Matthew 6: 5-15 Exploring Prayer, Forgiveness and Righteousness

James Tissot, The Lord’s Prayer (1896-1894)

Matthew 6: 5-15

Parallels : Mark 11: 25-26, Luke 11: 1-4

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. 

This second practice of righteousness is prayer, but the prayer is between the disciple and their heavenly Father and is not done to either impress the surrounding community or God with their piety or eloquence. As mentioned above, the righteousness that we are encountering in Matthew has little to do with the way we often think of religious piety. Instead it is based upon the security of the individual and the community in their covenant with their heavenly Father. The disciple’s actions may be done in secret, but the community who trusts in God’s provision and attention will be visible.

Jesus, like the law, the prophets and psalmists, viewed the relationship between the people and God as founded on their righteousness as practiced in mercy toward their neighbors and prayer is an important part of maintaining that relationship. As Samuel Ballentine when writing about prayer in the Hebrew Scriptures can state:

prayer is a principal means of keeping the community bound to God in an ongoing dialogue of faith. I suggest that the church is summoned to a ministry that both promotes and enables this dialogue. (Ballentine, 1993, p. 275)

Prayer is, in Ballentine’s language, “a service of the heart” which breaks into the mundane reality of daily life with the presence of the sacred. (Ballentine, 1993, p. 274) Prayer can happen in the public places, the synagogue and the street corners for example, and prayer led in the community has a long-standing place within the community’s worship. Yet, the community is made up of disciples who can also have the private and unseen places interrupted as the language of the heart encounters the heavenly Father who knows the needs of the heart.

Instead of prayer being fashioned around rubrics and phrases that are piled one upon another, prayer for the followers of Jesus is simple because it lifts up to God what God already knows. One is not in prayer to appease a god with one’s eloquence or to impress the divine with one’s piety, for with the heavenly Father one’s righteousness is already seen. It is not for public display and recognition, but this wise prayer recognizes and honors the already existing relationship between the disciple and their God who sees.

The Lord’s Prayer, as given in the gospels, is slightly different than most Protestant Christians learned through worship. The most notable difference is the deletion of the final phrases about “the kingdom and the power and the glory” being God’s. Ultimately this change comes from the tools available to scholars and translators that were not available when the influential King James Version, and other early English translations were produced. The King James version of the Bible used a simple majority of early texts to determine what was translated, while later translations (like the NRSV which I’m using as a basis for this reading) are able to use technologies like carbon dating to determine the age of a manuscript and privilege the oldest manuscripts. It appears that the addition of the phrases attributing glory to God appear later and are then incorporated into later copies of the gospels, perhaps reflecting an already existing practice in the early church.

The language of this prayer is familiar to most Christians, addressing God as the heavenly Father and asking God to make holy the name of God. From a scriptural perspective there is the commandment that the people of God are not to profane the name of God, but the relationship also allows the one praying or in dialogue with God to declare than an action by God would bring God’s name dishonor. For example, during the dialogue between God and Moses after the construction of the golden calf by Israel, Moses’ appeal to God not to destroy the people hangs upon this understanding:

Moses appeals to God’s own character by reminding God that God has already taken an oath (v. 13: nisba’ta lahem bak, “You have sworn to them by your own self”), the violation of which would jeopardize trust in the divine character. (Ballentine, 1993, p. 138)

The book of Psalms and Jeremiah also frequently uses this tactic in appealing to God to act in accordance with maintaining the sanctity of God’s name and honor.

The prayer continues with the prayer for the coming of the kingdom of heaven where God’s will is done on earth as well. The community and the disciple trust in God for the provision of the things they need. Like the people of Israel in the wilderness, where God provided mana, now the followers of Jesus can trust that God will provide the bread they need, even when their physical ability to provide resources is unable to sustain the crowds that gather around Jesus (see for example Matthew 14: 13-21 and Matthew 15: 32-39).

Forgiveness is lifted up within the prayer and immediately following the prayer and in both occurrences divine forgiveness and the practice of forgiving others is linked.  The link with the Apocryphal book of Sirach (sometimes called the Wisdom of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus) is often noted:

Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. (Sirach 28:2)

While Jesus and Matthew may or may not have been familiar with the book of Sirach, both are pulling on a long tradition of wisdom literature interpreting both law and righteousness to the hearer, and here the wise and righteous one forgives the neighbor in the context of prayer and in their actions. The practice of forgiving debts goes back to the practice of remitting debts every seventh year (see Deuteronomy 15: 1-18). Additionally, it is important to note that in Matthew both the practice of forgiving economic debts (see also Matthew 18: 23-35) and trespasses (wrongdoing or sin, see also Matthew 18: 21-22 where a question about forgiving sin is answered with a parable about economic justice). Both cases, economic and trespasses link the disciple’s forgiveness with their reception of divine forgiveness. This is a community where justice is practiced, but the merciful receive mercy (Matthew 5:7). Ultimately a community where reconciliation is practiced, and anger is addressed will need to be a community of forgiving disciples.

Finally, the prayer concludes with a prayer not to be brought to the time of testing and deliverance from the evil one. The disciple’s life rests in their heavenly Father’s hands and it is God who can deliver them in the times when their trust in God is tested. Following Jesus may involve suffering, but that does not mean that one prays for that suffering to enter one’s life. The presence of the evil one is assumed throughout Matthew. The devil and those who are actively or passively working for him will resist the approach of the kingdom of their heavenly Father.  Ultimately God is the one who can deliver from both temptation and the evil one.

Prayer and forgiveness, along with acts of mercy (almsgiving) are all ways in which righteousness is practiced for the individual within the community of the faithful. It is a community where thoughts and prayers are also surrounded by actions of justice and personal piety involves commitment to the good of the neighbors in the community. It is a place where the kingdom of heaven approaches the community of the faithful and God’s will is done in these places where earth and heaven meet. Prayer and forgiveness are practiced as a part of the relationship between the God of the disciples and the community they share. Everything is done in the confidence of God’s provision for the needs of the community as a whole and the disciples as individuals. The heavenly Father is the one they trust to rescue them from the temptation and persecution they will encounter.

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4 Responses to Matthew 6: 5-15 Exploring Prayer, Forgiveness and Righteousness

  1. Alex says:

    You liken the bread of Jesus’ prayer to the mana of Israel’s wilderness sojourn. Do you think Matthew presents Jesus’ church as a “wilderness community” in other ways as well? Does the promised land become the kingdom of heaven?

    • Neil says:

      I do think for Matthew that ‘church’ in many ways embodies ‘Israel’ reconstituted, I’ve not thought much about this but your parallel between land and the kingdom of heaven is an intriguing one, especially sense land was one of the focal aspects of identity for the people of Israel. I think Matthew links the church to many of Israel’s vocations (although I don’t think for Matthew that Israel is replaced by church). I need to think about this…the promised land is contingent upon covenant obedience (albeit with forgiveness involved), and I’m not sure that the approach of the kingdom of heaven is but it is an interesting question to ponder as I continue walking through this.

  2. Pingback: Matthew 7: 7-12 Seeking God’s and Right Relationships | Sign of the Rose

  3. Pingback: Gospel of Matthew Chapters 1-7 | Sign of the Rose

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