Monday, August 22, 2011

The Lord's Prayer is Reproof

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name...

Excepting Psalm 23, no other passage of Scripture is more apart of our common memory than this one. Though it has long been entitled “The Lord’s Prayer,” that title lacks accuracy since it is our Lord's instruction on prayer to His disciples. So, we may prefer “The Disciples’ Prayer" as a heading, though it is doubtful that will ever enter popular recognition.

This misnomer does tell us that we may not have understood the point of the Lord's Prayer. If we only observed its use in catechisms, in lessons for children and in repetition in corporate worship for centuries, we might get the impression that the Lord ascended to His sermon just to impart some new liturgical method or write a new prayer-book for Christians. So it is something of a surprise to reenter the context of the Sermon on the Mount and find that Jesus' purpose in the Lord's Prayer goes far beyond even the topic of prayer itself.

The Lord's Prayer is not the model for prayer - certainly our Lord prayed from the Psalms as well? Nor is it even a mandated protocol or formula of prayer for Christians. In short, the Lord's Prayer is a rebuke. A reproof. A removal of our false sense of righteousness to view the inner corruption of our hearts before the holiness of God Himself. To say the Lord's Prayer is a rebuke really shouldn't surprise us. That is essentially the point of the entire Sermon on the Mount and certainly no less that of Matthew 6:9-13.

The Sermon on the Mount

Our Savior began His sermon by pointing to the character of spiritual blessedness (5:3-12). Including those who are of a poverty of spirit, a personal mourning, a believing humility, and desperately hungering and thirsting for righteousness. What is the reason for their spiritual pangs and pantings? The standard to which they must be held accountable:
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (5:20).
That is unsettling for at least two reasons. First, Jesus told His audience they have to be holier than the holiest men they knew to enter the kingdom of heaven. Second, even the holiest men they knew were not entering the kingdom of heaven!

Pharisaic tradition had lowered the bar of righteousness so that sinners might actually feel they were righteous without a twinge inconsistency. They assiduously avoided placing themselves in the category of “sinner,” even incredulously asking Jesus’ disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” (Matt 9:11). Or accusing a once blind man, “You were born entirely in sins!” (John 9:34). Were they really any different? Well, they thought so. Pharisaic tradition instructed people to be those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt” (Luke 18:9). So our Lord begins His public ministry by disabusing them of such notions.

The Context of Chapters 5-6

Jesus gave six contrasts in 5:21-47 to illustrate the impeccable righteousness of God as:
  • Peaceful appreciation of each life, even those with whom you conflict.
  • Purity in thought and desire, even if your body is not involved.
  • Fidelity in marriage, even when you complete the protocols and paperwork for divorce.
  • Honesty in speech and commitments, even if you allowed yourself a loophole.
  • Sacrifice and suffering in love, even if people persecute or oppress you.
  • Universality in whom you love, even toward your enemies and those who hate you.
Or, in a word, perfect. “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).

And the perfection of God’s standard is still the Savior’s focus into chapter 6. Except, instead of addressing self-righteousness in moral issues, He narrows upon religious ones. Every Pharisee then – and since! – should be sweating at this. Not only are you not as morally blameless as you think you are, but you are not even as religious as you think you are! Actually, your religion is hypocrisy (vv. 2, 5, 16). So, the Lord offers three examples to prove His point - notably, the three main acts of Jewish piety. He taught that true and righteous religion:
  • Is not giving for gratitude, but giving before God (vv. 2-4)
  • Is not praying as performance, but praying in private (vv. 5-6)
  • Is not fasting for fanfare, but fasting before the Father (vv. 15-17)
With each example, our Lord reproves hypocritical practices with the nature of true religion that is rewarded by our Father in heaven. It is no less a rebuke than chapter 5 and may be even more so, since we especially love to deny our depravity in our acts of devotion. And this is the context for the Lord's Prayer.

Our friend and mentor, Robert Murray M’Cheyne is reported to have said, "A man is what he is on his knees before God, and nothing more." That was Jesus’ point.

What and how we pray tells us who we are, in truth. Just ask this Pharisee (Luke 18:11-12). The Lord's Prayer is impossible for sinners. Just as we have no hope of exceeding the righteousness of a scribe or Pharisee (5:20), and even less hope of attaining the perfection of the Father (5:48), we have no hope of ever praying the Lord's Prayer with full integrity. And that is precisely the point. The Lord’s Prayer is a rebuke.

We will try to unpack our Savior's reproof a bit further this week - and unfold the refuge that we must find Him, lest we be forever barred from the Kingdom.

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