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Vain Repetitions

“Dear Jesus, thank you for this day….”

Night after night, for literally thousands of nights, my parents would do just as I do with my own children. Before bed, we would take a few moments and pray. Without really realizing it, I had developed a simple formula for prayer that easily rolled off the tongue each night. To this day, I could probably recover word-for-word most of that prayer. And then I learned about vain repetitions. I’m sure it was a well-meaning sermon with many good points, but one thing was clear: to repeat the same prayer each night was empty and meaningless and was forbidden by Jesus in Matthew 6:7. Only, now I’m not so sure my childish prayers were the primary thing Jesus was out to condemn.

Matthew 6:7-8

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

Having confronted Jews whose prayers he had just defined as a refined, polished spectacle, Jesus quickly clarifies that he’s not recommending the common Gentile pattern as a suitable alternative.

Who are the Gentiles and what, exactly, is it that makes their prayers null and void? The answer to the first question is that, in the eyes of the Jews to whom Matthew writes, Gentiles are all those entirely outside of the realm of God’s kingdom. They don’t necessarily have to live in ramshackle huts along the Ganges to fall into this category either- the Jews Matthew knew would have thought their Roman neighbors to be about as far from God as such natives! New Testament Christians often use the term “unbelievers” just as universally.

The thing that most characterized the prayers of those Gentiles with whom Jesus’ audience would have been most familiar was their use of “vain repetitions.” In other words, they said the same thing over and over again. On the surface, it sounds a lot like what I was doing each night as I continued “…help us to have a good day tomorrow and a good night’s sleep….” However, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. “Vain repetitions” and, as one modern translation puts it “heap up empty phrases” both translate a single rare word that probably means to stutter. The rarity forces these translators to look at the surrounding context for clues about what the word might mean. Thankfully you don’t have to be able to translate ancient Greek to see the contextual clue here! Their objective in speaking in a way reminiscent of stuttering is clear: “they think they will be heard for their many words!” That clarifying comment is key to unlocking the whole issue. Those who stutter, often say the same thing over and over again. Those who do not understand the God of heaven often do the same thing, expecting that they are able to manipulate their gods compassion, prove their own sincerity, or even wear them down by repeatedly chanting memorized phrases. That wrong view of God is what makes prayers like theirs intolerable to our Father who is in Heaven.

Many religions we are familiar with follow a similar pattern today. You may be familiar with the sound of an Hare Krishna chant, the Muslim Salat which is performed five times a day, or the Rosary which is a Roman Catholic format for prayer that includes dozens of ‘Hail Mary’s’ spoken ten at a time around various meditations. The precise numbers are seemingly so important that literal beads are used to help keep track. Jesus’ teaching on prayer forbids these kinds of empty rituals because of the way our corrupt hearts tend to see them as an effective means for manipulating God.

· While we, as New Testament Christians are not likely chanting mindlessly, have you ever asked forgiveness for the same sin over and over again? Not repeated instances of a category of sin, but the exact same sinful act? Even asking repeatedly in the same prayer?

· Have you ever though that in order to receive an answer, you had to do something to prove that you really meant it, had to give arguments for why you really needed it, or were sincere enough to deserve it?

· Have you ever felt guilty because you had not persevered in prayer “George-Mueller-style” for a particular relative? Have you worried that their lack of salvation might be because you had not prayed enough times?

Rather than merely forbidding such prayers, Jesus is encouraging his followers that they don’t NEED to pray that way. The right view of God that is encouraged here is that he is a Father in Heaven who knows what we need before we ask him. He’ll answer because he’s our Father, not because we’ve manipulated him, pestered him, or gotten the formula just right and finally bound him to fulfill our desires!

“…In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Even though we’ve seen that simple mealtime blessings or good-night prayers are not the primary application here, the instruction is certainly connected with an outward sort of obligatory spiritual show that does not reflect a genuine relationship with the God of heaven (See 6:1). Is it because we don’t know him well enough to speak personally and candidly that we revert to borrowing spiritual sounding words to fill this time? If so, then know that, whether you are an adult or a child, those who come to God through faith in the work of Jesus are welcome there and can speak their hearts and be confident that he’s listening.

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