“The Shared Practice of Prayer” on Matthew 6:5-6 by Joe Ellis – Jan. 29, 2023
You know what they say about people who assume, don’t you? We all need to make assumptions in order to get through life. For example, I’m assuming that everyone here speaks English — it's super helpful for prepping a sermon to know that I only need to worry about preaching in English, and not French Canadian.
I’m starting out by bizarrely defending our right to assume because throughout this passage Jesus is making some major assumptions. Did you notice His assumptions at play in this passage? Jesus starts out saying, “When you pray…” Big assumption there! “When I pray? What makes you think I’m praying?” his audience might have asked. He makes a similar assumption in the passage we looked at last week: “When you give money to the poor…” Then next week, we’ll see Jesus make another big assumption when He says, “When you’re fasting…” “When I’m fasting?”
These are some fairly sweeping assumptions that Jesus is making about the spiritual life of His audience. When you give alms, when you pray, when you fast… More than that, Jesus starts out this whole section with an overarching assumption: “When you are practicing your piety.” There’s another massive assumption Jesus is making; he’s assuming a set of spiritual practices that are common among his hearers. Jesus assumes that those listening are already regularly engaging in alms-giving, prayer and fasting. Because he’s made that assumption, He doesn’t need to go into instruction on how or why to give alms, pray or fast — instead He focuses on correcting one aspect of their practice, which is when they do these spiritual practices for show. He’s assuming that he’s speaking into a culture where people regularly give alms, pray and fast. Of course, this comes across loud and clear when he says, “When you practice your piety,” “When you give money,” “When you pray,” “When you fast.” To me, it's incredibly noteworthy that Jesus just assumed His hearers did all these practices. This suggests that if you or I were with Jesus on that Mount listening to His sermon, we would have this thought as you were listening to him: “Oh, He’s talking about our practice of giving to the poor that we do.” “Oh, He’s talking about the traditional practice of prayer that we do.” “Oh, he’s now discussing our regular practice of fasting.” Well, we probably wouldn’t have thought this explicitly, it would probably just be automatic. In the same way that you don’t think, “Oh, Joe is preaching in English”. After all, we all speak English, it's taken for granted.
Here’s where I want you to notice that Jesus is speaking into a culture that has a common set of practices designed to help them grow in their walk with God. We don’t have this. Likely, many of us have some sort of individual practices of prayer, giving, fasting, and meditating that we’ve cobbled together. Yet generally speaking, we do not have a common Rule of Life that guides us into specific or particular spiritual practices to helps us grow in our walk with God.
Let me explain the concept of a “Rule of Life.” A “Rule of Life” gets at the ancient practice where the founder of a monastic order would draw up a sort of contract which monks or nuns would agree to follow when they joined the order. One of the earliest and most famous “Rules” is called the “Rule of St. Benedict.” St. Benedict’s Rule organizes the day for the monks into regular periods of community prayer, private prayer, manual labour, spiritual reading, and sleep. The monks had their “Rule of Life” mapped out for them in what St. Benedict had written up, so that even if they were apart, they’d know they were doing the same practice at the same time every day. So, Jesus could have done with the Benedictine Monks what He is doing in this passage — namely, he could focus in on one particular aspect of their regular practice to help their spiritual growth. Jesus would assume that they are following the whole Rule of St. Benedict, and then modify one or two areas of their practice.
Again, a Rule of Life is the name given to a particular set of spiritual practices for a person or community. Having a Rule of Life like this gives structure and direction to developing one’s spiritual life. Think of a Rule of Life like a lattice in a garden. The lattice is the ladder that a vine might climb up so that it can achieve its purpose of drawing closer and closer towards the Sun. Without the lattice, the vine reaches towards the Sun but falls back into the dirt because it's got no support. The lattice gives the vine something to cling to as it climbs higher. The lattice helps the vine be the vine, and grow to be the vine it was intended to be. Developing a Rule of Life in which we lay out a plan for how to incorporate spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, and Scripture reading into our life is a lattice for us to climb as we pursue life together with God.
The community that Jesus was speaking to had a shared Rule of Life — the problem was that some were using this lattice in a way it wasn’t intended. They used their spiritual practices as a way of climbing up higher to impress others, not as a means of pursuing intimacy with God.
This means that Jesus’ teaching on prayer is not starting from scratch. He’s not saying, “Welcome to prayer 101, let’s go over the syllabus”. Instead, He’s assuming that they have a common Rule of Life, a shared set of practices, and then He offers a corrective to their practice— “Make sure you don’t show off when you’re praying.” So yes, the Jews of Jesus’ day did have a Rule of Life which many of them followed. Of course, there were some variations, but there was also an incredible amount of continuity in how they prayed as individuals. Most of the Jews of the day would recite prayers at set hours, which generally happened three times a day. Some Jews would pray the Psalms (which they had memorized), or there was a form of prayer called the Eighteen Benedictions, which they would pray along with reciting the Ten Commandments and the Shema (which goes like this, “Hear, O Israel: YHWH is our God, YHWH is One”). Again, Jesus is assuming a common practice of prayer among his hearers.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not taking issue with their form of prayer in their shared Rule of Life. He’s taking issue with the fact that some would calculate where they would be at a particular hour of prayer and planning to be in the most conspicuous place possible so everyone could see how pious they were.
Our culture, our church does not have a common view around what a shared Rule for Life should look like. Instead, when a person decides they want to develop their spiritual life, they are more or less on their own. We might pick up Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline,” or Dallas Willard’s book Spirit of the Disciplines, and they can certainly help us orient our lives around what a life of prayer looks like. But these books can also create the interesting problem specific to contemporary spirituality if our spiritual practices consist in reading books about God and spiritual practices, forgetting to actually do these practices themselves. We don’t have a shared practice where we can say to one another — this is how we cultivate our prayer life.
Of course I know that many of us here do have a rich practice of prayer, and have been really helped by prayer books like The Divine Hours, Seeking God’s Face, Celtic Daily Prayer, or The Book of Common Prayer. This individual approach to cultivating spiritual practices does have some benefits. Each of us is able to craft and carve our prayer life in the way that best accords with our personality, our life responsibilities, our time constraints, our spiritual convictions and our personal notions of what spirituality should look like. Perhaps, there is also less of a chance of going through the motions, knowing that this particular practice of prayer is something that I have chosen for myself to connect with God. I know that there are people in this congregation who have experienced benefits from the freedom to develop their own Rule of Life.
But this also does have its drawbacks. One challenge is this freedom requires each of us to figure out for ourselves what our prayer life will be like. That can be long, lonely work, especially for someone new to the faith. You may be like me and have had a long string of attempts to of trying out a new practice of prayer, gotten frustrated, thrown up your hands and abandoning the whole process only to wait a couple months or longer before getting back on the horse.
With this freedom can also come uncertainty of questions like: “Did I pick the right practice? Will this work? Is something happening? Is this enough? Is God happy with this practice?” “Does this check off the box for ‘my life of prayer’?
Although this individualistic approach towards developing a life of prayer seems to be the default in our culture, I find it very interesting to note that this is very much an anomaly in the history of the church. Rather, it seems that having a common practice of prayer shared by individuals was much more the norm. Listen to what Phyllis Tickle says in her introduction to The Divine Hours: A Manual for Prayer:
“Fixed hour praying (like doing it 3 times a day at specific times) is, along with the Eucharist, the oldest surviving form of Christian spirituality. It actually had its origins in Judaism, out of which Christianity came. Centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Hebrew Psalmist wrote (in Psalm 119:164) “Seven times a day do I praise you.” Although scholars do not agree on the set hours of early Judaism’s prayers, we do know that by the first century AD, the ritual of daily prayer had assumed two characteristics that would travel down the millennia to us: The prayers had been set or fixed into something very close to their present day schedule, and they had begun to assume something very close to their present day intention.”
She then goes through the practice of prayer starting with the early church, down through the church fathers, down through the practices of St. Benedict and through the middle ages up to our present day — she shows that the practices of prayer handed down from generation to generation have remained fairly constant. If Phyllis Tickle is right in her read of history, we can suggest that the practice around prayer which Jesus assumes that those listening were doing, these practices evolved with Christianity and remained fundamentally the same basic set of practices that Christians would carry forward throughout most of Church history.
Phyllis Tickle notes that these practices entailed certain ingredients of prayer — such as, praying three times a day, praying through the Psalms, praying the Lord’s Prayer (for example) — she notes that there are variations along these lines, but these basic ingredients of prayer have been practiced individually and collectively in the spiritual community of faith since the dawn of the church. Our practice where each individually constructs our own Rule of Life with little grounding in a shared community practice — that’s somewhat of an anomaly.
Now, there have been movements in the last few decades that try and capture a bit of this monastic sense of having a shared Rule of Life within the diverse responsibilities that each of us have in our daily life. Broadly speaking these movements fall under the heading of “New Monasticism”. For example, the Northumbria Community have developed the book, Celtic Daily Prayer as a way of helping the members of their community (and beyond) into a shared practice of prayer that they observe as they go about their daily life.
As a pastor, I have a deep longing for us to develop more shared practices together. I’m attracted to the very practical way of saying to people, “These are the shared practices that we do together in this community to help each of us deepen our relationship with God.” This might create a common language among us about how to pray and what prayer looks like. This might create a culture where training new believers in a life of spiritual practices is more straightforward and immediately practical. We’ve taken some steps toward this reality — for example, the prayer nights here on the 1st and 3rd Wednesdays is one way of inviting people into the communal practices of prayer. The congregational prayer we have each Sunday is a really meaningful first step into a shared prayer life. A few years ago, a few of us worked through a prayer book called The Ignatian Adventure, where we practiced contemplative praye
In the next couple of weeks, I thought we could do a similar thing, where throughout Lent we joined together in praying through the book 40 Days with the Holy Spirit. I plan to lead discussions about our time of prayer by reflecting on it in the 9:15 Bible Study, but maybe your small group would like to join in? These shared practices of prayer can help us support one another more, leading us to pray more than we might otherwise do if left to our own devices.
Let me close by noting the reason why helping one another establish a life of prayer is so important. Jesus says in Matthew 6:6, “Whenever you pray (again note that He is assuming we are praying), go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is there in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” That is truly the most foundational reason for us to cultivate our life of prayer — when we pray, our Father in Heaven is present there with us. Whether we feel His presence or not. Whether we have some gem of insight or not. Whether or not we feel the prayer is being answered — no matter what, our Father is there with us. This is why prayer is so important. We want to make it as easy as possible for one another to cultivate a life of prayer — we want to help one another into the presence of the Father. His presence is its own reward.