered more an act of insanity than of piety by the general populace (one only has to witness the faces of those who pass the guy with the billboard announcing that the end of the world is nigh or the other who proclaims on placards that Jesus died for your sins to see that, generally speaking, we are not a God-fearing society), Jesus’ words may seem strange to us and alien. But if we consider almsgiving - or, better, the charitable acts of those who give to societies maybe a few times a year and definitely when their friends ask for sponsorship in their fund-raising activities - we can note that such actions are often highly regarded by men and women.
Indeed, I have even heard a person justify their continued participation in the UK’s National Lottery solely on the grounds that it was contributing to charitable causes. When I asked him why he didn’t just donate the money to charity which would actually give them one hundred per cent of the pound rather than just a proportion, he found that he couldn’t come up with an answer (which was just as well cos I was hoping he wouldn’t! It’s difficult trying to be people’s consciences, you know...).
It’s interesting to note that the three religious exercises are equated by Mathag as an explanation of the three aspects of the Shema (Deut 6:4-5) where the Scripture (with his interpretation added in square brackets) runs
‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart [prayer], and with all your soul [fasting], and with all your might [almsgiving]’
but such an interpretation seems to be unwarranted from any Jewish contemporary sources and the assertion appears to be more fanciful than provable.
More of a concern for us is the statement by Jesus previously in His discourse that the disciples are to (Mtw 5:16) let their light
‘...shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven’
implying that, in some sense, the overflow of their relationship with God is to be observable by those around them.
But Levertoff (quoted in Mattask) summarises this Scripture with Mtw 6:1 well when he notes that
‘...although the disciples are to be seen doing good works, they must not do good works in order to be seen’
While it is necessarily true that the disciple of Christ should not draw attention to Himself whenever he performs some form of religious act or service, he cannot forever go unnoticed by the world and there will necessarily be times when almsgiving, for instance, will have to be witnessed by those around him.
But these actions should not be done solely to produce a show and neither to draw man’s praise to oneself. Allowing the light to shine through oneself (Mtw 5:16) is to push glory onto the Father who works and moves through the disciples, it is not, however, a means towards the end of trying to obtain earthly credibility in the christian life.
The giving of a certain part of the money received from the selling of a parcel of land by Ananias and Sapphira is a case in point here. Barnabas sold his own field and came with the proceeds and laid them at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:36-37), an action which may be deemed by us as some sort of ostentatious show only if we think of the action as accompanied by some ceremony or other (which, the indication is, it wasn’t).
But, in order to gain the same sort of standing amongst the christian community, Ananias and Sapphira sold one of their fields and held back some of the money gained while, at the same time, declared to the apostles that they had devoted the entire sale price for the disciple’s benefit. Of course, they had every right to keep back what they wanted but to lie to the apostles - and, therefore to God Himself - that the sum which they donated was one hundred percent was an attempt by them to raise themselves in the eyes of the community to a position alongside Barnabas.
Such a show would not have been acceptable to God even if they had decided not to cheat on God though, as it was, their lie rewarded them with a loss of their earthly life. It would appear, therefore, that, even amongst the early Church, the danger was still present that prompted believers to perform religious acts in order that they may gain some sort of renown amongst the body of believers.
Concluding this section, Jesus says that the three religious exercises (almsgiving, prayer and fasting) are done so that the people who do them can be both praised and seen by men and women (Mtw 6:2,5,16) and, that by doing such things publicly, they are receiving any reward they are likely to get (Mtw 6:2,5,16).
But the teaching goes beyond this to include all forms of religious duties which, if done before God, must be done solely for Him and must not have, as some ulterior motive, the desire to be seen and regarded highly by men. Service to God is only acceptable to God if service is performed according to His will and purpose.
Finally, we should note before beginning that, for all three religious duties, Jesus speaks about ‘when’ they are performed not ‘if’ (6:2, 6:5, 6:15), thus indicating to any disciple of the present age that none of these have been discarded in the new order of things and that help for the poor, prayer to God and fasting before Him are all still integral parts of what it means to be a follower of Christ.
NB - for a discussion on the word and subject of the ‘hypocrite’ (Mtw 6:2) see on my introductory discussion at the top of this web page.
For a discussion on the word ‘reward’ (Mtw 6:2) see on my notes under the heading ‘Introduction’ which follows my introductory discussion.
The Greek word translated ‘alms’ here (Strongs Greek number 1654) occurs thirteen times in the NT and is normally represented by ‘alms’. There are several manuscripts which use the word in Mtw 6:1 and this led to earlier translations of the Scriptures having the word appear here even though most modern Greek texts have the alternative word meaning ‘piety’.
To us, ‘alms’ is an archaic word even though the concept is not lacking throughout our society. The word, which is derived from another Greek word meaning ‘mercy’ (and is used, for instance, in Mtw 5:7 in the beatitude mentioning the ‘merciful’ - Strongs Greek word 1655) is defined by Vines as meaning ‘mercy, pity’ and then, as a natural progression from this feeling of compassion, the giving of certain gifts to the less well off, presumably based upon one’s feeling of pity directed at those who receive the charitable act.
Kittels sees the word as denoting primarily ‘sympathy’ but comments that the Greek word came to be used in the Jewish sense of the word of a righteous deed, noting that
‘The equivalent [word] in Judaism takes on the sense of benevolent activity and can thus be used more narrowly for almsgiving. This is the meaning...in the NT’
Zondervans simply renders the word as ‘benevolent giving’ though it, too, notes that it’s proper meaning is ‘pity’.
Simply defined, then, almsgiving is any act of giving to the less well off that is based on a feeling of compassion, pity or mercy in the bestower of the gift.
In the OT, although the English word does not exist in the translations, charitable giving is not absent from the commands of the Law or in other places. Deut 15:11 - which gives the summation of all almsgiving - states that
‘For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land’
and the provision of the Law in, for instance, the legislation of the sabbatical (seventh) years (Ex 23:10-11) was a demonstration of the nation’s commitment to help their poorer brethren to be able to maintain themselves based upon a command of God that, once prosperous, they should not overlook those among them who were struggling to live adequately.
The Law also commanded annual provision for the poor from the extra yield of the fields that the farmers were forbidden to collect (Lev 23:22), giving them over rather to the hard work of those who obtained their livelihood from such omissions of the harvest.
Indeed, throughout the Law, abundant provision was made by God to command the Jews to look after their own, not only on a yearly and sabbatical basis but by the command, previously quoted, that the Israelite was forbidden to turn a blind eye to those among them who were materially poor.
Righteousness was also considered to be imparted to the almsgiver in one specific act of giving where the garment of clothing was to be restored to the Israelite before the sun went down if it had been taken as a pledge (Deut 24:13).
But, if we take the definition of ‘almsgiving’ outlined above, we may well wonder how it was possible to feel compassion and pity ‘by commandment’. Although the feeling was not necessary for the Jew to obey His God and so take care of the less fortunate, the bestowal of gifts could have been wholly devoid of a moving of the emotions.
Indeed, Prov 19:17 seems to demand this when it notes that
‘He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his deed’
but, even here, there appears to be an association with almsgiving that equates it with a meritorious act which would not go unrewarded by God Himself. To this extent, Judaism took a dramatic turn towards almsgiving in the Intertestamental period when it became associated even with personal atonement before God and a reason for Him to look upon the bestower of such acts with unmerited Divine favour.
Therefore, in the OT Apocrypha we read in Sirach 3:30 (my italics) that
‘As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin’
and, in 29:12, that
‘...almsgiving...will rescue you from every disaster’
This was not a limited and restricted belief by any means and Tobit 12:9 repeats the declaration of Sirach when it notes that
‘Almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin...’
and Tobit 4:10 that
‘...almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the Darkness’
Therefore, in their seeking out justification of their existence on earth from God, Judaism appears to have turned to certain practices, amongst them almsgiving, that self-saved themselves in the sight of God and which prompted the Lord (like some cause and effect relationship) to have to look down from heaven and to both forgive and save those who bestowed such acts of kindness on the poor. Salvation, therefore, became not based upon the mercy of God but on the actions of mankind, and almsgiving became uprooted from a reliance upon the necessary emotions of pity and mercy and, rather, was seen to reside in a religious duty that was beneficial and a source of immediate return to the person who performed it.
Significantly, as Zondervan notes
‘Righteousness and almsgiving came to regarded as synonymous terms. In the LXX [the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT], the Hebrew word for “righteousness”...is often rendered “alms”. In rabbinical literature...”to give or do righteousness” corresponded with...”to give alms”’
and, although quite a number of years after NT times, Zondervan also notes that the Talmud states that
‘The performance of works of mercy is set forth as a means whereby man may be accounted righteous in the sight of God, like the fulfilment of the commandments of the Law’
It seems fairly certain, therefore, that Judaism, by the time of Christ, had taken the giving of alms to be a meritorious act of the devoutly religious which was regarded as having more benefit for the person who performed such acts rather than the provision of material possessions on the recipient! Instead of seeing alms as the necessary bestowal of mercy upon the poor, it was considered to be the means whereby the religious acquired Divine acceptance regardless of any inner attitude of compassion or sympathy that appears to have been inherent in the Greek word.
In Aboth 1:2, the giving of alms is raised to a plain from which it could not expect to be bettered. Simon the Just is recorded as saying (my italics) that
‘By three things is the world sustained: by the Law, by the [Temple] service and by deeds of loving kindness’
thus equating giving to the poor alongside the inherent goodness of both the Mosaic Law and Israel’s service of God in the Temple. As such, it is difficult to see how almsgiving could have been regarded as anything other than a meritorious act that won favour for the person who did it.
However, although ‘alms’ and ‘righteousness’ were often used interchangeably in the translation of the LXX, Ps 112:9 specifically mentions them as separate, alms being a demonstration of a person’s righteousness rather than it being looked upon as a meritorious act which gains Divine favour in and of itself.
In the NT, there appear to have been an abundance of poor who gathered at certain points in the land looking for the bestowal of alms by the religious Jews. Indeed, it could even be said that such a religious act had become an industry where some people could be considered to be professional alms-receivers who earnt a living from the necessary religious reaction of the Jews that would win for them acceptance before God.
This is too simplistic a position but, in the UK, it is interesting to note how, recently, the beggars in the streets of some of our major towns have been shown up to be nothing more than people who have made a niche for themselves in a lucrative market where they collect more money per day than they can receive from the state in benefit (even though some receive this also!). Having said that, there are genuine beggars and it would be wrong to think of every person on every corner as having taken up begging because it pays better than a 9 to 5 office job!
In keeping with the mindset of Judaism (though said for totally different reasons), Judas complained that the precious ointment was not sold and the proceeds given to the poor (Mtw 26:9). Jesus’ reply is significant here for He rebukes Judas and offers the explanation that such an action was a prophetic act symbolising His imminent burial (Mtw 26:12), saying (Mtw 26:11) that
‘...you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have Me’
This disguises the fact, however, that Jesus and His disciples had a ‘poor box’ that they used to distribute material provision to those who had need (John 12:6, 13:29) though the latter of the two cited Scriptures also causes us to infer that their common fund went a significant way to meeting their needs.
The implication of Acts 3:2 is that there were numerous beggars who took their positions in and around the Temple courts and who asked for the bestowal of alms primarily for their own welfare but also, consequently, for the justification of the religious - perhaps in some manner these beggars also saw themselves as contributing to the righteousness of the religious? Certainly, if Judaism was hung up on acts of giving to the poor to earn themselves some favour before God, their presence amongst the society of their day should have been looked upon as a blessing even though the Law legislated towards providing a nation which was nearly wholly prosperous.
In first century Judaism, there was both a ‘poor fund’ and a ‘pauper’s dish’ which appear to have been corporately collected purses that were used to bestow money on the needy wherever they were but there were strict rules set out as to who could benefit from such a fund (Peah 8:7, Pesahim 10:1), the latter could only be used if a Jew did not have sufficient for fourteen meals and the latter if he did not have enough for two.
But, although this corporate provision appears to have been in place in first century Israel, almsgiving was predominantly personal and regarded, as previously noted, as being an action which secured Divine favour before God to the point of being able to have one’s sins atoned for.
It should be noted here - as a contrast to the ostentatious external show of giving condemned by Jesus - that there was provision in Judaism for secretive giving. Shekalim 5:6 notes that there were two specific chambers in the Temple
‘...one the Chamber of Secrets and the other the Chamber of Utensils. Into the Chamber of Secrets the devout used to put their gifts in secret and the poor of good family received support therefrom in secret’
This giving to the poor or ‘almsgiving’ was also a significant trait of the early Church and believers in one area were at pains not only to look after the needs of those who were in their midst (Gal 2:9-10, I John 3:17), but also contributed to the welfare of fellowships that resided in poor areas or which had specific material needs at certain times (Rom 15:26, II Cor 8:10-11).
But, above all, although almsgiving was something that was expected of His followers (notice that Mtw 6:2 states ‘when you give alms’ not ‘if you give alms’), it was still a matter of personal commitment and of allowing God to direct individual hearts as He so chose to do. Therefore in the Didache which was composed possibly towards the end of the first century, the believers are exhorted that (Didache 15)
‘In your prayers, your almsgiving and everything you do, be guided by what you read in the Gospel of our Lord’
possibly showing that both mercy and sympathy were still necessary emotions which should have accompanied the act of giving to the poor. It was not for the first century Church, therefore, to give simply because they were commanded to do so by Jesus but that compassion was present in their hearts which overflowed through them to meet the needs of others in Christ who were less fortunate materially than themselves.
Just like Ps 112:9 cited earlier, the early Church saw almsgiving as a response to the love of God and not as a meritorious act which won the love of God for themselves. Instead of following after the Judaistic principles which looked to favour being bestowed upon those who gave to the poor, they saw in Christ everything that they needed and, as a response to the total provision of God to them, felt the need to reach out to others to mimic and reflect the Father’s work through Christ.
Jesus’ command to the disciples (Mtw 6:2-4) lays emphasis on the way alms are given to the poor but the accompanying feelings of compassion and mercy are not far from the picture. Even though Judaism taught that such meritorious acts could produce acceptance before God, Jesus was concerned only to outline that such acts of mercy had to be done away from the crowds who could witness such actions wherever possible and that they should be done with no demonstrable display that was deliberately designed for men and women to witness so that praise could be received.
After all, almsgiving was to be an action which pleased God, not one that found acceptance in the lives of mankind. Therefore it was only necessary that God witnessed the charitable act, the same being true for both prayer (Mtw 6:5-6) and fasting (Mtw 6:16-18).
Whether there were ever trumpets sounded before those who gave alms as is mentioned by Jesus (Mtw 6:2) is impossible to determine for no contemporary records exist which detail such a procedure (the details concerning the temple contributions cited below which were put into trumpet shaped collection boxes may be in mind here but the analogy is probably too taut to be accurate) but, having said that, the teaching Jesus gave in Mark 12:41-44 following His witnessing of the rich putting their large gifts into the treasury followed by a poor widow who gave all she had would indicate that the charitable giving by the rich was being observed by the masses who attended the Court of the Women where thirteen upturned shofars (either rams horns or objects that were shaped as such) had been positioned and labelled as representing contributions for specific items for the Temple (Shekalim 6:5).
Certainly, Jesus was watching the action from where He sat, opposite the treasury and, when He noticed the sacrifice of the widow, drew His disciples’ attention to it. Although primarily concerned with showing the disciples the need for a correct interpretation of matters and how God looked upon not the size of the gift but upon the commitment it showed in terms of self-sacrifice to Him, it would be difficult to imagine that the rich didn’t receive some sort of commendation by those who witnessed their actions.
Besides, Jeremias notes an incident recorded in later Rabbinic sources of Naqdimon ben Gorion who
‘...practised an individual kind of charity, for it is said that on his way to the school he had woollen blankets spread out in his path so that the poor could collect them up behind him (b Ket 66b-67a Bar)’
and, although we might immediately commend him for his kindness, we should think rather upon the scene that would have unfolded before the gaze of all those who were near and the attention that it drew to his act of kindness. Why not rather have his servants simply distribute money privately to those who were in need? Because he would not have received the loud acclamations of praise from his fellow men (and he would probably not have had his name recorded for posterity’s sake, either!).
Such an ostentatious show was not to be the experience of the disciple of Christ as, indeed, it should not be today by plaques and dedicated pews to the memory (living or dead) of those who contributed financially to the work and prosperity of the Church - especially when such plaques are paid for by the people themselves!
Therefore the disciple should ‘sound no trumpet’ before them and such a phrase more rightly means that the disciple should be concerned not to draw attention to himself whenever (not ‘if’) he performs charitable acts towards the poor.
The word for ‘streets’ here (Strongs Greek number 4505) also points towards a place where almsgiving can be seen and displayed in the sight of men and women. It is better rendered ‘a narrow street’ or ‘alleyway’ that is shut in by buildings on either side, thus restricting human traffic to a narrow corridor of people where all can witness such charitable acts.
It was in the interests of the beggars to line these thoroughfares so long as they were fairly well used simply because the passers-by would find it difficult to ignore them. A wider street would have allowed people to walk as far from their pitch as they wanted without feeling compelled to have to make some sort of monetary contribution.
In such a narrow street, a gift could not be made without others standing or walking close by noticing the action.
At the end of Mtw 6:2, the RSV’s translation that the disciples
‘...have received their reward’
is a little misleading simply because the verb ‘receive’ does not occur in the text and the sentence should, rather, be rendered
‘...they have their reward’
‘Received’ is possibly added as an attempt to interpret the unusual word for ‘to have’ here (Strongs Greek number 568) which, according to Vines
‘...was constantly used as a technical expression in drawing up a receipt’
while France understands it similarly but comments that the implication of its use is that
‘...there is no more to look forward to...’
The colourful picture here directed towards the disciples notes that those who seek praise from men and achieve it have already received the receipt for the wages (‘reward’ - see the Introduction above) and should not, therefore, expect any further payment from God Himself.
Having said that, the idea of reward from God is not on the basis of payment of what is due but of a bestowal of grace due to the actions of the disciple and a different Greek word is employed for the reward that is granted to the disciple by actions which are done in secret (Strongs Greek number 591) and means, more correctly, ‘to give back’ (that is ‘recompense’ in both positive and negative applications) where Kittels defines it as
‘to give or do something in fulfilment of an obligation or expectation’
What the disciple receives from the hand of God, therefore, is not the wage that was being sought but a return based upon the obedience of the life which is seeking to do what is pleasing to the Father.
Finally, the enigmatic saying of Jesus that the disciple (Mtw 6:3-4) should be concerned to
‘...not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret’
is probably meant to be taken that the person who gives alms should not dwell on the goodness of His deed but should instantly forget what he has just done. In other words, in the public proclamation of poor contributions by the play actors, praise from men for the deed also included personal pride which slapped oneself on the back for being such a great person.
Jesus says that such a false assessment of oneself should not be the disciple’s experience - after all, if giving to the poor gives the contributor a real selfish buzz, hasn’t he also received praise from mankind (even though it’s himself)?
When you give, says Jesus, don’t let it even so much as be acknowledged by other areas of your life - certainly the disciple should not deny that he’s done such a thing if approached, but neither should he allow his entire life to be so consumed by the act of giving that it becomes the be-all-and-end-all.
Rather, he should forget what he’s just done and not dwell on it. As almsgiving was a command laid upon the Jew in the Mosaic Law, it is only the fulfilment of a command and not something that necessarily originates in the giver themselves.
As John Stott summarises, quoted by Matmor
‘Christian giving is to be marked by self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness, not by self-congratulation’
The reward a disciple should be striving for through the distribution of his possessions to the poor, then, is not an earthly one but from God Himself in Heaven. And this reward is not implied to be earthly or transient but eternal and everlasting (Luke 16:9, Mtw 25:34-40). In effect Jesus is saying
‘Let the play actors receive the wages that they have set themselves to earn. But you must look only to doing what is required of you by My Father and from this you will receive a wage that no one else will see but which will be more satisfying than anything you can earn on earth’
Where to pray
NB - for a discussion on the word and subject of the ‘hypocrite’ (Mtw 6:5) see on my introductory discussion at the top of this web page.
For a discussion on the word ‘reward’ (Mtw 6:5) see on my notes under the heading ‘Introduction’ which follows my introductory discussion.
For a discussion on the phrase ‘reward from God’ (Mtw 6:6) see on my notes under the heading ‘Alms’ towards the end.
The passage which runs from Mtw 6:5 to 6:15 deals wholly with prayer even though an explanation concerning forgiveness is inserted into the discourse by Jesus at 6:14-15. The two verses that we will here consider rightly deal with prayer along similar lines as in the previous passage concerning alms, outlining where the disciple should take care both to pray and not to pray before Jesus moves on to instruct His disciples as to what the content of their prayers should be (a passage which, even now, I’m wondering whether it would be better for me to begin a new web page for because of the enormous amount of possible content!).
Although both the place of almsgiving and of praying teach the same principles of not being seen by men and women (see on the article ‘Alms’ above for more in the way of this discussion rather than here), there are a few points that warrant consideration individually before we move on to the content of the disciple’s prayer.
This theme of the right place for a religious act will not be returned to when the subject of fasting is dealt with (Mtw 6:16-18) as a person who fasts must necessarily still go about his daily business throughout the time of his fast. But instruction as to how to conduct oneself before mankind when in the process of fasting will be necessary for His disciples to consider.
The first thing to notice is that, although the word for ‘corners’ (Strongs Greek number 1137) in Mtw 6:5 is an accurate translation of the word in the original (it could also be used to denote the division of an area into four parts), the word ‘street’ (Strongs Greek number 4113) is a word which means more accurately a ‘broad way’ as opposed to the ‘narrow way’ of Mtw 6:2 noted above.
In the previous description of the street, we noted that almsgivers were more likely to be seen in the narrow streets and alleyways because their actions were unlikely to be missed by the passers-by who would have been forced to walk near them.
Here, however, the idea is that the street corners of large and wide thoroughfares will contain more people that can be effectively reached by demonstrable acts of praying than could be if the religious act took place in the smaller alleyways.
After all, though almsgiving may last a few moments and need a person to be close to witness what is taking place, prayer - through the movement inherent within Judaism’s practice, the loud cries of the petitioners which could have accompanied them and the period of time taken for such actions - needed a large passing crowd even some yards away from the petitioner so that many people would be able to be reached.
Matfran comments that there is no indication that public prayer was conducted at street corners so that, like the trumpet of Mtw 6:2, we may be looking at purely a parabolic statement designed to make the disciples aware that a show was not what should be put on. However, citing Jeremias, Matfran goes on to suggest that
‘...one who strictly observed the afternoon hour of prayer could deliberately time his movements to bring him to the most public place at the appropriate time...’
Edersheim in ‘The Temple’ notes that
‘The attitude to be observed during prayer is very accurately defined by the Rabbis. The worshipper was to stand, turning towards the Holy Place; he was to compose his body and his clothes, to draw his feet close together, to cast down his eyes at least at the beginning of his prayer, to cross his hands over his breast and to “stand as a servant before his master with all reverence and fear”’
Such a physical attitude while prayer was being offered to God could not, therefore, have gone unnoticed by the populace who passed by the petitioners going about their daily duties and the response, although quite varied I’m sure, would have included many who regarded such people with respect and reverence as they saw, in them, a supposed commitment to God that they themselves lacked.
As an aside, I can’t help but mention the Mishnah’s comment on the attitude of prayer in circumstances which were far from ideal when, for instance, the religious Jew was riding on an ass and he found that he could not dismount. He should (Berakoth 4:5), rather
‘...turn his face [toward Jerusalem] and if he cannot turn his face he should direct his heart toward the Holy of Holies’
I know this is not ostentatious show but one wonders just how effective the petitioner may have been if he was descending down a narrow pathway in a steep-sided ravine and the furthest thing from his mind would have been a lengthy petition before God. Surely, a heartfelt ‘HELP!’ would be more in keeping with his predicament rather than the need for the rider to ‘direct his heart toward the Holy of Holies’?
I wonder what Jesus would make of today’s assembly at the Western ‘wailing’ wall in the old city in Jerusalem where Rabbis and devout Jews gather to petition God? Would He find the procedure that compels believers to demonstrate their commitment to Judaism acceptable or a display of outward conformity to a series of beliefs that are being denied by the people who vehemently affirm them?
And what should we make of the flowery prayers which are uttered in churches the length and breadth of this land where the beneficial effects of the product are more evaluated on the blessing the hearer receives rather than on the effect that it has on God and, therefore, of whether the prayer actually gets answered or not?
Mathen is also wise enough to note that, even if the disciple of Christ has entered the secret place but makes it known that he is there praying, he is just as much praying in public as the one who stands on the street corner! He also notes the habit of some leaders of congregations who disappear for a time before a church service begins so that they can
‘...assure the congregation that before they sat down to prepare the sermon they had locked the door of their study and spent so many minutes in earnest prayer!’
I also knew an evangelist (who shall remain nameless quite obviously) who disappeared most afternoons ‘to pray’ for the meetings until one afternoon late on in the week when a fellow worker just happened to have gone upstairs to relieve himself and noticed that he could hear snoring emanating from the bedroom! Obviously not prayer unless Rom 8:26 was being claimed! The evangelist’s explanation that he’d fallen asleep while he’d been praying was greeted with a fair amount of disbelief seeing as he was laid out horizontally on the bed - not the normal posture for prayer.
There is certainly a need for corporate prayer and of praying in a fellowship on behalf of the congregation (and Jesus does not condemn praying in the synagogue in His alternative example in Mtw 6:5, only when it is done for the sole purpose of reaping the reward of praise from the men and women who can witness it. Matfran notes that prayer in the synagogue was ‘...led by a member who stood at the front’ and, as such, was possibly regarded as a mark of special honour) but, in each and every case, prayer must be remembered to be primarily private and not a characteristic of a life of a disciple of Christ which is displayed for the sole purpose of gaining acceptance before men and women.
Such ostentatious show, therefore, is equally unacceptable to God as was almsgiving, and the disciple is urged to go secretly into a private room and pray when the need arises. Again, the idea is of not seeking the reward from mankind that prayer is taking place but of being concerned to have direct access to God and to please Him by spending time before Him.
How to pray
In the previous section, Jesus has spoken against the practise of His fellow Jews, probably the Jewish religious leaders, whom he had labelled ‘play actors’ (or ‘hypocrites’) in similar terms as his denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees to be recorded in Matthew chapter 23.
But here, the teaching is directed against doing the things that the Gentiles do, not the hypocrites, even though there may be traits that had overbled into Judaism (see, for instance, God’s comments in Is 1:15). The point is that the negative traits which are not to be commended are more likely to be a characteristic of Gentile worship than they are to be part of Judaism.
Indeed, the reason for the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ (sheesh! How I hate that label!) of Mtw 6:9-13 is solely as a response to the negativity of the Gentile way of praying and, therefore, can be seen to contrast with their approach.
The Jews, then, suffered from the place they chose for prayer, thinking that they were well justified in seeking praise from men because of their piety, whereas the Gentiles suffered from the contents of their prayers which did little to reach God and to cause Him to pay them heed.
It is possibly significant that the Gentiles are being singled out here as a negative example though it may mean no more than they were to stand as an example of what shouldn’t be done to the disciples of Chris. But perhaps there is an indication here in Jesus’ words that He understood His mission to be towards the Gentiles also at a later date after His resurrection and so specifically mentions them to be remembered by His disciples and recorded for their benefit at a later date.
Gentile prayer would certainly have been known in first century Judaism, not just in the pagan centres in and around Galilee but in the Temple at Jerusalem where the world was able to come into the ‘court of the Gentiles’ and petition the God of Israel, a place which had become more of a market place than an area where true petitioning and seeking of God could take place in the time of Christ (John 2:13-16 at the start of His ministry and Mtw 21:12-13 towards the end shortly before the crucifixion and immediately after the Triumphal entry).
But whether Jesus is referring to the Gentile prayers to pagan gods or their prayers to the God of Israel is impossible to determine in this context. Kittels is equally perplexed as to the correct application of the Greek word translated ‘many words’ in Mtw 6:7 and how it actually relates to the Gentiles and comments
‘The much speaking refers either to the enumeration of many deities or to the effort to wear down the gods by repetition. Quantity to the point of verbosity replaces quality’
All that can be said here is that the style and content of Gentile prayer seems to have been well-known or, at the very least, it had a reputation which had characteristics attached to it which Jesus is picking up on.
1. General Content
Before we can adequately comment on Mtw 6:7, we need to ascertain what Jesus actually said as He taught His disciples for the RSV’s ‘heap up empty phrases’ where the AV has ‘vain repetitions’ (Strongs Greek number 945) is interpreted variously by commentators who generally point out that, as the word occurs just once only in the entire NT, it is almost impossible to be definitive as to its specific meaning.
The textual and Greek word commentators seem to be fairly equally divided into three camps, though the third of these is a combination of the first two. Firstly, then, the word is thought of in terms of repetitiveness and Kittels, although normally quite voluminous in the information given for each Greek word dealt with, gives just three lines, commenting that the word
‘...means “to babble” in the sense of trying to achieve success in prayer by heaping up repetitions’
Although Matfran comments that the word is
‘...otherwise unknown in contemporary literature’
Matmor notes that it is found in two other places in all the ancient Greek literature and that, in one of these, it is disputed as to whether it actually is used or not. However, Matmor opts for the repetitiveness theme when he comments on the passage that
‘To pray at length was regarded by the Gentiles as the way to make sure that one’s prayer was appreciated by the deity, and there is no reason for thinking that this error was confined to the Gentiles’
Mathen seems to ignore the problems of the word being used (as he does on a great many other occasions, I note) but translates the word as ‘babble on and on’ indicating repetition.
Secondly, the concept of meaninglessness is accepted by Matfran amongst others who states that the word was
‘...coined as an onomatopoeic term for empty “babbling”’
though just what is meant by ‘babbling’ here and in other commentators needs some explanation for the allusion would be to Gen 11:9 where the reason why Babylon (literally ‘babble’) was initially given its name was because in that place God confused the people’s languages and they ‘babbled’.
Mattask also opts for meaninglessness but, along with Matmor, does give the reader at least some alternatives in the citing of other authorities who disagree with them. Mattask comments that
‘Tyndale [translated it] “babble overmuch”. The Vulgate [was] translated by Knox as “use many phrases”. The old Syriac version understands by it “do not say idle things”. It would seem probable that it is meaningless[ness] rather than repetitive speech that is primarily indicated by the word’
and Matmor (who opts for the meaning of ‘repetition’ as above)
‘BAGD [a Greek-English Lexicon]...think that it is a hybrid form possibly deriving from Aramaic words meaning “talk idly”: they give the meaning as “babble, speak without thinking”. AS [another Greek Lexicon] thinks it may be onomatopoeic meaning “stammer, repeat idly”’
Just when you thought that the options were an either/or choice between one interpretation or another, some commentators go for a meaning which combines the two! Certainly, the translators of the AV did this when they used ‘vain [meaningless] repetitions’ but Vines substantiates the meaning when he defines the word as
‘to repeat idly’
while Mathag, the only modern commentator to do so, notes that
‘The verb here...refers not to a speech impediment but to the repetition of meaningless syllables’
The reader is left wondering whether he should opt for repetition (which has the support of the final phrase of the verse where the RSV translates ‘their many words’ though even here Mathag sits on the fence and interprets the Greek word in an almost identical way to the current word under consideration when he notes that it ‘...seems to have in mind vain repetition and lengthiness’), meaninglessness (which seems to have less going for it than the commentators make out for, if we are truly honest, how could the Gentiles ever have thought that the words they spoke which meant absolutely nothing have any effect on the God of Israel?) or the ‘heap up empty phrases’ of the RSV which combines both meanings into one.
Perhaps Sirach 7:14 (there is also a verse about brevity of words in the OT Eccles 5:2) from the Apocrypha is in mind here and Jesus may be using the principle of that verse in His own teaching but adapting it for an application to His disciples. The words are translated by the NRSV as running
‘Do not babble in the assembly of the elders and do not repeat yourself when you pray’
thus referring, firstly, to empty speech and, secondly, to the repetition which can also be a part of prayer. This appears to be the best option but, as repetition is outlined by Jesus towards the end of this verse (the ‘many words’ of the RSV - Strongs Greek number 4180 - the only place in the LXX where this is used is in Prov 10:19), it is better to take the first word to mean simply ‘meaningless or empty phrases’ and that, by their use, length was achieved in the prayer which is being spoken against.
Therefore, the preferred paraphrasing of Mtw 6:7 would run
‘In praying, do not use empty and meaningless phrases like the Gentiles do for they think that they will be heard for the multiplicity of their words’
Jesus, then, is urging upon His disciples to think clearly about the words that they use when they pray and, in so doing, keep their prayer short. Jesus is not arguing against long prayers - that would be to misrepresent the text here - but that the prayer to God might be full of meaning and intent rather than of verbal wanderings and meanderings which serve to increase the length of the prayer but which are of no use to the petition.
If Jesus was simply speaking out against long prayers, why did He go (Luke 6:12)
‘...out to the mountain to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God’
if such a thing is displeasing to Him? Passages such as Mark 6:46-47 also imply that the prayer session was of a considerable length though ‘all night’ would be a wrong description of the one detailed here.
Jesus’ point is, therefore, that prayer must be to the point and not beat about the bush - just as the sample prayer which follows justifies the teaching which He has just given. There is neither a theological basis presented to God for why, for instance, He should satisfy His disciple’s needs nor a detailed list of exactly what was required (two pounds of carrots, a pound of sprouts and a leg of lamb, please) - neither is any word wasted and added to either make an effect or pad it out to a decent length.
Brevity, therefore, is the order of the day when it comes to prayer but not brevity for brevity’s sake. Brevity only in the sense that the Father may be petitioned simply and precisely and that empty words may not be increased for the sole purpose of being heard by God and of having one’s prayers dealt with.
As Matfran comments
‘The stress is apparently on the quality rather than the quantity of the utterance’
I don’t know why christians insist on repeating these Scriptures ‘ad nauseam’ when they’re in prayer, thinking that, by some quirk of the imagination, God will actually be pleased with them week in, week out. It must bore the pants off God to hear the same words repeated again and again when the people who use these Scriptures have little or no sincerity of heart in the words they speak even though they try to summon up from within themselves some sort of feeling of interest and application.
Besides, if we were to let our eyes cast themselves upon Mtw 6:7 which occurs just two verses before these words, we’d see that Jesus there warns His disciples not to utter phrases in prayer that are either meaningless or empty.
Yes, God is no more pleased with His children who find the need to repetitively speak out these Scriptures and who neglect the importance of the words rather than the mere verbal formula than those who think that by religious acts of charity they can somehow win His favour. All such religious experiences and practices are empty and unacceptable to God.
When Matfran comments on Mtw 6:7-8 (my italics) that
‘Prayer in the non-Jewish world was often characterised particularly by formal invocations and magical incantations in which the correct repetition counted rather than the worshipper’s attitude or intention’
one begins to shuffle uneasily on the chair because the commentator’s words seem to hit the nail on the head in many of our fellowships which like to think of themselves as doing the will of God in their services and yet maintain the ‘same old routine’ week in, week out.
Jesus said to the disciples in Matthew’s Gospel
‘Pray, then, like this...’
where the ‘then’ is a concluding word which should draw our attention to the words which precede it and which have detailed the need for relevant content in prayer and brevity of speech and where the ‘like this’ points us toward the interpretation that the disciples were not being commanded to ‘pray this’ but to understand the structure of the prayer and so to pray along similar structural lines - even using similar themes such as the greatness of God, the need for provision and the necessary bestowal of forgiveness upon all who had wronged them.
But to use the same words over and over again?
Never...God is the Creator and, like Father like son, He expects His children to equally ‘create’ and ‘be creative’. Vain repetition does not demonstrate the overflow of the heart just the same as pomp and ceremony cannot make provision for the freedom of expression before God when everything must be done to a fixed format and at an appropriate pre-arranged time.
Having said this, the parallel passage (Luke 11:1-4) - though that phrase is a misnomer for the alternative ‘prayer’ was given at a different time and place to the one here recorded for us in Matthew - has Jesus say to the disciple who asked Him how to pray
‘When you pray, say...’
implying that the words could be used as a verbal format. However, with other considerations throughout the Old and New Testaments, it appears that God does not delight in vain repetition and that, even in the Lukan passage, what we are looking at is, rather, an example of the type of prayer to be prayed rather than a liturgical formula.
By the time of the Didache (written possibly at the end of first century), the recipients are urged to (Didache 8)
‘Pray as the Lord enjoined in His Gospel’
and then follows the repetition of the Scripture as it appears in Matthew, not Luke, and includes the phrase
‘For Thine is the power and the glory for ever and ever’
which is normally attributed as a later addition amongst modern commentators.
Frighteningly, the writer concludes by urging his readers that they should
‘Say this prayer three times every day’
which shows us that, even at an early date, liturgy and ceremony may have infiltrated the Church and drawn it away from a spontaneous and creative service of God which differed from one moment to the next as the Lord directed and led. Mathag comments that ‘three times every day’ was the traditional Jewish practice so that it may have been inherited and mimicked from Judaism.
Rather than think of the prayer as being a verbal formula which should be adhered to, as we think about this prayer we need to think about what principles it teaches us rather than to think that by so praying we are fulfilling our obligation in communication before God the Father.
a. Overview of the Lord’s Prayer
I intend spending some time discussing and considering Mtw 6:11 where Jesus speaks about requesting from the Father ‘daily bread’ (in the section which follows this one) but, before we can do this, we need to put the petition into some sort of context and see how the entire prayer is structured.
I don’t intend dealing intricately and in depth with the various themes which occur here though I shall not limit myself to no comments whatsoever as there are principles here which need our careful consideration so that we may see what it is that the Father requires from us as we approach Him to ask what we need.
This is, indeed, the reason for the sample prayer which Jesus gives to His disciples. Mtw 6:8 says specifically that God knows what each disciple needs before it’s brought before Him so that words can be kept to a minimum and prayer can be confined to the areas outlined in the following example which is primarily concerned with the provision of need.
This has not always been pointed out in the fellowships I’ve attended and this short example given by Jesus has often been taken to be representative of all prayer that the disciple is to direct towards God. This is simply not the case - the context is one of petitioning God for one’s needs, not of intercession on behalf of others, for example.
As we will see, provision for the disciple of Christ lies in three specific areas - past, present and future - but, before we comment on that, we need to systematically work our way through the intervening verses.
i. Our Father who art in Heaven
It is, indeed, unfortunate that this passage of Scripture has come to be known as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ for Jesus would never have prayed it (Mtw 6:12 Cp John 8:46, II Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15, 7:26) - His introductory formula is also against us thinking that Jesus ever intended for His disciples to use it individually for it begins ‘Our Father’ not ‘My Father’
I remember Reinhart Bonnke, the German evangelist who was used mightily in South Africa and in all of the Continent of Africa, say at a meeting once that this preliminary announcement is simply ‘name and address’!
This is quite true - the words direct what follows at the one and only God and it also serves as a confession of faith for the disciple is urged to proclaim that God is not ‘the’ Father making Him impersonal but ‘our’ Father, making the relationship personal.
This is all that really needs be said here.
ii. The Name, the Kingdom and the Will
It’s extremely unfortunate that most translations obscure the layout of Jesus’ words by rearranging the last phrase of 6:9 (‘Hallowed be Thy name’) to make it look as if it belongs to the phrase which immediately precedes it (‘Our Father who art in Heaven’).
It’s also problematical that most of the English translations I’ve seen cut away at the symmetry in Jesus’ words (in their wisdom?!) and bring into the English versions a disjointed series of three statements which don’t appear to be anymore poetic than most other places in the NT.
Although the first two phrases of Mtw 6:10 look structured similarly, the preceding clause of the verse previous is rearranged to make it seem as if it floats inbetween two statements with no connection.
However, the three statements concerning the Father’s Name, Kingdom and Will are meant to be taken as a triplet of statements and I’ve reproduced two translator’s versions below (though where my source noted as ‘Alfred Marshall’ comes from I have no idea. I have long since lost my source reference for this translation) with my own summary of what is preferable at the end.
Perhaps it’s because the normal version learnt in schools and known by the masses is so well entrenched that most modern translators refuse to alter the format substantially. Although this is a shame, it can, nevertheless, be sympathised with if Bible sales are the be-all-and-end-all and readers may even go so far (as has happened in the past with the AV) as to accuse the translators of altering the text when all they’ve done is retranslate it with words that they feel will convey the right meaning to modern man.
Barclay’s NT, then, renders the passage as
‘May Your Name be held in reverence
May Your Kingdom come
May Your Will be done’
and Alfred Marshall opts for
‘Let it be Hallowed, the Name of Thee
Let it come, the Kingdom of Thee
Let it come about, the Will of Thee’
which, for me, is a step back into the archaic structure of the KJV which makes the words become almost ‘religious’ and ‘liturgical’ rather than personal. My own preference is to keep the sentences as brief as possible in accordance with Jesus’ words about not multiplying empty phrases and of keeping the length of the prayer for provision concise and to the point.
My own version (which, I notice, is the same as Mattask who comments that, in each instance, the verbs are emphatic and can only be rendered correctly by placing them at the end of each line) renders the three lines as
‘Thy Name be hallowed
Thy Kingdom come
Thy Will be done’
where the word ‘hallowed’ is just a bit too obscure for my liking in the mind of modern man and I’d prefer ‘be considered holy’ but, even here, the Truth would probably be lost on the non-christian. Therefore it’s probably best to stick with the word ‘hallowed’.
The first three petitions, it can be seen, are all for the Father’s glory. The disciple is to prize God’s glory above that of His own and to come before the Father with sincere pronouncements concerning the elevation of God throughout the world.
God’s name (the name often - if not usually - represented the Person whose label one was using and this is more naturally the intention of the phrase here) is to be lifted high and not be profaned - yet, more than this, it is to be ‘set apart’ by the people of the world as being special and distinct from the gods which are worshipped throughout the world. God’s Kingdom is also to be eagerly anticipated and prayed for when, thirdly, God gets His will done throughout the earth just as it’s done in the Heavenly realm.
This final phrase of Mtw 6:10, therefore, which is recorded in the RSV as
‘on earth as it is in Heaven’
is supposed to be an addition to all the above three petitions. It summarises the threefold desire of the disciple into the petition that the perfection and righteousness of Heaven might come as a reality to earth. It desires that Heaven’s principles come as an earthly manifestation and go some way to affirming the first proclamation of Jesus when He began to minister to Israel (Mtw 4:17) that
‘...the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’
Combining these three statements, therefore, with the final phrase of Mtw 6:10, we can achieve a paraphrase of Jesus’ words along the lines of
‘Let Your name [God Himself] be set apart above all others on earth just like it is in Heaven.
Let Your Kingdom come visibly on earth just like it already is established in Heaven.
Let Your Will be performed on this earth by men and women just like it’s being done [by the angels] in Heaven’
As such, it shows the disciple’s commitment towards God being elevated once more over all the earth and being recognised as such by all the nations of the world.
Finally, some commentators place some weight on what was known as the Qaddish prayer of the ancient synagogues and point to the similarities between that prayer and the opening three phrases of the passage here. The prayer runs (my italics to emphasise the three clauses)
‘Exalted and hallowed be His great name in the world which He created according to His will. May He establish His Kingdom in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the whole household of Israel, speedily and at a near time’
but it can immediately be seen that the prayer here does nothing to assert that the petitioner wants to see God’s will done (the clause refers only to the creation of the world rather than a future time when His will might be established throughout the earth).
Although it should come as no surprise that elements of the prayer in Matthew’s Gospel find expression and duplication in first century Palestine (after all, Jesus was a Jew who lived in a Jewish world) - indeed, we would doubt the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings if they were so detached from the Jewish society as to beg the question whether they were not written at a much later date when justification for a fellowship’s experience was utmost in the author’s mind rather than an accurate representation of what Jesus both said and did - it would be wrong for us to think that Jesus is deliberately following Jewish practice.
Though there are eschatological desires inherent in Jesus’ words here just as there were in the Qaddish, that Jesus is the One who is the establisher of the Kingdom, the One who does God’s will completely and who makes known the presence (the ‘name’) of God to all He meets should make us realise that the prayer on the lips of the disciples was becoming a reality in Christ in every place He visited and in every situation He found Himself in.
The second three petitions (balanced by the three requests which precede them and which deal primarily with the exaltation of God in the earth) cover the disciples’ needs in every area of their existence, both past (Mtw 6:12), present (Mtw 6:11) and future (Mtw 6:13) and are therefore indicative of the full provision and sustaining hand of God towards His disciple in each and every area of his or her life.
In Mtw 6:11, Jesus contemplates the present when He encourages His disciples to ask the Father for their ‘daily bread’ (see on the next large section where I will deal with this phrase at some length seeing as it is interpreted in widely different ways by commentators and translators alike. There is a need to take this phrase to one side and deal with it separately which a short exposition of the prayer here does not warrant including. Here we are just noting that Jesus’ words have to do with present - rather than future - provision).
In Mtw 6:12, Jesus moves back in time to the past and urges the disciples to petition God for the forgiveness of their sins committed. Matfran notes that the word for ‘debts’ (Strongs Greek number 3783)
‘...represents the regular Aramaic term for sin which literally denoted money debt, here put literally into the Greek’
while Kittels (my italics) notes that the word
‘...means “debt” and in a broader sense “obligation”...In later Judaism it is a common term for sin’
and it therefore seems appropriate to take Jesus’ intention as being the petition for the forgiveness of sin rather than simply of the writing off of monetary and material debt or any transient obligation supposed as the responsibility of the disciple.
Further, in the explanatory passage which follows the prayer (see below), the word for ‘trespass’ (Strongs Greek number 3900 - Kittels gives the sense of the word as ‘to commit a fault’) is used in place of the word ‘debt’, indicating further that an offence or sin is being referred to in the previous verse of Mtw 6:12.
Finally, in Luke 11:4 where Jesus repeated the prayer at a later date when asked by one of His disciples, both the regular NT word for ‘sins’ (Strongs Greek number 266) and ‘debts’ (Strongs Greek number 3784 - from the same word group as 3783 above) are equated with being one and the same thing.
Therefore, in the context of the prayer, the interpretation of ‘sins’ is justifiable though in Matthew’s Gospel such sin is referred to as being a debt that needs settling - and the onus is on the disciple to wipe the slate clean if the offence was directed towards him or to petition God if the disciple had directed offence Heavenward by His own failure. But, as Matmor notes
‘We should notice that it is debtors that are forgiven not debts’
because the responsibility is to remove any hindrance to a positive relationship with the offender. While sin may be forgiven, there must also be a removal of any ill-natured grudge and it would seem that, for this reason, the debtor is being mentioned rather than the sin which was committed. However, in the explanatory passage which follows, it is the actual sin that is singled out for mention rather than the person who’s committed it.
Sin, therefore, is seen to be the responsibility of the disciple to deal with whether committed by or against him.
In Mtw 6:14-15, Jesus goes on at the end of the prayer to explain and expound this statement (even though there appears to be little added to what was contained in the prayer) when He comments that the forgiveness of sins naturally supposes that the disciple is willing to forgive men and women for the sins that they have committed against themselves. Perhaps Jesus felt the need to emphasise this point for, while the disciple may desire adequate provision for the present (Mtw 6:11) and be concerned not to fall away from the presence of God (Mtw 6:13), there may not necessarily be as devoted a commitment to forgive others who have offended them.
Here, though, there is not an implication that all transgressions committed against the disciple must have been dealt with before God will forgive individual sin but that there must not be, as Matfran points out, an
‘...insincerity of a prayer for forgiveness from an unforgiving disciple...The point is not so much that forgiveness is a prior condition of being forgiven but that forgiveness cannot be a one-way process’
At a later date, Jesus reiterated the forgiveness which is presupposed in those which receive forgiveness from the hand of God in the parable of the king who forgave his steward a vast sum of money but who, when he found a fellow servant, attempted to extract the pittance that he was owed (Mtw 18:23-35).
As can be inferred there, the forgiveness received from God - when properly realised that it is such a vast debt that it can never be fully repaid - must propel disciples to turn to their fellow servants (or ‘brothers’ as Peter’s question in 18:21) and forgive them from the heart no matter what it is that they have committed against them.
This does raise interesting problems in the lives of believers and I have tried to briefly deal with the problem that believers have in this area of forgiveness on my web page here under Appendix One.
Finally, Jesus moves on to deal with future provision (Mtw 6:13) where rescue and not preservation is primarily in mind.
The Greek word ‘deliver’ here (Strongs Greek number 4506) means ‘rescue from’ and not ‘preserve from’. The petition is not, therefore, ‘Preserve me from ever being touched by Satan’ but ‘Rescue me when he stands up to draw me away from serving You’ (the final word in the English translations rendered ‘evil’ is, better, ‘evil one’ though this is contested amongst commentators and many still understand the Greek word at the end of this verse to be neuter and so be referring to ‘evil’ rather than a personification of evil, meaning satan himself).
It is not enough for the disciple to think that he has sufficient will power to overcome any temptation which presents itself to him from the hand of his enemy or that, confident of the Lord’s power, he can put down anything that would lead him astray from a sincere and pure commitment to doing the Lord’s will. Mattask notes that the Greek word for temptation here (Strongs Greek number 3986) rightly means ‘outward trial’ rather than a testing sent from God and we are, therefore, considering something which lies external to the disciple which can have an effect and an influence over him.
The word could be translated by either the word ‘temptation’ or ‘testing’ and Mathag prefers the latter for the sole reason, it appears, that
‘God does not lead into temptation (James 1:13)’
but, in the Scripture cited, the word group which includes the Greek used in Matthew for ‘temptation’ is also used and therefore the word has shades of meaning which need to be defined by the context in which they reside.
What is in mind here, then, is that God is being petitioned to be merciful to the disciple with the weaknesses that He knows to be resident within him and so not to lead the disciple into a place where the disciple would not be able to stand against the opposition present.
The burden of the passage is not a petition requesting God to remove all types of temptation from the disciple but one that acknowledges the reliance upon God to steer a course for the follower where nothing there present will overcome him to the shame of the Father’s representative and of the Father Himself.
This external influence to the disciple’s experience will be important to note in connection with my future notes on Mtw 15:1-20 (sorry, no link - it’s a long way off and I have no way of knowing what the page url will be!) where we will consider the false presumption of many christians that satan is able to enter a believer in order to tempt him.
Satan’s work is primarily external to a believer’s life and, when he or she is protected by the hand of God, the desires and influences that are within are not the result directly of the work of satan by his entry into the life but emanate from the old nature which desires those things still which are opposed to the will of God.
Kittels notes that, because of the mention of the ‘evil one’
‘...what is at issue is not a test...but temptation by ungodly powers...’
and this is the most accurate interpretation of the verse rather than see in it all sorts of testings which may come from God or when the believer (James 1:13-14)
‘...is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire’
where the mention of satan and his work is far from the thought of James’ message.
Mathag summarises this verse well when he paraphrases
‘Do not lead us into a testing of our faith that is beyond our endurance but, when testing does come, deliver us from the evil one and his purposes’
Rather than rely upon the power of God or on the strength of his own will, therefore, the disciple must be aware that wisdom is needed to choose the right path, even to the point of petitioning God that He might lead the disciple away from areas that would be a difficulty to him and which may tempt him to go after other things which would pull away from a pure allegiance to God.
b. Give us this day our daily bread
I noted in my comments on the structure of the prayer of Mtw 6:9-13 that I felt it necessary to deal with the phrase
‘Give us this day our daily bread’
in a totally different section specifically because of the problems which are contained within the sentence and which translators and commentators sometimes disagree over.
This problem came to light when I was asked to speak on this subject a number of years ago, now, in a fellowship’s canter through the prayer when they had different speakers to research, study and deliver messages on successive weeks on each of the other phrases.
Therefore my notes on this subject were rather long even before I approached the text for a second time seeing as they were ‘sermon length’ on their own (and my sermons are never fifteen minutes long)! I have, however, redeveloped them and tried to update and expand them here rather than just reproduce them verbatim.
i. The problem of translation
While such recognised modern (and not so modern) translations such as the RSV, NASB, NIV, AMP, NRSV, KJV and NKJV translate the sentence
‘Give us this day our daily bread (our bread for today)’
where provision for the day in which the prayer is uttered is what is in mind, and the GNB renders it rather more ambiguously by
‘Give us today the food we need’
which could be taken to mean the same as the above or be a request that food be supplied on the day the petition is made for whatever need may come about even to the point of it being ‘tomorrow’, Barclay’s NT goes the full distance with the problematical Greek word translated ‘daily’ by the RSV (Strongs Greek number 1967) and renders the sentence by
‘Give us today our bread for the coming day’
giving the meaning a somewhat unusual feel to it where Jesus is urging upon His disciples that they should petition God for a supply of provision that will be what they need for the day after the one in which they’re praying - presumably the reason being that food has already been obtained for the day in question.
This Greek word is only used twice in the entire NT (which is here and in the parallel passage Luke 11:3 which doesn’t help us to determine its meaning by context) and only once in any other Greek manuscript (see below) though in that place it’s used on an incomplete manuscript.
Barclay’s NT, even though the translation looks strange and would make us initially reject it as an obvious error, is actually following the most logical etymological interpretation of the word by his translation ‘the coming day’ (as do a lot of respected scholars).
Kittels also notes, after a brief survey of the possible meanings of the word, that
‘...it may be seen that a derivation from epienai...is perhaps the freest from objections. On this view the meaning is “for the [to]morrow”. But this raises material questions...the rendering “for tomorrow” does not yield the attitude that Jesus is teaching’
As Kittels notes, the difficulties that such a translation throws up produce more problems than it solves for other Scriptures are against us taking this translation as being the correct one.
For example, in the OT God gave the command to the Israelites concerning the manna that they were to (Ex 16:4)
‘...gather a day’s portion every day...’
and that, should they try to keep some of that provision over until the following day, it would do them no good because it became inedible and useless for human consumption (Ex 16:20). Therefore, provision at the time when provision is needed, on the day when the need arises, is the principle by which God dealt with the nation of Israel.
However, it must also be pointed out that God may also command provision to be given to His people in order that they might rest (Ex 16:22-30) and then the provision may be given ahead of time - but His usual work is to give it to His people on the day that it is needed by them, not before.
But, the principle which held in the OT throughout the wilderness experience, it may be argued, is not applicable to this situation that is presented to us in Matthew’s Gospel. That being said, the indication from passages in the NT are that we are to take the word translated ‘daily’ by the RSV not as meaning ‘tomorrow’ but as it’s traditionally taken as the day on which the prayer is made or, perhaps better, ‘adequate provision’ as noted below.
Mtw 6:34 (which is a continuation of Jesus’ sermon in which Mtw 6:11 is found) has Jesus instruct His disciples that they should not be anxious
‘...about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day’
Therefore, why would the disciple have a need to petition God the Father for tomorrow’s provision when they are specifically instructed not to be anxious and concerned for the things which will transpire on the following day?
And, finally, Luke 11:3 (which is the parallel passage to Mtw 6:11) reads, if we take the Greek word translated ‘daily’ as meaning ‘tomorrow’
‘Give us, day by day, tomorrow’s bread’
that is, give us the provision for tomorrow on the day before the need for it occurs which, although it can be appreciated, tends to make the sentence sit uneasily in our own minds and the issue is being clouded as to the nature of God’s provision.
As I noted above, the problematical Greek word occurs nowhere else outside the NT though, according to Matfran, the one exception is in
‘...a fragment of an Egyptian account book published in the last century but since lost’
and who then proceeds to list possible interpretations of the word and comments that the meaning ‘necessary for survival’ is most likely and that, as justification
‘...in the [Egyptian] account-book fragment it probably referred to a daily ration’
But this doesn’t actually tie in too well with his chosen definition, a ‘daily ration’ not necessarily meaning what is needful but that which was a portion that was bestowed daily, giving no indication that it was all that was necessary for the individual who received it.
After all, while a fixed amount may be the daily allowance, it may need to be supplemented if it was found to be less than sufficient for the needs of the individual.
Although the definition retrieved from this papyrus document seems, at first, to have solved the problem between the interpretation of ‘today’ or ‘tomorrow’, Matmor comments that the occurrence of the word is not undisputed by scholars and Luknol outlines the real nature of the problem when he writes that
‘...since the papyrus in question is not available for confirmation and Sayce [the recorder of the manuscript] was prone to copying errors, more recent scholarship is reluctant to use this evidence...’
Better by far is the option noted by many of the commentators, already quoted from Matfran but which is best summarised by Kittels, that
‘[the word may] denote the amount in the sense of “sufficient”...On this view, the unusual Greek word might be due to the difficulty in finding a real equivalent for the Hebrew and Aramaic concept...Thus, while we cannot say precisely what the derivation and meaning are, the sense conveyed is fairly certainly that we are to pray each day for the bread that we need’
Therefore, the best translation of the verse seems to be one that follows the lines that the disciples are to petition God that all necessary provision (see the next section as to why ‘bread’ need not be taken as limited to one food product) will be given them for the very same day in which they find themselves and that any reference to a future time period is not part of the content of their prayer.
ii. Bread baked daily
Bread was one of the necessities of life in Biblical times along with water and, as such, the Greek word was one that could be employed to denote ‘food’ in very broad terms.
For instance, in the OT, Prov 6:8 speaks of the ant as preparing
‘...her food [bread] in summer...’
where a loaf of bread can hardly be in mind and, in Judges 13:15-16, the angel’s statement that he would
‘...not eat of your food [bread]...’
clearly means to include the kid that is being offered to him in the previous verse. It is likely that the use of the word in the NT in Luke 15:17 is also meant to be taken to mean food in general even though a more literal meaning remains possible.
But Luke 14:1 definitely refers to a meal which was to be set before Jesus, even though the Greek usage of the word might make it sound as if just bread was to be eaten - the RSV translates the word ‘dine’ here as the word should be taken to imply.
This appears to be the thought also in Mtw 6:11 where one daily Hovis or a thick-sliced white is not in mind.
The thought behind the petition is that the basics, the needful items, should be requested from God by His children whether material (such as bread, drink, clothes, accommodation and so on) or spiritual (guidance, wisdom, knowledge, revelation and so on).
In ancient days, only the quantity of bread that was needed for the day was prepared and baked for, unlike this present age, they had neither bread bins, plastic wrappers nor cling film (honestly)! In the hot climate of Israel, bread lasted a day at the most before it became dry and stale and had to be thrown away or reworked, perhaps, into products which moistened the bread and made it again useful for human consumption. A bread supply for each day, then, had to be freshly prepared and baked.
God’s provision to His disciples is, likewise, daily (as Matthew) or day by day (as Luke).
Though we mustn’t detract from Jesus’ words that as we pray the Father will supply us with food and sustenance on a daily basis, we should see in the prayer a request for all material and spiritual needs to be met in our pursuit and execution of His will as they arise (that is, day by day and, perhaps, even moments before the final deadline). God’s workman will have his daily needs given to him by the Foreman but only as the Foreman decides on the need.
In part iv we’ll look at two conditions from Scripture for receiving daily provision but, for now, let’s note that Jesus’ words aren’t empty. If Jesus’ disciple asks the Father for provision, they will receive it from His hand (Luke 11:13) for God cannot deny His obedient disciples.
iii. Differing provisions but all needs met
God gives to one what is only sufficient (a friend of mine once said to me ‘God meets all my needs but sometimes He keeps me a bit tight’), while to another He gives a surfeit.
But, whatever, both have their needs met.
These two seemingly different states of provision (when actually the bottom line is that both believers have their needs met) are dealt with by Scripture - both the adequacy and the surfeit - and, depending on which camp you fall in to, both have their advantages and pitfalls.
In Prov 30:7-9, Agur saw a danger in both extremes of provision (that is, abundance and poverty) and didn’t want to bring dishonour to God, so he prayed that he might always have what he needed from the Lord’s hand rather than find himself blaspheming His name through pride or desperation.
‘Two things I ask of Thee, deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full, and deny Thee, and say “Who is YHWH?” Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of My God’
Agur knew that, from the experience of seeing the rich around him, people often kicked against dependency upon God when they became rich and forsook the One who had given them that wealth in the first place and yet, at the other extreme, those who were less well-off and at the point of not finding sufficient food for their needed daily intake were tempted to take matters into their own hands and so blacken the good name that the believer carried through theft.
Therefore, with the same meaning as the Lord’s prayer, Agur prays that He would be supplied just with ‘sufficient bread’ or, as he puts it
‘the food that is needful for me’
But christians often wonder why one brother is richer than another and why one seems to have fallen ‘right side up’ wherever and whenever they seem to have stumbled through life. Why should one believer be rich beyond measure when another just about gets by on what they have from the Government’s Social Security payments?
Such considerations often develop jealously and envy in the life of the believer but the bottom line is that needs will be met and that this is how we should pray - Jesus did not tell His disciples to pray for a ten thousand dollar bonus in their wage packets so that they’d prosper, but that God would supply what was necessary for their existence.
Therefore, to bring the point home on a more personal level, why do my wife and I only have a 1.6 litre 10 year old VW Golf when God is able to supply us with a brand new GTi (with full accessories including power steering and some outrageously loud hifi system)? I mean, after all, don’t some of the christians round here own such vehicles? And don’t some believers own two or more cars as well?
Well, though I haven’t directly heard God on this issue (because I haven’t been disturbed enough to ask Him), I imagine that His reasoning is along the lines that a GTi would not be beneficial or needful in our situation. A better car means higher insurance and draws the attention of would-be thieves onto the possibility of taking what we’re using. But we have what is needful and it is this that each of us need to content ourselves with.
It is God alone who must decide the level of provision - He knows what will keep us true to Him and ‘lead us not into temptation’ (Mtw 6:13).
On the other hand, the surfeit of the rich is just as much a problem to believers as being on the thin dividing line between having sufficient and not having enough. Ps 37:25 speaks about the overflow that the righteous have in the Lord so that they have provision in excess of their need. It reads
‘I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging bread. He is ever giving liberally and lending, and his children become a blessing’
Firstly, David, the author, notes that he’s never seen the righteous forsaken by the Lord or His children needing to beg for their necessary daily food. Provision from the Lord goes beyond provision for the individual and extends to his immediate family.
But David also saw that the righteous around him had such an abundance in their own possession that they were giving their resources away to others and lending their money to those who had need. This, of course, is not the absolute picture of all believers - that they should have so much extra provision - for there are many to whom the prayer that they may have sufficient for the day’s need is a step of faith in itself when they look at the resources available to them.
But the question arises as to what happens when we receive more than what is sufficient for our own needs. Is it a licence to spoil ourselves with luxuries and to expand our standard of living to use up what we have? Should we now think about booking holidays to Australia rather than short day trips to the seaside or of upgrading our computers to the latest models with the latest hardware and software because we can?
II Cor 8:14 speaks to us in the situation that we may find ourselves in - We are to use our excess in order to meet our brothers’ needs and not hoard it for our own use, buying bigger and better cars, more expensive holidays, or more luxurious furniture and household items. God (to our own shame) can’t trust each and every believer with an excess (and, sometimes, the ones He does trust fail to live up to what is expected of them). He knows that, for many, such an abundance would be too much of a temptation (I Cor 10:13) and, if we pray ‘lead us not into temptation’ we shouldn’t be surprised if He answers us!
In the OT, the area of Bashan was prime grazing land so that the cows which were kept there were some of the most well-fed and fattest of the cattle that were reared in all the land of Israel. The women of Samaria, says the prophet (Amos 4:1-3), are like those cows, because they feed on the best but do not spare a thought for the poor - they feed themselves on the richest but forsake their poor brethren who need their support.
Each believer, therefore, who does likewise is a cow of Bashan!
In a rarely quoted parable (is it any wonder in our materialistic society?), Jesus speaks of the rich man who stored up treasure for himself on earth in order to be able to live a life of ease (Luke 12:15-21). But his possessions all passed to those after him when he died and before he was able to enjoy his wealth.
‘So’ says Jesus ‘is he who lays up treasure for himself (others enjoy what he was saving for his own pleasure), and is not rich toward God (that is, he is not willing to use an excess for God’s purposes)’
While for the most of us, having just enough is all that we will ever experience, the believers who have an excess (not just ‘the rich’) are obligated to consider the work and will of the Lord and to invest their money into those things where poverty exists.
This last consideration is not easy and the person with an excess will be torn between where their money should go, between individuals who have enough but could do with a bit more and individuals who have less but may have just as little even if monetary provision is given to them. But to withhold one’s provision from a brother in need is not the way of the Lord.
iv. Conditions for receiving our daily bread
There are at least two conditions placed upon the believer that we need to look at here and which give us insight into why, sometimes (if not quite often), our prayers go unanswered and we do not see the reality of those things that we say we need.
There are a multitude of differing reasons why God may choose not to answer our prayers and these two points are not meant to be an exhaustive explanation of them. But neither are they meant to be a checklist for the disciple who could think that, by so fulfilling the conditions in a legalistic manner, God is obliged to stretch out His hand and do whatever we ask in prayer.
Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately!) prayer is not like a slot machine - you don’t keep putting money into the slot and pulling on the handle until you hit the jackpot - but it’s the expression of a disciple who has a good relationship with God and who has set Himself to be effective for Him.
Much prayer is trial and error, it’s true - and there is always the need for revelation for the believer to know how he ought to pray - but there are certain things that we can guard against and others that we can do which remove hindrances to being effective.
This section will deal with just two of those.
1. Living for God
First and foremost, the disciple must be living for God in order that he might receive all those things which are necessary for serving Him. But, even here, notice that it is the things which are needful for serving Him that will be granted to them.
Is 33:15-16 records that
‘He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands lest they hold a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking upon evil - He will dwell on the heights; his place of defence will be the fortresses of rocks; his bread will be given him, his water will be sure’
Notice that the first few phrases talk about living the way that God would have us to before the passage goes on to speak in similar terms to Mtw 6:13 (that is, deliverance from the evil one) and, finally, concerning the Lord’s provision.
Two other Scriptures are worth noting here briefly. First, Mtw 6:33, which we will deal with at a later date on another web page, urges the disciple to
‘...seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these (material) things shall be yours as well’
and I John 3:22 which speaks of receiving
‘...from Him whatever we ask, because we keep His commandments and do what pleases Him’
In both these, what is primary is the desire to actively seek and to do whatever God requires from His disciple in order that the provision that is necessary for sustenance might be given to them.
There really is no point in praying ‘Give me what I need’ if all we are concerned about is our own welfare and prosperity. James writes (James 4:3) that
‘You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions’
God will certainly answer our prayer for daily provision if we are seeking to live in obedience to His will and purpose for our lives but so often the christian petitions God for those things which are not beneficial to his walk with God and neither are they the overflow of a relationship with Him that is committed to following after His will in everything that is encountered.
To receive from God, one needs to be devoted to following the Lord’s way regardless of selfish ambitions and gain. Only then can we be sure that our heart will beat in time with God and that the things we ask will be the very same things which the Lord wants to give us.
The opening lines of the sample prayer (Mtw 6:9-10 - see above) proclaim this theme by teaching the disciples that they should be concerned to ask for the Father’s will to be accomplished (not our own), His name to be reverenced (not our own) and His Kingdom to be established (not our own). If this prayer is a true expression of the heart, then the disciple’s daily bread will always be provided him.
In that case, God’s provision is supplied to the disciple in order that His will may be done, not for a bless up!! Though, having said that, I must add that God does (in my own experience) supply us with the best when we give our best to Him and that, sometimes, superfluous items are given to us when they don’t seem to directly bear on our desire to do God’s will.
It seems good here to give some personal examples even if the reader may think that I’m trying to urge upon him the impression that I always do the Father’s will and so always have my prayers answered - if only! But examples are good testimonies for us to realise that God provides for those who are actively engaged in doing and bringing about His will.
We have already said that it is important for us not to detract from Jesus’ words that food and sustenance will be given to us on a daily basis. So, for the two Chinese disciples who were locked in their house for being witnesses, the jar that contained enough rice for one final meal before they gradually starved to death never became empty, even though they kept taking from it enough provision each and every day of their captivity.
But, for me, ‘daily bread’ speaks of provision not just of food (and, in this society where food is so easily available, we sometimes forget that it is still God’s provision to give us what we need to keep the body alive), but of the basic needs that I have in order to be able to carry out His will.
These examples are specifically how God has provided for me, not someone else. And, even though they may speak of ‘money’ that the Lord sent, the principle that it is He who provides for all our daily needs lies at the root of each one.
Firstly, then, in October 1983 God told me to play the guitar. To some people, this declaration that ‘God told me’ will be greeted with either derision, unbelief or bewilderment. After all, how can one say that it was definitely God? Well, sometimes you know (as I did on this occasion) and sometime you think it’s God, step out on what you feel God’s saying and either achieve what was required or fall flat on one’s face!
Anyway, it took me about two weeks to learn the basics even though I received no lessons - but God necessarily made my fingers work!
He has consistently supplied me not just with guitars but with good guitars - by that, I don’t mean expensive guitars, but ones that are often far superior than higher priced ones. For instance, I had been after buying a six string guitar for many months but hadn’t found anything that I liked. But when we were in Lowestoft on the east coast of England one Christmas, I played a guitar in a shop that was superb! It was, at that time, £309 and I balked at paying such a price (call me a miser if you like).
When we returned, I tried the same make of guitar in the Sheffield music shops but they weren’t a patch on the one in Lowestoft! Even the prices were different - some £500 were what they started at!
I already knew that I would have to have a pick-up built into the one I’d played which would cost an additional £70, but it still made it cheaper and, what was more important, it was a far better guitar.
I rang the shop and they hadn’t sold it - so I arranged to go down and buy it. But the price had changed - it was now only £239 - that, of course, paid for the pick-up!
So the Lord provided me with a guitar that was worth around £500 for just £309 and, what was equally important (or, if not, more so to me), it was far superior to the more expensive guitars.
God provides for the ministry that He gives to men and women like you and me - He gives the best (though not always the most expensive) so that we can give Him our best as we minister to Him and on His behalf.
Secondly, I was working in the church in Dartmouth and money was extremely tight (I was travelling around England for a year helping certain churches that I was sent to, receiving only coach fares and one sleeping bag! But I was trying to run a car and that meant trusting the Lord for finance).
But, even though my finances were tight, I still felt that I should buy the new NIV/Thompson chain reference Bible that had recently come into the shops for the local minister that I was staying with (his finances were tighter than mine - or perhaps it was just that he was tighter than me?!! No, no, only kidding - they were fresh out of Bible College and were living very much on the edge).
The Bible cost £45 but I bought it and gave it to him simply because I felt that that was what the Lord would have me to do. Needlesstosay, he couldn’t believe it, and I think that perhaps I doubted whether I could believe what I’d just done!
He kept telling me that I couldn’t afford it and that’s probably what made me doubt!
A week later, a letter arrived from my home church - from the leadership - enclosing a cheque for (wait for it!) £45 - not £50 or £40 but £45 which was the price of the Bible. But they also committed the church to sending me £45 each and every month after that until I finished my year’s work.
If it had not been for that money (the Lord’s provision, I believe) I wouldn’t have made it through the year but it came as I stepped out to do the Lord’s will by giving money away that I could ill afford to be without - or so it seemed to me.
Thirdly, I had had a desire to read Arthur Blessit’s book ‘Turned onto Jesus’ for about a week or so and couldn’t get the book title out of my head. But the only problem was that it was unavailable wherever I went as it had gone out of print - even a second-hand search came up with nothing. So I talked it over with the Lord and asked Him for a copy - not really expecting to be answered (okay, I admit it).
A couple of days later, a christian brother in the church where I was working, came up to me and gave me his copy - he knew nothing about my desire to read it (no one did except me and God), but only that God had told him to give that book specifically to me.
Both he and I rejoiced together.
Finally, I had a series of examples in my original notes which outlined things that Jesus had done very recently to that first writing (saving my wife’s life twice in the car and of saving our house from burning down while we were out) and it impressed upon me that, very often, we find ourselves in a situation where our natural interpretation of events cuts God out of the picture - where the coincidence of meeting a friend and chatting about Jesus through no prompting of your own is considered to be just that or where a random chat partner who speaks with you on line and who you can encourage in Christ or witness to is only taken to be purely a lucky meeting.
We need to think hard about the provision we receive and see where God provides for us in a multiplicity of situations when we fail to give Him the credit that’s due. Even the ‘natural’ provision of being able to work and earn a wage that’s liveable on should be seen in the light of God and not consigned to the cleverness of ourselves in securing employment.
As I said at the beginning, if we live for God, we will also be provided for by God.
2. Asking according to His will
The second condition that we’ll discuss here is that of knowing God’s will when we pray. Sometimes our prayers go unanswered simply because we perceive wrongly the will of God in the situation and pray against it.
When I first became a christian, there was an old lady who was terminally ill in hospital and the church had been praying even before I became a christian that the Lord would heal her and restore her back into the fellowship. Let me point out that it wasn’t as if this lady had not had a good innings - she had served the Lord faithfully for many years and now, in her old age (I seem to recall she was in her eighties), she could look back on the things she’d done and be thankful that she’d followed God.
But, no matter how much the fellowship prayed - and this went on for a great many weeks - she neither got any better nor died. And, being a young christian, I kept trying to suppress the feelings I had that, perhaps, we should rather be praying that she died and go home to Jesus.
In the end, the church came to the realisation that it was time for the lady to die, changed the content of their prayers and she passed away fairly speedily. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to learn from the situation they’d prayed through and repeated their presumption on a number of occasions (myself included) simply because they didn’t take time first to ask God what was His will in the situation.
In John 14:13-14, Jesus gives His disciples not just a blank cheque but a whole book full when He tells them (my italics)
‘Whatever you ask in My name, I will do it...If you ask anything in My name, I will do it’
This phrase ‘in My name’ shouldn’t be taken as some sort of magic formula that means we add the phrase ‘in Jesus name’ on to the end of every prayer (as we so often like to do thinking that, because we’ve used the correct formula, God must answer us), but it’s rather a phrase which means ‘in the will and purpose of Jesus’ - that is, ‘according to the character and person of Christ’.
The name in Scripture - just as it does in most of ancient history - refers to the whole person, the label that summarises the totality of who and what that person is so that we should consider not that we have to get the right verbal formula (which, in the end, is just an incantation or piece of liturgy) but that we must perceive the will of God in the situation and pray accordingly.
John, in his first letter, spoke again concerning the need for knowing God’s will when praying (though in the Gospels the words come directly from the mouth of Christ) writing (I John 5:14 - my italics)
‘And this is the confidence which we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us’
In this Scripture, the phrase ‘according to His will’ could just as easily have been written ‘in His name’ for the two are parallel expressions. There are some things that we may never receive because they are not the Lord’s will for us to have - to give a crude example, why would we expect the Lord to answer our prayer for natural bread and sustenance should the Lord actually want us to fast?!
So it isn’t important just to mouth needs in prayer that we think we need, but to listen to God first in order to determine what we really do need and then request the provision.
If we ask according to His will then we know that we will receive whatever we ask but, quite often (in my own experience), it is only upon reflection that I realise that God was telling me to ask for something - He was laying upon me a desire for something that He wanted me to ask Him for so that He could answer it and increase my faith!
These things are learnt in hindsight but they do have the effect of building us up in Christ and of making us realise that what we need God desires fervently to give us. There was a sense in which the examples given in the previous section could equally well have been said to have been prayers which had been prayed ‘according to His will’ but I shall try and give just a couple of examples here when I knew God’s will, prayed accordingly and saw the reality of my prayers come into reality.
God told me specifically to go to Israel in the first couple of months of the year for the Feast of Tabernacles (FoT) that took place in October.
Looking at my finances, I thought that I might be able to save just enough money up if I was extremely careful, but problems arose that needed to be met and the goal seemed to disappear in impossibility - but I still believed God was going to do something, so I prayed according to what I knew His will to be and I renewed my passport ‘in faith’ so I could be ready for when it happened - after all, if I really did believe that I was going, then I had to respond in some way to God so He could see I believed Him!
As soon as the booking form came, I filled it in and returned it (even though I didn’t have the money). As soon as the non-returnable deposit was due, I found I had enough in my bank account to be able to pay it (even though I still didn’t have the money for the final payment). But, by the time the balance had to be paid, He’d sent me the final payment through the post from a place I was least expecting!
Indeed, that money should really have been sent to me the previous year when I had been travelling round England and helping various churches out as they required and, as I noted above, money was tight. I could really have done with that money then (or so I thought) even though I hadn’t starved or gone without anything that I’d needed. But, by having the money delayed, I was able to finance what was necessary for me to do at a later date.
Incidentally, although I knew that the reason for Jesus wanting me to be there was to attend the Feast of Tabernacles, He also had an ulterior motive in that He was going to have me meet up with my future wife. He could have arranged the meeting in the UK, of course, and it’s true that we first started chatting at Heathrow airport - but we found that we were very much meant for each other as we conversed throughout the entire holiday.
I’m just glad that God didn’t tell me before I went otherwise I may have been looking for a wife - much better to stumble upon one by accident.
On the subject of being able to have made me meet up with my future wife in the UK rather than Israel, I’m reminded of a friend who lives here in the UK who felt God calling her to ‘Youth with a Mission’ and her thinking about going to Denmark for the ‘course’ but, she told us, the Lord kept telling her ‘Hawaii’. As we said to her - yeah, right!
But it really was the Lord’s will for her to go to Hawaii...
Secondly, and this may come as rather a shock to many leaders who read this, there came a time in my early years as a christian when the Lord moved on me and began to show me some Scriptures that I sensed were for the local fellowship where I was attending. The only problem was that trying to get behind the lectern to deliver a message was like trying to break into the vaults of Fort Knox! No, no - that’s wrong - getting into Fort Knox would have been much easier.
I don’t know why a great many churches are like this - still like this - when we should be encouraging every person to grow in maturity and to do the things that God is calling them to do. I have never fully understood why leaders of churches think that they have to guard the pulpit like some sacred cow from the possible heretical things that the congregation might come out with when the way of the NT Church was to let the people speak (I Cor 14:26) but correct it after they’d spoken (I Cor 14:29 - notice the weighing of the prophetic word occurs after it’s been shared, not before).
So the possibility of me actually being able to get to the front to deliver the message seemed so far distant from me that I prayed and asked God for the opportunity.
Mysteriously, God removed the minister on the evening that I wanted to speak and He had one of the elders ask me to speak who knew and recognised the ministry I had (but no one, apart from the Lord, knew what I’d prayed or that I wanted to speak).
When you know what God wants for you, simply ask what you need and it’s yours - the hard part in my experience is not in the asking (after all, we all like to talk!), it’s in listening to God to know His will. God will always fulfil all His plans for us and supply it all out of His heavenly treasure house that is limitless - amazingly, He may even add a bit more to what He gives so that you’ve got an excess but we will never be lacking in the necessary provision that we petition Him for.
NB - for a discussion on the word and subject of the ‘hypocrite’ (Mtw 6:16) see on my introductory discussion at the top of this web page.
For a discussion on the word ‘reward’ (Mtw 6:16) see on my notes under the heading ‘Introduction’ which follows my introductory discussion.
For a discussion on the phrase ‘reward from God’ (Mtw 6:18) see on my notes under the heading ‘Alms’ towards the end.
Fasting had long been associated with believers in many various ways including the accompaniment of prayer directed towards God and in personal mourning over the loss of a loved one, but it is primarily concerning the religious observance that Jesus is here speaking.
The abuse of fasting was not unspoken against in the OT and at least three prophets had words to say against the Israelites in this area. Although Jeremiah (Jer 14:12) simply pointed out that fasting is not acceptable just because it’s done, Isaiah went further and recorded a fairly long section concerning the fasting of his day in Is 58:1-7.
Fasting in Isaiah’s day, just before the exile, had become - just like the NT - a matter of ostentatious show which was used to try and twist God’s hand into hearing and doing what the petitioner was praying. But, says God, the real ‘abstention’ that is pleasing to Him is that of refraining from doing evil and of positively doing good.
Zech 7:5-6 (my notes on the passage can be found here), on the other hand, lists four of the major fasts of the Jews and notes that they had become remembrances of the Lord’s judgment against them because of their sin. Because that period of their life was now over, there was no longer any need for the remembrance but they should, rather, have been turned into times of joy and feasting when they considered what God was doing for them in the present (Zech 8:18-19). This, however, never seems to have taken place and the Jews still continued to remember these fasts even at the time of Christ.
The tractate Taanith in the Mishnah deals specifically with the subject of national fasting at the time of the Second Temple shortly before 70AD and the responsibilities of the nation before God according to the religious leaders. But these regulations have more to do with corporate fasting than with the individual who felt the need to do such a thing, specifically referring to the nation’s humbling before God to petition Him to send rains for their crops (though the tractate deals with more subjects than just this one instance).
An interesting story (Taanith 3:9) runs
‘Once they decreed a fast in Lydda and the rain fell before midday. Rabbi Tarfon said to them “Go and eat and drink and keep it as a Festival day” and they went and ate and drank and kept it as a Festival day. And in the afternoon they came and recited the Great Hallel [Ps 136]’
This shows us that fasts for entire individual cities could be proclaimed when a calamity of some description was identified and needed addressing by God.
Even though corporate fasting is mainly being described and legislated for in the Mishnah (and the great time of national fasting in the Jewish calendar was that period which led up to the Day of Atonement), there are places which give us an insight into more personal fasting (though they are rare). Taanith 2:8 notes that
‘Any day whereof it is written in the Scroll of Fasting that “None may mourn”, it is [also] forbidden to mourn [the day] before; but it is permitted the following day’
which would forbid individual fasting if it had been decreed by the Jewish religious leaders to be so.
But perhaps the most frightening aspect of fasting is the way it developed in the life of the Church of the first two centuries and how it seems to have become a liturgical rite which was laid upon adherents rather than let it be up to the conscience of the individual disciple to decide for himself when it was necessary.
In Didache 8 (immediately before the text concerning the Lord’s prayer which was cited above), the author writes
‘Do not keep the same fast days as the hypocrites [this could refer to the christians who followed the Jewish fasting calendar or the Jews themselves - even though Jesus’ use of the term seems to have been confined to the Jewish religious leaders]. Mondays and Thursdays are their days for fasting so yours should be Wednesday and Fridays’
Taanith 1:9 supports this statement that Mondays and Thursdays were the Jewish days for fasting though the subject matter of the verse is rather different in meaning and intention than solely to denote the principle days of fasting.
Edersheim gives the full explanation in his work ‘The Temple’ by noting firstly that
‘Private fasts would, of course, depend on individuals but the strict Pharisees were wont to fast every Monday and Thursday (because on a Thursday Moses had gone up to Mount Sinai and came down on a Monday when he received for the second time the Tables of the Law) during the weeks intervening between the Passover and Pentecost and, again, between the Feast of Tabernacles and that of the Dedication of the Temple. It is to this practice that the Pharisee in the parable refers [Luke 18:12] when boasting “I fast twice in the week”’
and then, that
‘The early Church substituted for the two weekly fast days - Monday and Thursday - the so called “dies stationum” [or] “guard or watch days” of the Christian soldier or Christian fast days - Wednesday and Friday on which the Saviour had been respectively betrayed and crucified’
This ‘fasting by command’ does show what the early Church had sunk to in some places by the end of the first century and even baptism, in the same work, is associated with the need for the participant to fast. Although the early Church probably took seriously the commands by Jesus (Mtw 6:16-18) that they were not to outwardly demonstrate their fasting, by having their fasts take place regularly on a Monday and Thursday, they telegraphed everyone round them that they were fasting and so fell foul of ostentatious show just as they had been warned against!
Didache 7 notes that
‘Both baptizer and baptized ought to fast before the baptism, as well as any others who can do so; but the candidate himself should be told to keep a fast for a day or two beforehand’
Again, at the end of the first century, Ignatius’ letter to Hero, a deacon of Antioch, exhorts the recipient to
‘Devote thyself to fasting and prayer, but not beyond measure, lest thou destroy thyself thereby. Do not altogether abstain from wine and flesh, for these things are not to be viewed with abhorrence...’
showing that, amongst the more religious, the Church realised the need for both prayer and fasting and a leader’s life may have been expected to be committed to frequent times when physical abstinence took place accompanied by devotion to prayer above everything else.
However, it wasn’t very long before sections in the Church strayed into error even in the matter of fasting. In II Clement 16:4-5, and surprising to us today as we read it (or it least, it should be!), we come across the statement that
‘Alms giving...is a good thing, even as repentance from sin. Fasting is better than prayer, but almsgiving than both’
Having steadied ourselves from the initial statement that almsgiving can be considered as atoning for sin, we should note that fasting’s exaltation over prayer should produce as much a cause for a sharp intake of breath as the former doctrine - for fasting, in its religious context, is an accompaniment to prayer (Acts 14:23), not something that should stand alone as an independent practice.
Finally, in Justin’s First Apology (middle of the second century) in chapter 61, fasting had become associated with the forgiveness of sins even though this was not the case in the early Church. Instead of the new convert being able to know the forgiveness of their sins the moment they came to trust in the completed work of Christ on the cross, forgiveness was a matter of humbling oneself before God through fasting, a very unscriptural expectation. Justin wrote
‘...As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past...’
Therefore, although there is testimony in both the Old and the New Testaments (Mtw 6:16-18) as to the dangers of fasting and what it can too easily degenerate into through the abuse of man, the early Church seem to have forgotten to be careful as time progressed and the practice of abstaining from both food and drink seems to have become a matter of liturgical expectation rather than the exercise of the freewill as and when directed by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus, in his words in Matthew’s Gospel here (Mtw 6:16-18), is concerned to cut away at the practice connected with the religious fasting of some Israelites that had become more a matter of personal reputation than of sincere and pure devotion before God.
The participants look ‘dismal’, Jesus says, where the word used here (Strongs Greek number 4659) means literally ‘gloomy eyed’ or ‘sad eyed’ and is used only in one other place in the NT (Luke 24:17) where the RSV translates it ‘[looking] sad’. It’s also used twice in the LXX, the most significant of which occurs in Gen 40:7 where the RSV renders it by ‘faces downcast’.
The fasters, therefore, put on a facial expression which expressed grief and sadness in order that their fasting might be witnessed by the populace and so bring glory and respect to themselves through their religious act. But, as this had been their intention, what reward they may have gained from the Father is lost in their reaping of the natural reward of self-justification and feeling of self-worth that they gained through the disfigurement of their faces.
The word translated ‘disfigure’ by the RSV (Strongs Greek number 853) is rendered literally by Vines as
‘to cause to disappear’
Matfran also takes the word literally and comments that the use of ash and, perhaps, hats and caps, are what is meant here for they cause the face to ‘disappear’ under the accoutrements of religious abstention. However, the previous part of the sentence which is connected with this word notes that the fasters make their faces sad so that ‘disfigure’ is probably the best interpretation of the word here for the application of substances do not have the effect of ‘making sad’ the face.
Mathag, however, notes that the word
‘...must mean to make unrecognisable. This refers not simply to the gloominess of the facial expression but probably to a face made dirty with ashes...’
so that it is quite possible that both ideas are present in the use of the word even though such application of ashes or articles may be self-defeating for the faster who wants to be seen by men and women and can’t be if they can’t recognise him!
Jesus proposes an alternative way of fasting, one that is not outwardly discernible to those who come into contact with the disciple throughout the day. Instead of demonstrating one’s piety by a facial expression, the disciple of Christ is to present himself to the world as he would do on a normal day when he wasn’t fasting. The anointing of the head, Matmor comments
‘...points to a normal social custom of the day but evidently those who fasted sometimes omitted the practice. So with washing the face. It is pleasant to be clean and evidently it was felt by some who fasted that they should forego this pleasure. And, of course, an untended face is very obvious [especially if you’re a christian lady who uses make-up most days!]’
This is a different comment from those noted under both almsgiving and prayer where Jesus specifically told His followers where they should and shouldn’t perform both acts. Fasting is ‘carried with you’ in a sense, so that the attitude and disposition of the individual is necessary to define in order that the world may not be drawn to the believer through the act itself. Jesus’ words also point at fasting being an action that takes place while normal work is being done as there is no indication that the believer should lock himself away in private.
The act of fasting was accompanied frequently by placing ash upon one’s head, having rent clothes (though how those who frequently fasted could afford new clothes most weeks to rip is difficult to imagine - I have a hard job affording a new pair of jeans every three months!) and wearing sackcloth but, by washing the face and anointing the head with oil, the act of fasting would have remained hidden except to God.
As Edersheim in The Temple notes concerning the corporate fast of the nation and of regions and villages
‘......the very appearance of the penitent, unwashed and with ashes on his head, was even made a matter of boasting and religious show’
If the Father sees all things, then an outward display before men is not necessary - unless, of course, it is man who is trying to be pleased by the religious act. Therefore men and women should go about their normal business and make no provision for the people they meet to find out (though, if someone should ask the disciple whether they’re fasting, there is no need for them to deny it! The point is that there should be no outward demonstration of the fast which is taking place within).
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