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.
Tax gatherers were the hated stooges of the occupying Roman administration in Palestine when Jesus was alive. Now here’s Jesus calling Matthew, one of those stooges, to follow him. Matthew invites Jesus home to dinner and religious folk are not best pleased. They corner some of Jesus’ disciples and mutter:
“Why does he eat with tax gatherers and sinners?”
“Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
The basic stance of prayer is confession (see my previous post) but not as it has been widely understood in Christian circles for centuries. By confession I mean first a deep sense of longing, unease, dissatisfaction with the way I am. Later, once I have found the Compassionate Presence that gives some fulfillment of my longing, some ease, some satisfaction, confession means a lack of pretence, a willingness always to say, ‘this is how I am at this moment’. But ‘this is how I am at this moment’ is not a blanket of weary resignation thrown over the whole of the rest of my life. It is simply a surrender to the way things are with me, in me, around me, at this moment. Put like this, it is madness to pretend that things are not as they are now, at this moment. But I am not telling myself that things are going to stay this way. In true confession I am not labeling the ‘things’ that are the facts about my situation at this moment. For example if I have a headache, I have a headache. That’s a fact. If I tell myself, ‘Oh my God, it must be a brain tumour!’ That, to put it mildly, is an opinion. If I am feeling angry with someone that’s a fact to be acknowledged (confessed) without pretence, without running a commentary about it in my head, especially without going over the event which caused my anger, or feeling guilty about being angry, or imagining what I might do about it in the next few seconds, or minutes, or days, or weeks. Given the speed with which my mind can gallop away with any of these thoughts when I am angry, it is best if my ‘confession’ focuses on the actual physical sensations that are happening – pounding heart, flushed cheeks, sensations in the pit of my stomach. Why is it OK to practice confession in this way? Because nothing separates me from the Compassionate Presence which we often call God, which is actually the deepest truth about us. Does this mean that there’s nothing else for me to do about it? Not necessarily by any means. It does mean that confession enables me to see clearly what, if anything, needs to be done and how to do it.