For Bible Study Nerds

For Bible Study Nerds

Matthew 6:5-15; Prayer (Rhetorical Influences)

posted by Mike Nappa

Matthew 6:9-13 is one of the most famous biblical texts of all time. Known as “The Lord’s Prayer,” it records Jesus’ specific instructions for how to pray.

It’s important to notice that, immediately before giving this text, Christ warned his followers to avoid “babbling like pagans” when they prayed (see Matthew 6:7-8). Pagans at that time viewed prayer as something like a business contract that had the sole purpose of earning favor from whichever deity was its object. As a result, Greeks peppered their prayers with all types of honorifics and titles, hoping to flatter their way into heavenly favor. Other pagan prayers did the same, and also reminded the deity of all the ways the pray-er had kept his end of the blessing bargain by making sacrifices and/or defending the reputation of the so-called god.

Jesus dismissed this approach to prayer as worthless and insulting. Instead he offered a prayer structure based on an intimate, family relationship with our Heavenly Father. Many people today call this a “model prayer,” because it demonstrates key elements of prayer for us. In Jesus’ day, though, his disciples would have known it as an “Index Prayer.”

Index Prayers were common in ancient Judaism, something a rabbi would use to teach people to practice praying. These were what we might call “directed prayers,” delivered in outline form. For instance, a rabbi would “gather together a number of short sentences, each of which suggested an item for prayer.” The intent was that a person following an Index Prayer would start with one of those statements, then “enlarge upon it, drawing out some of its implications and applications.” They were not to simply memorize and recite each line, but to use each line as a catalyst for deeper, more personal times with God. That’s the kind of “Index Prayer” that Jesus gave in Matthew 6:9-13, and it has proved a timeless model for Christ followers ever since.

 

Works Cited:

[BBC, 62; APB, 92]

 

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Matthew 6:5-15; Prayer (Cultural Commentary)

posted by Mike Nappa

If Jesus’ description of flamboyant, hypocritical praying sounds like grand theatre, that’s because it probably was.

“And when you pray,” Jesus said in Matthew 6:5, “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” (italics mine).

Although some Jewish prayers (such as the Amidah) included standing, most did not. Thus, Bible scholars tell us that this word picture of Christ likely hearkens to Greek-influenced performance art of the time. The Greek word we translate as “hypocrite” in Matthew 6:5 is one that was typically associated with a career actor, or more literally,  a “play-actor.” In Greek culture it also carried the meaning of a “pretender” or “expounder of dreams.”

This play-actor theme continued Christ’s earlier sentiments about “acts of righteousness” done as performance art (see 6:1-2), and it would have been readily familiar to Jesus’ audience. Only a few miles north of Nazareth, in nearby Sepphoris, Herod Antipas had built a large, Greco-Roman style theatre with seating for a whopping 2,500 people. Antipas’ father, Herod the Great, had also built similar theatres in Jerusalem and Jericho

So, when Jesus labeled religious narcissists who stood and prayed in public as “hypocrites,” his audience would have pictured the theatre in Sepphoris (or Jerusalem or Jericho), and seen a vain, preening actor, standing center stage, delivering a sloppy soliloquy in hopes of applause.

 

Works Cited:

[BKB, 121-122]

 

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Matthew 6:1-4; Giving to the Needy (Theological Commentary)

posted by Mike Nappa

“Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Jesus’ comment, recorded in Matthew 6:4, is an affirmation of the related ideas that God is both everywhere and all-knowing. Theologians call these concepts “omnipresence” (or “immanence”) and “omniscience.” So what do they mean?

Omnipresence, in its most practical sense, simply means that all of God is everywhere at all times. It is both his necessity and his nature to exist completely in every space at any time. Or as theologian Michael Horton says, omnipresence is “God’s transcendence of time and place.”

We must be aware, though, that although God himself fills all of creation, he is not spread out through his creation. His immensity doesn’t dictate that only parts of him are present in any particular place or space or moment or hour. Rather, “he is present in every place because he transcends spatial categories…[and] God’s transcendence of time is the very presupposition of his presence in every creaturely moment.” (See Jeremiah 23:23-24, Psalm 139:7-8, Proverbs 15:3, Matthew 28:20, Acts 17:27-28.)

Nor is God’s omnipresence a passive or inert existence. Jesus is very clear that the Father “sees what is done” (Matthew 6:4), indicating an active, accurate, intelligent understanding of every place and every moment in our universe. This is called “Omniscience.”

“By the omniscience of God,” theologian Henry Thiessen explains further, “we mean that He knows Himself and all other things, whether they be actual or merely possible, whether they be past, present, or future, and that He knows them perfectly and from all eternity. He knows them immediately, simultaneously, exhaustively and truly.” (See Psalm 139:1-4, Matthew 10:29-30, Hebrews 4:13.)

Thus, when Jesus reprimanded his hearers for seeking human admiration while they gave to the poor, he did more than just point out a social or religious wrong. Christ reminded us that we all (individually and corporately) are constantly, irrevocably acting within the intelligent, active presence of our awesome, omnipresent, omniscient Creator—and his attention should be more than enough for anyone.

 

Works Cited:

[CHF, 254-255; LST, 124-125]

 

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Matthew 6:1-4; Giving to the Needy (Inductive Studies)

posted by Mike Nappa

“When you give to the needy…” Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount. This simple introductory phrase is striking both for its assumption and its audience.

The audience first: We must remember that at the time Jesus sat down to deliver this teaching, he was speaking to two groups of people. Closest to him were a gathering of unnamed disciples, which undoubtedly included Peter, James, John, and Andrew, and may have included up to 72 others (see Matthew 10:1-4 and Luke 10:1-24). Ringing these disciples and listening in on Jesus’ teaching were “large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and the region across the Jordan” (see Matthew 4:25 and 7:28). Knowing what we know of the demographics of Jesus’ disciples and the population of Israel at the time of Jesus, we can say with near certainty that these two groups of people represented pretty much every economic and social strata of the time: rich and poor, working class and unemployed, Jew, gentile and Samaritan, sick and healthy, young and old.

Second: With that enormously diverse audience in mind, it’s important to acknowledge Jesus’ assumptive obligation for everyone in the “large crowd” who heard his words:

When you give to the needy…” (italics mine).

Note that Jesus didn’t say “If you give” or “If you are rich enough to give” or “When you are not in need yourself and so you give…” or even a hypothetical “Suppose someday that you give to the needy…” He said “When you give.” His expectation was that every one of his hearers, regardless of economic or social status, was already engaged in the practice of regularly giving to the poor. (This expectation was also displayed in Luke’s gospel when Jesus commended a poverty-stricken widow for giving two minuscule coins; see Luke 21:1-4.)

Giving to the needy then, by Jesus’ standards, doesn’t appear to be a voluntary task. Nor does it seem to be a responsibility of only the wealthy. Nor an occasional option for when we feel we have surplus resources. The expectation here is obvious:

Christ’s followers are givers.

For them, giving is not out of the ordinary, not a special occasion. It is, instead, a normal, mundane part of life, expressed by constant preparation for new opportunities to give. Thus, those who follow Jesus are expected to be constantly ready to give to the needy, in big or small ways, as God provides.

 

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