When you pray, do not use a lot of meaningless words, as the pagans do, who think that their gods will hear them because their prayers are long. Do not be like them. Your Father already knows what you need before you ask him.
[This is a continuation of Jesus’ teaching about proper performance of religious duties. He is explaining to his disciples how they can be “more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires.” (See Day 23)].
When I initially read this scripture I wondered exactly what kind of prayer Jesus is talking about here. I looked around a little and didn’t get much clarification. The actual word is battalogein, an obscure word that isn’t used anywhere else in the Bible. It means to “stammer” or “babble.” The prayers Jesus is referring to may also have been runes, incantations, magic spells, or other hocus-pocus type utterings that we today would associate with “witchcraft.” Or just jibberish. Who knows?
Based on the last sentence in this scripture, it seems that the pagans were praying for their gods to satisfy their needs. They were spending a lot of time vocalizing in attempt to get the gods to do something for them. Jesus says that words aren’t that important because our Father (term of endearment noted) already knows what we need. It seems that Jesus is saying that primary purpose of prayer is not to get things or gain control over our destiny. There is a deeper purpose.
Yesterday (Day 40) I learned that Jewish prayer is very structured with an emphasis on traditional prayers that are used throughout the day to remind them of God’s omnipresence and to foster a sense of awareness regarding all their thoughts and actions. In other words, prayer keeps them accountable to God. To quote again from the website http://www.jewfaq.org/prayer.htm: “The most important part of any Jewish prayer, whether it be a prayer of petition, of thanksgiving, of praise of G-d, or of confession, is the introspection it provides, the moment that we spend looking inside ourselves, seeing our role in the universe and our relationship to G-d.” While Jews do indeed have prayers of petition, the main purpose of all prayer is to strengthen one’s connection with God.
Going back to the first sentence, Jesus says that our prayers should have meaning. We should know what we are saying. Jewish prayers are full of meaning and tradition. Jews don’t just recite these prayers – they study, reflect on, and immerse themselves in these traditional prayers that elevate God and remind them of his goodness. As followers of Jesus I think we could be a lot more intentional and focused about our prayer lives. We have a lot to learn from the Jews.
Jews also believe that prayer requires preparation, a certain mindset: “The mindset for prayer is referred to as kavanah, which is generally translated as “concentration” or “intent.” The minimum level of kavanah is an awareness that one is speaking to G-d and an intention to fulfill the obligation to pray. If you do not have this minimal level of kavanah, then you are not praying; you are merely reading. In addition, it is preferred that you have a mind free from other thoughts, that you know and understand what you are praying about and that you think about the meaning of the prayer” (http://www.jewfaq.org/prayer.htm).
Many Jews use singing and rocking back and forth while they repeat precious prayers and scriptures that they have committed to memory to help them enter into the kavanah mindset. It is then that God meets them and speaks to them.
To Jesus, prayer wasn’t just saying words. Jewish prayer is a meditative, transcendent experience. It’s spiritual. You don’t just phone in your requests and move on unchanged.
One of the first things that pops into my mind when I read this is, “What would Jesus think about tongues?” Speaking in other tongues (unknown foreign languages) was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the early church that facilitated communication among people who could not otherwise understand each other. These days “tongues” also refers to “prayer language,” a manifestation of the 20th century charismatic movement. Charismatic churches encourage people to “ask God to give them the gift of tongues”, which is usually a prayer language, not a known language. I have a prayer language. I use it when I don’t know what to pray. It’s not a foreign language, just something I do in place of extemporaneous prayer when I don’t know exactly how to pray. Sometimes it feels like English gets in the way of connecting with God and this prayer language seems to help.
But reading this scripture, I have to question this practice because Jesus doesn’t approve of babbling. He thinks we can do better than that. I think what we call a prayer language may indeed be babbling. Maybe I don’t really need a prayer language. Maybe God has already given us a common prayer language. (No, not Latin). It’s the same one Jesus used when he prayed – Hebrew. (Yes I know Jesus spoke Aramaic, but he certainly prayed in Hebrew like all other Jews). I’ve decided on the basis of this scripture I’m going to learn a couple of good prayers in Hebrew and I will use them when I don’t know what to pray.
I’m going to start with the opening verses of the Shema, a prayer that is used in for both morning and evening Jewish prayer. It starts like this:
Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
(Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One).
Barukh sheim k’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed.
(Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever).
V’ahav’ta eit Adonai Elohekha b’khol l’vav’kha uv’khol naf’sh’kha uv’khol m’odekha.
(And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and
with all your soul and with all your might).
This is usually the first scripture a Jewish child learns. It would have been the first one that Jesus learned. It seems like an appropriate place to start. I’m sure my Hebrew will be so bad that no Jew would ever be able to understand me. It might be tongues to them, but it will have meaning to me. It’s a prayer that Jews say gets the love flowing. It gets their kavanah going. It opens their heart to heaven. Hopefully it will do the same for me. It certainly seems like a good prayer for when you don’t know what to pray. Any time, really.
I’m going to give it a try and see what happens. In light of what Jesus says, it makes more sense than praying with meaningless words. Hopefully praying in the prayer language of Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, David, Isaiah, Daniel, and Jesus will take my prayer life to a whole new level. Those who know me know that I already have both the singing and the rocking part down pat.
What does this scripture say to you?