Your Father Knows What You Need
In what ways is prayer used to gain the favor of men, to bargain for position, or even to gossip and control others?
Fr. Timothy Lowe submits to the critique of Matthew's Gospel which warns about heaping up empty words and praying in order to be seen by men. A father provides for his children, and Our Father in Heaven knows what you need before you even ask. We can't keep secrets from Him anyway. As Matthew instructs, "When 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." Fr. Timothy reminds us, like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, it is in the acceptance of the simple prayer, "Thy will be done."
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And our co-host, Fr. Timothy Lowe, retired priest and former Rector at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem is with me today as well. Hi there, Fr. Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:30
Greetings, Hollie, nice to be with you again.
Hollie Benton 0:33
And you as well. A couple episodes ago, we studied Matthew 6 and the warning about practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them, and about sounding no trumpet when you give alms. Today, we're going to continue with Matthew 6 and his warning about prayer, and the similar critique about praying in order to be seen by men. What I find so amazing about this passage that comes from Christ's instruction, otherwise known as the Sermon on the Mount, but you like to call it the Instruction on the Mount is that the critique is not against the practice of righteousness, the practice of almsgiving, of praying, and fasting. But the critique is against the motivations, against the outcomes that we want to achieve, against the way it is carried out. The critique is against doing things in order to be seen by men, in order to get your reward and the praise of men. When it comes to leadership, the leader stands out, the leader is seen by men. So I'm grateful for this passage in Matthew because all people, every doulos, or slave, in the Lord's household is leveled and directed not to stand out, to practice righteousness, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting in secret. So what should we be keeping in mind for the context of this passage we're going to read today, Fr. Timothy, about praying in secret?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 2:01
What I like about this passage in what you just referred to the other verses that are in the same vein here, same instruction, is its practical nature. It's to protect us from ourselves. Let's be honest, no matter how much we pretend, those of us that are truly honest, know that our ego or self-centeredness is always lurking, always lurking. So on a practical note, just see this as to protect us from ourselves. Because ulterior motives are there. Those of us that are old enough, know they're there and notice that and we know who we are, but in general, it's just a warning and a corrective to all of that silliness that invades every aspect of our life. And now we're talking about, of all things, prayer. Prayer. So the keeping in secret, not display, not hypocrisy, not for the praise of others. Again, who is our reference point? The Father who sees in secret, which requires actually a greater act of faith and trust, does it not?
Hollie Benton 3:08
That's right. I've even been in situations where the person who has prayed has been told oh, that was a good prayer. So heartfelt. Great prayer. Where's the reward?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 3:20
Okay. You and I were Protestants at one point. And so we know what extemporaneous prayer groups are. And as a teenager, I can remember trying to articulate something that would impress the others, the group, both with my knowledge of Scripture, theology, and this was going in your mind as you were praying or getting ready to have your turn at. My point is the ego, that was the point.
Hollie Benton 3:44
May we be protected from ourselves. So here's the passage from Matthew 6:5-8. "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward. But when 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. And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him." As you mentioned, you and I both came into the Orthodox Church after time in a Protestant denomination. Over 20 years ago for me, and was it over 40 years ago for you, Father?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 4:38
Hollie Benton 4:40
So I think we Orthodox like to use these verses to judge our Protestant neighbors because we've known people who stand on the street corners, proselytizing and praying or rather giving speeches about whatever theology or ideology they want passers-by to hear and accept. What I find more insidious, however, is the way we might use prayer to gossip about others. We share prayer requests, people's struggles and weaknesses and failures, heaping up many words all in the name of prayer. But we must be corrected here by Matthew's Gospel. We are told, "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him." And I've seen people deeply hurt and betrayed when someone shares a so-called prayer request with a public group. When a woman has shared the struggle of addiction, or the shame of an abortion, or the uncertainty of a failing marriage with a friend in confidence, and then the so-called friend shares detailed information as a prayer request. Even if she leaves out some details, people can still feel very betrayed to have their struggles on display. So I do like the practice of just offering the first name in prayer, no other details, because your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. What do these empty phrases and many words mean in the context of Matthew's Gospel here, Fr. Timothy?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 6:08
Thanks for the question, Hollie. First, let me say, the subject of prayer is big business for us Orthodox. We'll leave the Protestant and Roman Catholics aside, but I suspect it's big business. What do I mean? If you go to any Orthodox press, you will see volumes and volumes of books on the subject of prayer. So that's what I mean by big business. It's a huge topic and sometimes it amazes me, as I think of books on prayer, and even commentaries on the Scripture, which I have my share, by the way, Galatians, one of my favorite small epistles of Paul, it's only six, seven pages long, but we need 300 pages to explain it. So I'm not saying anything against that, because there's a lot there. But I just pose the question that this business of prayer is tricky business, and the Orthodox, we're deeply influenced by the monastic approach to prayer. All that being said, the first reference that you just read has to do with the Jewish context, in the synagogues, public places, and whatnot, there's really nothing more to say about the secrecy of things. We did that in the introduction, previous podcasts, let's move on to pagan practice, which is addressed in the second part. Behind prayer, and how and what we pray for, whether we think about it has to do with how we understand who God is, or what God is. The Greco Roman, pagan mystery cults with their plethora of gods, (among) the Greeks, the gods were what? They were both virtuous and full of vice. In other words, they're extensions of the human being as a matter of speaking. So you never know what you're gonna get. And if your life or your needs depended upon this fickle god that you're addressing, you had to really sort of try to get his attention, get his favor, as opposed to his wrath. And so it created a bit of a peripheral conundrum for them. And that is the context actually, that Matthew was referring to: heaping up phrases, offering your sacrifices, whatever, negotiating, making promises, hoping to gain favor. And that is a specific vision of who they understood whatever god could come to the rescue. In the midst of that is a different vision. And the Instruction on the Mount, as I like to call it, as you just said, is a different vision. And notice, we are not giving God a name, a personal name. It's not Ares, it's not Zeus, it's not Hera, it's not Aphrodite, it's not Athena. No, no, we do not give him a name. It is a functional relational title, Father, which is singularly the most powerful, (next to a mother - we don't want to dismiss the ones that give birth to us) singular most powerful image of intimacy, of responsibility, from where our life comes. You know, and even Paul talks about addressing God as Father in Romans and the gift of that. So, first point is that we don't have to heap up phrases because it's not a pagan god we're dealing with that might be good, might be bad, might have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed that day. Which then frees us up from doing the dance and negotiation. Okay, come on. Even as Christians, we are tempted, and we fall into that temptation to bargain with God. Oh, God, if you do this for me, I'll promise to do this. It's imagining that somehow, again, our vision of God, that he can be bargained with, that he can be negotiated, that we can manipulate him with our promises. And all of that is gone. That your Father who sees in secret knows already before you ask what you need. it. So there's no mystery. Matthew wants us to learn how to understand, relate and pray in this manner. And forget about all of our basic instincts for negotiation and promises and making vows, you know, again, yes is yes, no is no. It has to do with integrity and honesty. Again, the idea of hiddenness means we cannot hide things from God. How often do we imagine in the way we relate that we can hide something? And the fact that he already knows makes even expressing something a rather sort of silly, unnecessary point in our prayer and our personal requests. That's why I like where he says go into your closet. You don't have to make displays, you simply have to commend. Of all of the things we ask God for in our litanies, right, in our liturgies, I like the last, "Let us commend ourselves and each other." This commending, in other words, placing into the hands, our life and all of its needs. And that is an act of trust. Why? Because we don't like to release control about anything to another human being. I mean, we're radical individualists. Now, whether we like it or not, yes, we have the United States of America in the sense of something larger than ourselves, but like in our daily life, no, no, it's about me versus the world, my survival versus your survival, even in comfortable suburban existence. It's still, it's the mentality of individualism, egocentrism. But all of that is gone. All that is gone when we begin to discuss the issue of what to pray, how to pray. So today is how to pray - quietly in secret, trusting the God who already sees, who you are invited, you are commanded, to call him Father.
Hollie Benton 11:59
Yeah, I was just even sharing with my friend, you know, people may be out of a job and may be really struggling, and, "Lord just helped me find a job. I need to feed my family." And I mean, really, what you need is provision for your household, right? So it may not be a job, the Lord knows you need provision. And I think the real struggle, the real challenge for Christians is to really pray, "Not my will, but thine be done." You know, if that could simplify our prayer, that would be something. He knows what we need.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 12:33
God knows. God sees, and therefore we trust with whatever happens. So I'm not saying we don't have our desires and our wants and our human needs. And I am not a man who's had much difficulty, many crosses, bad health. Yes, you can be persecuted and be in difficult situations as a priest, that's a whole different story. But functionally, didn't have to go to war, Vietnam ended before I got the last draft number, as an example of things you didn't have to face, no great losses, all my children and grandchildren are healthy. Everything's sort of normal. So that blessed normalcy. When I've been in dire circumstances, financially, this particular priest was never paid a high salary, right? So you live paycheck to paycheck, maybe a little bit of cushion, but six kids, it has to stretch. But even in situations that were dire, I was rescued quickly. In other words, talking about jobs and money and financial hardship, etc, etc., so I was always rescued rather quickly from the circumstances of the struggle of daily bread. But as you know, our problem is not so much daily bread, it's the excess. We don't like the thought of living on the edge, as many people do throughout the world. I've been displaced in America, but that's no big deal. You go from one place and you can move to another when you start again, it's no big deal. It's not like there's bombs falling around me. Or there's a drought and famine and children are starving, and there's disease and no available drugs. It's a pretty cushy life on my own. So I can't speak from deep trial. Right? But this idea of trusting the Father, simplifying our needs, our prayer requests, what we should pray for, and the rest we can acknowledge privately. But God will do what he wants. He may or may not fulfill our wishes. But that's not the alpha and the omega of what we should be focusing on. God knows, God sees and therefore we trust. Otherwise we're in this personal crisis of power struggle, of wanting something we can't get it, then comes psychological difficulties, the despair, and this ultimately is a tyranny that will torment our souls our entire lives. And then we want to blame God. He doesn't love me, he's not answering my prayer. It's the humility of submitting. We are just from the dirt. If we're the best of the dirt, the adamah, we're just from the dirt, from the ground. And we are scattered like dust, which is dirt that's degenerated and now it can just blow away. There's nothing there. At least the dirt can give life and this is what we offer. The last time I visited someone in the hospital who was going in for surgery, now I could have brought a prayer book and we could have done an unction service. I just simply held her hand and her husband's and let's say the Our Father, and the simplicity of that experience. It just said everything that needed to be said, Thy will be done. And leave it at that and then find the comfort in that. It's the Garden of Gethsemane all over, okay, "Thy will be done" isn't new to Matthew 6. It's the, to me, the climax of the entire Gospel is the Garden of Gethsemane, not the cross, that's not the climax, for Jesus. He's in the garden. There's the crisis. Three times, "Thy will be done." Let's finish the story. Let's finish to the end. But it's already been decided. He has submitted. He's accepted what is God's will for him and it's in the acceptance. It's in the acceptance.
Hollie Benton 16:24
Amen. Thank you, Father Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 16:27
You are most welcome.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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