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The Great Commission Ministry Bible Study 1

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The Reward Motive In The Christian Life

When we study the opening verses of , we are immediately confronted with one most important question—what is the place of the reward motive in the Christian life? Three times in this section, Jesus speaks of God rewarding those who have given to him the kind of service which he desires (, , ). This question is so important that we will do well to pause to examine it before we go on to study the chapter in detail.
Ask someone to read Matthew 6:6,18
When we study the opening verses of , we are immediately confronted with one most important question—what is the place of the reward motive in the Christian life? Three times in this section, Jesus speaks of God rewarding those who have given to him the kind of service which he desires (, , ). This question is so important that we will do well to pause to examine it before we go on to study the chapter in detail.
It is very often stated that the reward motive has no place whatsoever in the Christian life. It is held that we must be good for the sake of being good, that virtue is its own reward, and that the whole conception of reward must be banished from the Christian life.
Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., p. 206). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
There was an old saint who used to say that he would wish to quench all the fires of hell with water, and to burn up all the joys of heaven with fire, in order that men and women seek for goodness for nothing but goodness’ sake, and in order that the idea of reward and punishment might be totally eliminated from life.
The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1 The Reward Motive in the Christian Life (Matthew 6:1–18)

There was an old saint who used to say that he would wish to quench all the fires of hell with water, and to burn up all the joys of heaven with fire, in order that men and women seek for goodness for nothing but goodness’ sake, and in order that the idea of reward and punishment might be totally eliminated from life.

The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1 The Reward Motive in the Christian Life (Matthew 6:1–18)

There was an old saint who used to say that he would wish to quench all the fires of hell with water, and to burn up all the joys of heaven with fire, in order that men and women seek for goodness for nothing but goodness’ sake, and in order that the idea of reward and punishment might be totally eliminated from life.

On the face of it, that point of view is very fine and noble; but it is not the point of view which Jesus held. We have already seen that three times in this passage Jesus speaks about reward. The right kind of almsgiving, the right kind of prayer and the right kind of fasting will all have their reward.
On the face of it, that point of view is very fine and noble; but it is not the point of view which Jesus held. We have already seen that three times in this passage Jesus speaks about reward. The right kind of almsgiving, the right kind of prayer and the right kind of fasting will all have their reward.
Nor is this an isolated instance of the idea of reward in the teaching of Jesus. He says of those who loyally bear persecution, who suffer insult without bitterness, that their reward will be great in heaven (). He says that those who give to one of these little ones a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple will not lose their reward (). At least part of the teaching of the parable of the talents is that faithful service will receive its reward (). In the parable of the last judgment, the plain teaching is that there is reward and punishment in accordance with our reaction to the needs of others (). It is abundantly clear that Jesus did not hesitate to speak in terms of rewards and punishments. And it may well be that we ought to be careful that we do not try to be more spiritual than Jesus was in our thinking about this matter of reward. There are certain obvious facts which we must note.
Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 206–207). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.

Fact Number One

(1) It is an obvious rule of life that any action which achieves nothing is futile and meaningless. A goodness which achieves no end would be a meaningless goodness. As has been very truly said, ‘Unless a thing is good for something, it is good for nothing.’ Unless the Christian life has an aim and a goal which it is a joy to obtain, it becomes largely without meaning. Anyone who believes in the Christian way and the Christian promise cannot believe that goodness can have no result beyond itself.
(1) It is an obvious rule of life that any action which achieves nothing is futile and meaningless. A goodness which achieves no end would be a meaningless goodness. As has been very truly said, ‘Unless a thing is good for something, it is good for nothing.’ Unless the Christian life has an aim and a goal which it is a joy to obtain, it becomes largely without meaning. Anyone who believes in the Christian way and the Christian promise cannot believe that goodness can have no result beyond itself.
Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., p. 207). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
(2) To banish all rewards and punishments from the idea of religion is in effect to say that injustice has the last word. It cannot reasonably be held that the end of the good person and the end of the bad person are one and the same. That would simply mean that God does not care whether we are good or not. It would mean, to put it crudely and bluntly, that there is no point in being good, and no special reason why we should live one kind of life instead of another. To eliminate all rewards and punishments is really to say that in God there is neither justice nor love.
(2) To banish all rewards and punishments from the idea of religion is in effect to say that injustice has the last word. It cannot reasonably be held that the end of the good person and the end of the bad person are one and the same. That would simply mean that God does not care whether we are good or not. It would mean, to put it crudely and bluntly, that there is no point in being good, and no special reason why we should live one kind of life instead of another. To eliminate all rewards and punishments is really to say that in God there is neither justice nor love.
Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 207–208). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
Rewards and punishments are necessary in order to make sense of life. In his collection called Last
Rewards and punishments are necessary in order to make sense of life. In his collection called Last Poems, A. E. Housman wrote:
Yonder, see the morning blink, The sun is up, and so must I, To wash and dress and eat and drink And look at things and talk and thinkAnd work, and God knows why. And often have I washed and dressed, And what’s to show for all my pain? Let me lie abed and rest; Ten thousand times I’ve done my best, And all’s to do again. Poems, A. E. Housman wrote:
The sun is up, and so must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
And work, and God knows why.
And often have I washed and dressed,
And what’s to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest;
Ten thousand times I’ve done my best,
And all’s to do again.
If there are no rewards and no punishments, then that poem’s view of life is true. Action is meaningless, and all effort goes unavailingly whistling down the wind.
Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., p. 208). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.

The Christian Idea Of Reward

But having reached this point with the idea of reward in the Christian life, there are certain things about which we must be clear.
But having reached this point with the idea of reward in the Christian life, there are certain things about which we must be clear.
Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., p. 208). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
(1) When Jesus spoke of reward, he was very definitely not thinking in terms of material reward.
The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1 1. The Christian Idea of Reward

(1) When Jesus spoke of reward, he was very definitely not thinking in terms of material reward.

(1) When Jesus spoke of reward, he was very definitely not thinking in terms of material reward.
Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., p. 208). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
It is quite true that in the Old Testament the ideas of goodness and prosperity are closely connected. If a man prospered, if his fields were fertile and his harvest great, if his children were many and his fortune large, it was taken as a proof that he was a good man.
It is quite true that in the Old Testament the ideas of goodness and prosperity are closely connected. If a man prospered, if his fields were fertile and his harvest great, if his children were many and his fortune large, it was taken as a proof that he was a good man.
That is precisely the problem at the back of the Book of Job. Job is in misfortune; his friends come to him to argue that that misfortune must be the result of his own sin; and Job most intense anger denies that charge. ‘Think now,’ said Eliphaz, (Ellafab) ‘who that was innocent ever perished?’ (). ‘If you are pure and upright,’ said Bildad, (Bedad) ‘surely then he will awaken himself for you and restore you your rightful place’ (). ‘For you say, “My conduct is pure, and I am clean in God’s sight,” said Zophar. (Zoefar)‘But O that God would speak, and open his lips to you’ (). The very idea that the Book of Job was written to contradict is that goodness and material prosperity go hand in hand.
Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 208–209)
‘I have been young, and now am old,’ said the psalmist, ‘yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread’ (). ‘A thousand may fall at your side,’ said the psalmist, ‘ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling-place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent’ (). These are things that Jesus could never have said. It was certainly not material prosperity which Jesus promised his disciples. He in fact promised them trial and tribulation, suffering, persecution and death. Quite certainly, Jesus did not think in terms of material rewards.
Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., p. 209). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
(2) The second thing which it is necessary to remember is that the highest reward never comes to those who are seeking it.
Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., p. 209). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
If people are always looking for a reward, always counting up that which they believe themselves to be earning, then they will in fact miss the reward for which they are seeking. And they will miss it because they are looking at God and looking at life in the wrong way. People who are always calculating their reward are thinking of God in terms of a judge or an accountant, and above all they are thinking of life in terms of law. They are thinking of doing so much and earning so much. They are thinking of life in terms of a credit and debit balance sheet. They are thinking of presenting an account to God and of saying: ‘I have done so much. Now I claim my reward.’
The basic mistake of this point of view is that it thinks of life in terms of law, instead of love. If we love a person deeply and passionately, humbly and selflessly, we will be quite sure that if we give that person all we have to give, we will still be in default; that if we give that person the sun, the moon and the stars, we will still be in debt. People who are in love are always in debt; the last thing that enters their minds is that they have earned a reward. If people have a legal view of life, they may think constantly in terms of reward that they have won; if they have a loving view of life, the idea of reward will never enter their minds.
The great paradox of Christian reward is this—those who look for reward, and who calculate that it is due to them, do not receive it; those whose only motive is love, and who never think that they have deserved any reward, do in fact receive it. The strange fact is that reward is at one and the same time the by-product and the ultimate end of the Christian life.

The Christian Reward

Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 209–210). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
So then what are the rewards of the Christian life?
(1) We begin by noting one basic and general truth.
Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., p. 210). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
We have already seen that Jesus Christ does not think in terms of material reward at all. The rewards of the Christian life are rewards only to a spiritually minded person. To the materially minded person they would not be rewards at all. The Christian rewards are rewards only to a Christian.
(2) The first of the Christian rewards is satisfaction.
Doing the right thing, obedience to Jesus Christ, taking his way—whatever else it may or may not bring, it always brings satisfaction. It may well be that, if people do the right thing, and obey Jesus Christ, they may lose their prosperity and their position; they may end in prison or in some cases may be killed, they may finish up in unpopularity, loneliness and disrepute—but they will still possess that inner satisfaction, which is greater than all the rest put together. No price ticket can be put upon this; this is not to be evaluated in terms of earthly currency, but there is nothing like it in all the world. It brings that contentment which is the crown of life.
The poet George Herbert was a member of a group of friends who used to meet to play their musical instruments together like a little orchestra. Once he was on his way to a meeting of this group, when he passed a man whose cart was stuck in the mud of the ditch. George Herbert laid aside his instrument and went to the help of the man. It was a long job to get the cart out, and he finished covered with mud. When he arrived at the house of his friends, it was too late for music. He told them what had detained him on the way. One said: ‘You have missed all the music.’ George Herbert smiled. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but I will have songs at midnight.’ He had the satisfaction of having done the Christlike thing.
The novelist Godfrey Winn tells of a man who was the greatest plastic surgeon in Britain. During the Second World War, he gave up a private practice, which brought him in £10,000 a year (a not inconsiderable sum for that time), to devote all his time to remoulding the faces and the bodies of airmen who had been burned and mutilated in battle. Godfrey Winn said to him: ‘What’s your ambition, Mac?’ Back came the answer: ‘I want to be a good craftsman.’ The £10,000 a year was nothing compared with the satisfaction of a selfless job well done.
Once a woman stopped the Congregationalist preacher Robert Dale of Birmingham on the street. ‘God bless you, Dr Dale,’ she said. She absolutely refused to give her name. She only thanked him and blessed him and passed on. Dale at that moment had been much depressed. ‘But’, he said, ‘the mist broke, the sunlight came; I breathed the free air of the mountains of God.’ In material things he was not one penny the richer, but in the deep satisfaction that comes to all preachers who discover they have helped someone, he had gained untold wealth.
Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 211–212). Edinburgh: Saint A.
The first Christian reward is the satisfaction which no money on earth can buy.
(3) The second reward of the Christian life is still more work to do.
It is the paradox of the Christian idea of reward that a task well done does not bring rest and comfort and ease; it brings still greater demands and still more strenuous endeavours. In the parable of the talents, the reward of the faithful servants was still greater responsibility (). A really brilliant and able scholar is not exempted from work but is given harder work than that given to anyone else. The brilliant young musician is given not easier music to work on, but the challenge of more difficult pieces. The youth who has played well in the second eleven is not put into the third eleven, where he could walk through the game without breaking sweat; he is put into the first eleven, where he has to play his heart out. The Jews had a curious saying. They said that a wise teacher will treat the pupil ‘like a young heifer whose burden is increased daily’. The Christian reward is the reverse of the world’s reward. The world’s reward would be an easier time; the reward of Christians is that God lays still more and more upon us to do for him and for others. The harder the work we are given to do, the greater the reward.
(4) The third, and the final, Christian reward is what men and women all through the ages have called the vision of God.
For worldly people, who have never given a thought to God, to be confronted with God will be a terror and not a joy. If people go their own way, they drift further and further from God; the gulf between them and God becomes ever wider, until in the end God becomes a grim stranger, whom they only wish to avoid. But, if men and women all their lives have sought to walk with God, if they have sought to obey their Lord, if goodness has been their quest through all their days, then throughout their lives they have been growing closer and closer to God, until in the end they pass into God’s nearer presence, without fear and with radiant joy—and that is the greatest reward of all.

Right Things From The Wrong Motive

Matt.
Matthew 6:1 NKJV
1 “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
To the Jews, there were above all three great works of the religious life, three great pillars on which the good life was based—almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Jesus would not for a moment have disputed that; what troubled him was that so often in human life the finest things were done from the wrong motives.
To the Jews, there were above all three great works of the religious life, three great pillars on which the good life was based—almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Jesus would not for a moment have disputed that; what troubled him was that so often in human life the finest things were done from the wrong motives.
It is a strange fact that these three principal good works readily lend themselves to wrong motives. It was Jesus’ warning that when these things were done with the sole intention of bringing glory to the doer, they lost by far the most important part of their value. People may make charitable donations, not really to help the people to whom they give, but simply to demonstrate their own generosity, and to bask in the warmth of the recipients’ gratitude and the praise of society. Some people may pray in such a way that their prayer is not really addressed to God, but to those around them. Their praying may simply be an attempt to demonstrate their exceptional piety in such a way that no one can fail to see it. Some people may fast, not really for the good of their own souls, not really to humble themselves in the sight of God, but simply to show the world how splendidly self-disciplined they are. Some people may practise good works simply to win praise from others, to increase their own prestige, and to show the world how good they are.
As Jesus saw it, there is no doubt at all that that kind of thing does receive a certain kind of reward. Three times Jesus uses the phrase, as the Revised Standard Version has it: ‘Truly I say to you, they have their reward’ (, , ). It would be better to translate it: ‘They have received payment in full.’ The word that is used in the Greek is the verb apechein, which was the technical business and commercial word for receiving payment in full. It was the word which was used on receipted accounts. For instance, one man signs a receipt given to another man: ‘I have received [apechō] from you the rent of the olive press which you have on hire.’ A tax-collector gives a receipt, saying: ‘I have received [apechō] from you the tax which is due.’ A man sells a slave and gives a receipt, saying: ‘I have received [apechō] the whole price due to me.’
What Jesus is saying is this: ‘If you make charitable gifts to demonstrate your own generosity, you will get the admiration of the world—but that is all you will ever get. That is your payment in full. If you pray in such a way as to flaunt your piety in the face of others, you will gain the reputation of being an extremely devout person—but that is all you will ever get. That is your payment in full. If you fast in such a way that everyone knows that you are fasting, you will become known as an extremely abstemious and ascetic person—but that is all you will ever get. That is your payment in full.’ Jesus is saying: ‘If your one aim is to get yourself the world’s rewards, no doubt you will get them—but you must not look for the rewards which God alone can give.’ And we would be sadly short-sighted creatures if we grasped the rewards of time and let the rewards of eternity go.

How not to Give

Matt.6.1-4
Matthew 6:1–4 NKJV
1 “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 3 But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.
To the Jews, almsgiving was the most sacred of all religious duties. How sacred it was may be seen from the fact that the Jews used the same word—tzedakah—for both righteousness and almsgiving. To give alms and to be righteous were one and the same thing. To give alms was to gain merit in the sight of God, and was even to win atonement and forgiveness for past sins. ‘It is better to give alms than to lay up gold. For almsgiving saves from death, and purges away every sin’ ().
Ask to give related words almsgiving: Generosity, Charity, Donation, Hospitality, Kindness, Contribution, Offering
To the Jews, almsgiving was the most sacred of all religious duties. How sacred it was may be seen from the fact that the Jews used the same word—tzedakah—for both righteousness and almsgiving. To give alms and to be righteous were one and the same thing. To give alms was to gain merit in the sight of God, and was even to win atonement and forgiveness for past sins. ‘It is better to give alms than to lay up gold. For almsgiving saves from death, and purges away every sin’ ().
For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and will be credited to you against your sins; in the day of your distress it will be remembered in your favour; like frost in fair weather, your sins will melt away. ()
and will be credited to you against your sins;
in the day of your distress it will be remembered in your favour;
like frost in fair weather, your sins will melt away.
()
There was a Rabbinic saying: ‘Greater is he who gives alms than he who offers all sacrifices.’ Almsgiving stood first in the catalogue of good works.
It was then natural and inevitable that those who desired to be good should concentrate on almsgiving. The highest teaching of the Rabbis was exactly the same as the teaching of Jesus. They too forbade boastful almsgiving. ‘He who gives alms in secret’, they said, ‘is greater than Moses.’ The almsgiving which saves from death is that ‘when the recipient does not know from whom he gets it, and when the giver does not know to whom he gives it’. There was a Rabbi who, when he wished to give alms, dropped money behind him, so that he would not see who picked it up. ‘It would be better’, they said, ‘to give a man nothing, than to give him something, and to put him to shame.’
There was one particularly lovely custom connected with the Temple. In the Temple, there was a room called the Chamber of the Silent. People who wished to make atonement for some sin placed money there; and poor people from good families who had come down in the world were secretly helped by these contributions.
But, as in so many other things, practice fell far short of principle. Too often, the giver gave in such a way that everyone might see the gift, and gave in order to bring personal glory rather than to bring help to someone else. During the synagogue services, offerings were taken for the poor, and there were those who took good care that others should see how much they gave. J. J. Wettstein, the eighteenth-century Swiss New Testament scholar, describes an ancient custom: ‘In the east water is so scarce that sometimes it had to be bought. When a man wanted to do a good act, and to bring blessing on his family, he went to a water-carrier with a good voice, and instructed him: “Give the thirsty a drink.” The water-carrier filled his skin and went to the market place. “O thirsty ones,” he cried, “come to drink the offering.” And the giver stood by him and said, “Bless me, who gave you this drink.” ’ That is precisely the kind of thing that Jesus condemns. He talks about the hypocrites who do things like that. The word hupokritēs is the Greek word for an actor. People like that put on an act of giving which is designed only to glorify themselves.

The Motives of Giving

(contd)
(contd)
Let us now look at some of the motives which lie behind the act of giving.
(1) People may give from a sense of duty. They may give not because they wish to give, but because they feel that giving is a duty which they cannot easily escape. It may even be that such people can come—perhaps without realizing it—to regard the poor as being in the world to allow them to carry out this duty, and thus to acquire merit in the sight of God.
It was said of a great but superior man: ‘With all his giving he never gives himself.’ When someone gives, as it were, from a sense of superiority, when the giving is done always with a certain calculation, when it comes from a sense of duty, even a sense of Christian duty, that person may give generously of things, but it is not enough. The one thing such people never give is themselves, and therefore the giving is incomplete.
(2) People may give from motives of prestige. They may give to take for themselves the glory of giving. The chances are that, if no one is to know about it, or if there is no publicity attached to it, they would not give at all. Unless they are duly thanked and praised and honoured, they are sadly disgruntled and discontented. They give, not to the glory of God, but to the glory of themselves. They give, not primarily to help those in need, but to gratify their own vanity and their own sense of power.
(3) People may give simply because they have too. They may give simply because the overflowing love and kindliness in their hearts will not allow them to do anything else. They may give because, try as they may, they cannot rid themselves of a sense of responsibility for those in need.
There was a kind of vast kindliness about the great eighteenth-century man of letters Dr Johnson. There was a poverty-stricken man called Robert Levett who had been a waiter in Paris and a doctor in the poorer parts of London. He had an appearance and manners, as Johnson said himself, such as to disgust the rich and to terrify the poor. Somehow or other he became a member of Johnson’s household. Johnson’s friend and biographer James Boswell was amazed at the whole business, but the playwright Oliver Goldsmith knew Johnson better. He said of Levett: ‘He is poor and honest which is recommendation enough for Johnson. He is now become miserable, and that insures the protection of Johnson.’ Misfortune was a passport to Johnson’s heart.
Boswell tells this story of Johnson. ‘Coming home late one night he found a poor woman lying on the street, so much exhausted that she could not walk: he took her upon his back and carried her to his house, where he discovered that she was one of these wretched females, who had fallen into the lowest state of vice, poverty and disease. Instead of harshly criticizing her, he had her taken care of with all tenderness for a long time, at considerable expense, till she was restored to health, and endeavoured to put her in a virtuous way of living.’ All that Johnson got out of that was unworthy suspicions about his own character, but the heart of the man demanded that he should give.
Surely one of the loveliest pictures in literary history is the picture of Johnson, in his own days of poverty, coming home in the small hours of the morning, and, as he walked along the Strand, slipping pennies into the hands of the waifs and strays, who were sleeping in the doorways because they had nowhere else to go. His literary executor Sir John Hawkins tells that someone asked him how he could bear to have his house filled with ‘necessitous and undeserving people’. Johnson answered: ‘If I did not assist them no one else would, and they must not be lost for want.’ There you have real giving, the giving which is the upsurge of love in the heart of a man, the giving which is a kind of overflow of the love of God.
We have the pattern of this perfect giving in Jesus Christ himself. Paul wrote to his friends at Corinth: ‘For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’ (). Our giving must never be the grim and self-righteous outcome of a sense of duty. Still less must it be done to enhance our own glory and prestige in society; it must be the instinctive outflow of the loving heart; we must give to others as Jesus Christ gave himself to us.

How not to Pray

How not to Pray

‘And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, for they are fond of praying standing in the synagogues and at the corners of the streets, so that they may be seen by people. This is the truth I tell you—they are paid in full. But when you pray, go into your private room, and shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what happens in secret will give you your reward in full.
‘When you pray, do not pile up meaningless phrases, as the Gentiles do, for their idea is that they will be heard because of the length of their words. So, then, do not be like them, for your Father knows the things you need before you ask him.’
No nation ever had a higher ideal of prayer than the Jews had; and no religion ever ranked prayer higher in the scale of priorities than the Jews did. ‘Great is prayer,’ said the Rabbis, ‘greater than all good works.’ One of the loveliest things that was ever said about family worship is the Rabbinic saying: ‘He who prays within his house surrounds it with a wall that is stronger than iron.’ The only regret of the Rabbis was that it was not possible to pray all day long.
But certain faults had crept into the Jewish habits of prayer. It is to be noted that these faults are by no means peculiar to Jewish ideas of prayer; they can and do occur anywhere. And it is to be noted that they could only occur in a community where prayer was taken with the greatest seriousness. They are not the faults of neglect; they are the faults of misguided devotion.
(1) Prayer tended to become formalized. There were two things the daily use of which was prescribed for every Jew.
The first was the Shema, which consists of three short passages of Scripture—, ; . Shema is the imperative of the Hebrew word for to hear, and the Shema takes its name from the verse which was the essence and centre of the whole matter: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.’
The full Shema had to be recited by every Jew every morning and every evening. It had to be said as early as possible. It had to be said as soon as the light was strong enough to distinguish between blue and white, or, as Rabbi Eliezer said, between blue and green. In any event, it had to be said before the third hour, that is, 9 am; and in the evening it had to be said before 9 pm. If the last possible moment for the saying of the Shema had come, no matter where a man found himself, at home, in the street, at work or in the synagogue, he must stop and say it.
There were many who loved the Shema, and who repeated it with reverence and adoration and love; but inevitably there were still more who gabbled their way through it and went their way. The Shema had every chance of becoming a vain repetition, which was mumbled like some incantation. We Christians are but ill-qualified to criticize, for everything that has been said about formally gabbling through the Shema can be said about grace before meals in many families.
The second thing which every Jew had to repeat daily was called the Shemonēh ’esreh, which means the Eighteen. It consisted of eighteen prayers, and was, and still is, an essential part of the synagogue service. In time the prayers became nineteen, but the old name remains. Most of these prayers are quite short, and nearly all of them are very lovely.
The twelfth runs:
Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be showed upon the upright, the humble, the elders of thy people Israel, and the rest of its teachers; be favourable to the pious strangers among us, and to us all. Give thou a good reward to those who sincerely trust in thy name, that our lot may be cast among them in the world to come, that our hope be not deceived. Praised be thou, O Lord, who art the hope and confidence of the faithful.
The fifth runs:
Bring us back to thy law, O our Father; bring us back, O King, to thy service; bring us back to thee by true repentance. Praised be thou, O Lord, who dost accept our repentance.
No church possesses a more beautiful ritual than the Shemonēh ’esreh. The law was that Jews must recite it three times a day—once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once in the evening. The same thing happened again. Devout Jews prayed it with loving devotion; but there were many to whom this series of lovely prayers became a gabbled formula. There was even a summary supplied which might be prayed, if there was not the time to repeat the whole eighteen or they could not all be remembered. The repetition of the Shemonēh ’esreh became nothing more than a superstitious incantation. Again, we Christians are ill-qualified to criticize, for there are many occasions when we do precisely the same with the prayer which Christ taught us to pray.
(contd)
How not to Pray
(contd)
(2) Further, the Jewish ritual establish prayers for all occasions. There was hardly an event or a sight in life which had not its stated formula of prayer. There was prayer before and after each meal; there were prayers in connection with the light, the fire and the lightning, on seeing the new moon, on comets, rain or tempest, at the sight of the sea, lakes or rivers, on receiving good news, on using new furniture, on entering or leaving a city. Everything had its prayer. Clearly, there is something infinitely lovely here. It was the intention that every happening in life should be brought into the presence of God.
But just because the prayers were so carefully prescribed and fixed, the whole system given itself to formalism, and the danger was for the prayers to slip off the tongue with very little meaning. The tendency was skillfully to repeat the right prayer at the right time. The great Rabbis knew that and tried to guard against it. ‘If a man’, they said, ‘says his prayers, as if to get through a set task, that is no prayer.’ ‘Do not look on prayer as a formal duty, but as an act of humility by which to obtain the mercy of God.’ Rabbi Eliezer was so impressed with the danger of formalism that it was his custom to compose one new prayer every day, that his prayer might be always fresh. It is quite clear that this kind of danger is not confined to Jewish religion. Even quiet times which began in devotion can end in the formalism of a rigid and ritualistic timetable.
(3) Still further, devout Jews prayed at regular times, always in the morning and the evening, and sometimes also at noon. Wherever they found themselves, they were bound to pray. Clearly, they might be genuinely remembering God, or they might be carrying out a habitual formality.
Muslims have the same custom. It is a lovely thing that three times a day people should remember God; but there is a real danger that it may come to no more than this—that three times a day the prayers are babble without a thought of God.
(4) There was a tendency to connect prayer with certain places, and especially with the synagogue. It is undeniably true that there are certain places where God seems very near; but there were certain Rabbis who went to the lengths of saying that prayer was successful only if it was offered in the Temple or in the synagogue. So there grew up the custom of going to the Temple at the hours of prayer. In the first days of the Christian Church, even the disciples of Jesus thought in terms like these, for we read of Peter and John going up to the Temple at the hour of prayer ().
There was a danger here, the danger that people might come to think of God as being confined to certain holy places and that they might forget that the whole earth is the temple of God. The wisest of the Rabbis saw this danger. They said: ‘God says to Israel, pray in the synagogue of your city; if you cannot, pray in the field; if you cannot, pray in your house; if you cannot, pray on your bed; if you cannot, commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.’
The trouble about any system lies not in the system, but in those who use it. It is possible to make any system of prayer an instrument of devotion or a formality, skillfully and unthinkingly to be gone through.
(5) There was among the Jews an undoubted tendency towards long prayers. That was a tendency by no means confined to the Jews. In eighteenth-century worship in Scotland, length meant devotion. In such a Scottish service, there was a verse-by-verse lecture on Scripture which lasted for an hour, and a sermon which lasted for another hour. Prayers were lengthy and spontaneous. The liturgist Dr W. D. Maxwell writes: ‘The efficacy of prayer was measured by its enthusiasm and its eloquence, and not least by its impassioned lengthiness.’ Rabbi Levi said: ‘Whoever is long in prayer is heard.’ Another saying has it: ‘Whenever the righteous make their prayer long, their prayer is heard.’
There was—and still is—a kind of subconscious idea that if we beat long enough at God’s door, he will answer; that God can be talked, and even pestered, into patronizing. The wisest Rabbis were well aware of this danger. One of them said: ‘It is forbidden to lengthen out the praise of the Holy One. It says in the Psalms: “Who can utter the mighty doings of the Lord, or show forth all his praise?” []. There only he who can may lengthen out and tell his praise—but no one can.’ ‘Let a man’s words before God always be few, as it is said, “Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter a word before God; for God is in heaven, and you upon earth, therefore let your words be few” [].’ ‘The best adoration consists in keeping silence.’ It is easy to confound verbosity with piety, and eloquence with devotion—and into that mistake many of the Jews fell.
(contd)
(contd)
(6) There were certain other forms of repetition, which the Jews, like all people of the middle east, were apt to use and to overuse. People had a habit of hypnotizing themselves by the endless repetition of one phrase or even of one word. In , we read how the prophets of Baal cried out: ‘O Baal answer us’, for the space of half a day. In , we read how the Ephesian mob, for two hours, kept shouting: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.’ Muslims will go on repeating the sacred syllable HE for hours on end. The Jews did that with the Shema. It is a kind of substitution of self-hypnotism for prayer.
There was another way in which Jewish prayer used repetition. There was an attempt to pile up every possible title and adjective in the address of the prayer to God. One famous prayer begins:
Blessed, praised, and glorified, exalted, extolled and honoured, magnified and lauded be the name of the Holy One.
There is one Jewish prayer which actually begins with sixteen different adjectives attached to the name of God. There was a kind of intoxication with words. When people begin to think more of how they are praying than of what they are praying, their prayers die upon their lips.
(7) The final fault which Jesus found with certain of the Jews was that they prayed in order to be seen. The Jewish system of prayer made made it very easy to impress. Jews prayed standing, with hands stretched out, palms upwards, and with heads bowed. Prayer had to be said in the morning and in the evening. It had to be said wherever they might be, and it was easy for people to make sure that at these hours they were at a busy street corner, or in a crowded city square, so that all the world might see with what devotion they prayed. It was easy to halt on the top step of the entrance to the synagogue, and there pray very long and illustrative, so that all might admire such exceptional loyalty. It was easy to put on an act of prayer which all the world might see.
The wisest of the Jewish Rabbis fully understood and unsparingly condemned this attitude. ‘A man in whom is hypocrisy brings wrath upon the world, and his prayer is not heard.’ ‘Four classes of men do not receive the face of the glory of God—the mockers, the hypocrites, the liars and the slanderers.’ The Rabbis said that no man could pray at all unless his heart was attuned to pray. They laid it down that for perfect prayer there were necessary an hour of private preparation beforehand and an hour of meditation afterwards. But the Jewish system of prayer did lend itself to ostentation, if in a person’s heart there was pride.
In effect, Jesus lays down two great rules for prayer.
(1) He insists that all true prayer must be offered to God. The real fault of the people whom Jesus was criticizing was that they were praying to others and not to God. A certain great preacher once described an ornate and elaborate prayer offered in a Boston church as ‘the most eloquent prayer ever offered to a Boston audience’. The preacher was much more concerned with impressing the congregation than with making contact with God. Whether in public or in private prayer, we should have no thought in our minds and no desire in our hearts but God.
(2) He insists that we must always remember that the God to whom we pray is a God of love who is more ready to answer than we are to pray. His gifts and his grace have not to be unwillingly extracted from him. We do not come to a God who has to be influenced, or pestered, or battered into answering our prayers. We come to one whose one wish is to give. When we remember that, it is surely sufficient to go to God with the sigh of desire in our hearts, and on our lips the words ‘Your will be done.’
Barclay, W. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (Third Ed., pp. 223–227). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press.
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