Only in chapter 6 does Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount get round to religion. Almsgiving, prayer, fasting: apparently we should do these things secretly –
- verse 3: “But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
- verse 6: “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret….”
- verse 18: “….so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret….”
So why do we make prayer such a public activity? Lots of people find it difficult to get a rhythm of private spiritual practice going. They do most of their praying when they go to a church service. If we look at Luke’s account of Jesus teaching his followers to pray we might think he had to be persuaded to do it. Luke chapter 11 has one of the disciples saying, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples”. Luke seems to suggest that they had watched Jesus at prayer and wanted to know how to do it. If John could teach his disciples, why couldn’t Jesus do the same?
What the sermon on the mount seems to suggest, what Jesus seems to suggest, is that there is something more important than simply going to church. Religious practice, going to church (challenging and uplifting as it often is), may not deal with the junk in our personal cellars (see my last two blog posts). Indeed this junk, often labelled ‘the ego’, gets in the way so much that our religious practice may actually encourage it. Think of Luke’s story of the Pharisee and the tax collector at prayer in the temple (Luke chapter 18 verses 9 – 14). This is why the basic stance of prayer is confession, by which I mean, no deception (of myself or anyone else). Confession is nothing to do with grovelling guilt. It is the simple, honest, acknowledgement that this is me, warts and all, at this moment. No ifs, no buts, just me with all this junk in the cellar.
Now, here’s the miracle, the good news. We discover that this basic stance turns out to be not just confession but confession/forgiveness: a dynamic, perpetual process. Look at verse 14 and compare it with Mark chapter11 verse 25 and John chapter 20 verse 22/3. Clearly, for the Gospel writers, forgiveness is central to whatever we mean by prayer, indeed for the whole Christian way of life. As the American novelist Saul Bellow wrote, “The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required”. Amen to that.