Empty Phrases: Matthew 6:5-8

“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. 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.

“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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Matthew 6:5-8 (NRSV)

In pretty much every way, this is another scenario around the same points as the previous passage on giving alms.  The only difference is that now the practices of the Gentiles are a point of contrast – using lots of empty phrases hoping “that they will be heard for their many words.”

We have all probably heard and/or been a person whose gears really get going in public prayer.  Consider the prayers I pray over a meal, which basically amount to “Thanks for the food.  Do whatever it is You do to it.”  Incidentally, what do we expect God to do to that food?  Keep us from choking?  Make it supernaturally more nutritious?  I’ve never really figured out what it means to “bless” food, but tradition is a powerful force.  I do have some funny stories about this if you ever run into me and ask about them.

And then there are prayers I pray when asked to “lead in prayer,” which are quite different.  Much more verbose with a lot more thought and expressiveness.  To a point, that’s probably appropriate.  “Leading in prayer” in a congregation is an act of public worship, which is different than expressing gratitude for provision for something I’m about to eat.

But there is a fine line between praying appropriately for context and making a performance.  Further, there are some people that, when I hear them pray, I know they are talking to the audience.  The pronouns sometimes even get screwed up.  It becomes more prayer-as-lecture.

As annoying and unpleasantly revealing as some of those tendencies may be, Jesus’ comment about the Gentiles’ prayers can be better understood against non-Jewish religion in the Roman Empire in the first century.

Rome, having conquered the known world, covered a wide variety of cultures and religions that, for the most part, were allowed to continue unhassled.  Even Rome itself had mystery cults that imported or invented other gods.  However, as a citizen of Empire, you were expected to respect the civil aspect of Rome’s religion.

Rome’s religion in the first century had two, main poles.  One of these poles was the pantheon of Roman gods and goddesses that were essentially the Greek pantheon with Latin names (in most cases, anyway).  These deities were like humans in virtually every way except for their immortality, powers, and areas of responsibility.  Yet, they were limited in their presence, knowledge, and character.  They schemed, they plotted, they made mistakes, they were foiled, they fell in love – even with humans – and they were prey to their own desires and passions.  Such gods were not accessible in the easy manner we have come to associate God being present to us.  They had to be attracted, flattered, cajoled, manipulated, and occasionally threatened.  Although a god was quite capable of paying attention to an individual follower, they certainly didn’t have to, nor were they prone to.  You had to make them want to listen.

The other pole of Roman religion came later, but as time went on, became to have a greater and greater effect on life in the Empire and for Christians in specific.  This came from the deification of the Emperor.

Although there are certainly periods of transition, it appears Julius Caesar was the first to just come right out and claim divine status as a power play against the Senate.  He had already won the hearts of the people through his military victories.  He was called savior, lord, and deliverer.  His image was paraded around with images of the gods.  Although the Senate never ratified anything during Julius’ life, after his death they caved into popular pressure and a growing Emperor cult and confessed that Caesar was a god.

This worship carried on to Octavian.  Augustus seemed to downplay the whole thing, but he was very diligent to get his image and name on everything, including temples.  By spreading the Emperor’s presence into all aspects of life, he laid down a powerful foundation for the power of emperor-worship.  He would jokingly refer to himself as “just another Senator,” probably hoping to avoid assassination, and yet his name and image were on all coins, public buildings, etc.  As if to say, “I’m just another politician.  I just happen to be overseeing, funding, and controlling all aspects of public life – including religion – and my power is absolute.  Other than that, I’m just like ol’ Septimus over here.”

In this environment, later emperors like Diocletian, Nero, and Domitian would wield that power like a hammer, and the cult grew by leaps and bounds, governing all common areas of life.

Jesus appears in the middle of that timeline.  One emperor has already established himself as divine, and his successor is in the process of stamping his name and authority on everything.

So, public prayer in the Gentile world was as much a political act as a religious act.  You prayed in public to prove your loyalty to Caesar.  It wasn’t so much that you wanted Caesar to hear you as you wanted everybody else to hear you.  People who prayed loudly and publicly, endlessly extolling Caesar’s virtues, were seen to be loyal, upwardly mobile citizens who would be rewarded.  People who just did the bare minimum to get by in the Empire received all the accolades of putting $2 in the United Way jar at work.

Jesus draws a parallel between the ostensibly righteous making loud, long, public prayers in the synagogue with pagans making loud, long, public prayers to the Emperor and Rome’s mighty pantheon.  To Jesus, there is very little difference between these two groups of people.

And that is exactly the point.

Both of these groups are getting their reward in the Empire as it is, and both will be overthrown in the imminent judgement of Israel’s God.  You don’t want to be in that group.  You want to be in the group that is currently the humble, the oppressed, the downtrodden – the subversive.  There is a reward coming for that group that will turn the tables, and you want to be on the right side of it.

Consider This

  1. What are some practices of veneration that are common in “the world” that the Church also co-opts?  Is there a difference when Christians do it?
  2. In what ways are Christians expected to comply with the “religion” of our age just to get along in modern society?

2 thoughts on “Empty Phrases: Matthew 6:5-8

  1. Pingback: The Lord’s Prayer: Matthew 6: | Letters to the Next Creation

  2. Pingback: Fasting: Matthew 6:16-18 | Letters to the Next Creation

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