By J.R. Miller
It was characteristic of the Pharisees in our Lord's time, that they sought publicity and display for their religious acts. They made their prayers in as conspicuous a way as possible, so that the people would observe them, mark their 'devoutness' and be impressed with their fervor and their earnestness. This was one thing in which the disciples of Jesus were told that their religion must differ from that of the scribes and Pharisees.
"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them." This does not mean that they were not to be godly before people--they were to live righteously everywhere. There are many Divine words bidding us to be careful of our conduct in the presence of others. Jesus Himself in this same Sermon said, "So let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father." We are to live all the while so that we shall be blameless, that those watching us, to find fault, shall have no reason for speaking against us. We are to show always to all men, an example which shall honor Christ.
What is forbidden, is that we do our 'acts of righteousness' before others, in order to be seen by them. We are to live for the eye of God, to get His praise. Some of those who professed great devoutness in Christ's time, making much show of piety in the presence of men, were in their inner life cruel, unmerciful, grasping and unholy. The lesson Jesus taught, was lowly humility, devoutness of heart, a goodness which did nothing for display--but was always and everywhere true, faithful, genuine, thinking only of pleasing God.
One special example in illustration of the lesson Jesus gives, is regarding the giving of alms. It was the custom of some of the people in those days to give their alms very ostentatiously. If they did not literally sound a trumpet, announcing their gifts, they at least let all people know that they were contributing to the poor and how much they were contributing. They wanted praise for their generosity. The motive was, not to relive distress--but "to be honored by men." Jesus says they have received their reward in full. That is, they had the name of being charitable. Their deeds were known and talked about. They did not give their alms to please God, or because they cared for the poor--and so they had no honor from God, and no love from men as their reward.
Jesus teaches in contrast, in a very emphatic way, the true manner of giving alms. "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." The lesson would seem to be, that our doing good to others should be, as far as possible, absolutely in secret. When others need our help in their distress, we are not to withhold it--but we are not to tell others of what we do. We are even, as it were, not to let ourselves know of it. We are to give out of love, to those who need to be helped, not humiliating them by making a spectacle of our kindness. Our giving, too, is to be only for the eye of God. Then He will reward us and recompense us.
The lesson is applied still further to prayer. "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men." They do not pray to God at all, and their real desire is to have men think they are very devout. They have their reward--that is, they get what they seek for: men see them. We all need to guard against the performance of our acts of devotion, for men's eyes--and not for God's.
Jesus does not mean to teach that we are never to pray in the presence of others. Public prayer is a duty. What He is pressing is that we are not to do any religious act to have men see us, and think us devout. We are to pray to God only and our prayer will receive His answer of love and grace. In all our life of love and service, the same rule should be observed. We should never seek honor for anything we do. We should shrink from praise and publicity. To show consciousness of our goodness, and any worthy service we have done--is a blemish. We should hide away rather from praise of men.
Florence Nightingale, having gone like an angel of mercy among the hospitals in the Crimea until her name was enshrined deep in every soldier's heart, asked to be excused from having her picture taken, as thousands begged her to do, that she might drop out and be forgotten, and that Christ alone might be remembered as the author of the blessings which her hand had distributed in His name.
"But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen." The Pharisees chose public places as their place of private devotion. They wanted people to see how devout they were. Jesus bids us to guard against all such display of our religion. He teaches here also the duty of secret prayer. We are to go away alone--other people about us disturb our thoughts. Then we are to shut the door to keep out all the world, that we may be entirely alone with God. He alone is to hear us when we pray, and in Him alone must our dependence be. No one can afford to leave daily secret prayer out of his life. Jesus went often alone to meet with God.
The form of prayer which Jesus gave His disciples, was not meant as the only prayer they were ever to use--but as showing the spirit in which they should pray and the scope of their requests.
"Our Father in heaven." This is the golden gate of prayer. If we enter the temple at all--we must enter it as God's children. Of what open and loving access the name Father assures us. We know that He to whom we speak--has a father's heart, a father's gentleness; a father's yearning for his child. A true earthly parent withholds from his child nothing that is good, so far as his ability goes. God withholds from Him children nothing that is really good. We should learn also from a little child--how to pray to God. We should come to Him in simplicity, with childlike confidence, with unquestioning trust, with yearning love.
"Hallowed be Your name." To hallow is to honor, to make holy. If we pray this prayer sincerely, we will hallow the Divine name in our own heart, we will pray with reverence and love. Christian people sometimes grow very careless in speaking of God. They become so accustomed to using His sacred name in prayer and conversation, that they utter it lightly, as if it were the name of some familiar friend. A miner with black, grimy hand plucks a pure flower from the stem. It seems almost a profanation to touch that beautiful flower with the soiled fingers. But what shall we say to our taking on our unclean lips, the holy name of God? We should learn to hallow this blessed name in our speech. Then we should hallow it in our life. We are God's children and we bear His name. We must take heed that in every act of ours, in our behavior, in our whole character and influence, we should live so that all who see us shall see in us something of the beauty of God.
"May Your kingdom come." God's kingdom is where God is king. In praying this petition, we are to think first of our own heart. The one place we can surrender to God, is our own life. We cannot surrender our neighbor's heart to God. A mother cannot make God king in the heart of her child. But each one of us is master in his own life and can choose who shall rule in it. In praying "May Your kingdom come," our prayer means nothing at all--if it does not first of all invite the Divine King to become our king, to rule in us. Then the prayer widens, and we ask God to set up His kingdom in our home, in community, then over the whole world.
"May Your will be done in earth, as it is in heaven." Some people always quote this petition, as if it meant only submission to some painful providence, as if God's will were always something terrible. They suppose it refers only to losing friends or money, to adversity or calamity, or to being sick or in some trouble. But this is only a little part of its meaning. It is for the doing of God's will, not the suffering of it, that we here pray. Our desire should be always to let God's will be done by us and in us. It is easier, however, to make prayers like this for other people, than for ourselves. We all think others ought to do God's will, and we do not find it a difficult prayer to make that they may do so. But if we offer the petition sincerely, it is a prayer that we ourselves may do God's will, as it is done in heaven. We can pray it, therefore, only when we are ready for implicit, unquestioning obedience.
Then it may--sometimes it does--mean the giving up of a sweet joy, the losing of a gracious friend, the sacrifice of some dear presence, the going in some way of thorns and tears. We should learn always to make the prayer, and then hold our life close to the Divine will, never rebelling, nor murmuring--but sweetly doing or bearing what God gives us to do or bear.
"Give us this day our daily bread." This seems a small thing to ask. Why are we not taught to pray for bread enough to last a week, a month, or a year? It seems for one thing, that Jesus wanted to teach here the lesson of continual dependence. He taught us to come to God each morning with a request simply for the day's food, that we might never feel that we can get along without Him even for one little day. Another lesson He wanted to teach us, was that we should live by the day. We are not to be anxious about tomorrow's needs--we are to think only today's. When tomorrow comes, it will be right to seek provision for it and to take up its cares and duties.
"Forgive us our debts--as we also have forgiven our debtors." The first part of this petition is not hard to pray. But the second part is not so easy. When someone has done us an injury and we are feeling bitter and resentful over it--it is not easy to ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. Perhaps we do not forgive at all--but keep the bitter feeling against our brother in our heart; what is it then that we ask God to do for us when we pray, "Forgive us--as we forgive?" God has linked blessing and duty together in this petition, in an inseparable way. If we will not forgive those who have wronged us, it is evident that we have not the true spirit of repentance to which God will grant remission of sins.
"Bring us not into temptation." We ought never to seek any way in which we shall have to meet temptation. Temptation is too terrible an experience, fraught with too much peril, ever to be sought by us or encountered, save when God leads us in the path in which it lies. So if we make this prayer, we must go only where duty clearly calls us. If we meet temptation there, God will keep us from evil.