Prayer and Religious Show Offs
The Teaching of Jesus — Acting Religious
When I was about 8 years old, my mom and dad took me to swimming lessons at the closest community pool. The teenage lifeguard/swimming teacher told us to jump in the water and show him what we could do. I got in the pool, went straight to the bottom and did a handstand. Then I attempted to dazzle him by doing four consecutive somersaults before coming up for air—I was just about to show him how I could do backwards somersaults while blowing bubbles out of my nose when he stopped me. “I just want to see how well you can swim, kid.”
I think that’s probably how goofy we must look to God and all the angels of heaven when we make giving to others and prayer more about making a show—trying to impress other people—rather than giving because we want to help people, and praying because we believe we’re actually talking to God (the Creator of the Universe, the One who has to power to save us, deliver us, heal us, forgive us).
Today’s teaching of Jesus is all about avoiding adventures in missing the point. It’s all about hypocrisy—making a show of our religious activities to impress people. Continuing in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew Chapter 6:
“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.
“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! Pray like this:
Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,
as it is in heaven.
Give us today the food we need,
and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.
So, Jesus continues the Sermon on the Mount, talking to His disciples, telling them what it looks like to be one of His followers. He’s been talking about how we’re to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world—people who are characterized by love and mercy, meaning what they say, keeping their word, controlling their temper, not looking for revenge. The way He wants us to handle all the everyday temptations we all face in our dealings with people.
But now He gets to one of the most dangerous evils that we’re ever gonna face. Something so dark and terrible—the people that did this atrocity were His greatest enemies. The people that embraced this lie and awful deception were gonna be the ones that falsely accused Him and had Him murdered.
Jesus is talking about the most evil thing in the world. You know what it is?
Religious hypocrisy. His harshest words were directed at religious people. People who pretended to be spiritual and godly and righteous in order to impress people. People who say one thing and do another.
Jesus says when we give to the needy, it’s not cool when we make sure everyone sees, showing off how generous we are—He said, “Don’t be like the hypocrites who blow trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity!” In case you’re wondering, that wasn’t really a thing—nobody really blew trumpets, He’s exaggerating. He’s talking about a ridiculous fanfare to draw attention to our greatness. Today he might have said, “You don’t need to plaster your good deeds on a billboard.” They wanted to make sure people knew how spiritual they were when they gave money to the poor.
Being a really good religious person isn’t quite the boost to our social status these days as it was when Jesus first gave this teaching—but the same kind of pride is behind a lot of our social media posts, and petty outrage.
Jesus is warning us. “Watch out! Don’t do good things to be admired by others.” Just do the right thing—help people who need help. You don’t have to make sure you look good doing it. By the way, notice that He assumes that we’re gonna help people. He’s talking to his disciples, the people who have been shown mercy—He assumes we’re gonna be merciful and want to help others. He just wants to protect us from the soul-rotting cancer of making a prideful show of our kindness to others.
It’s a lesson in basic humility. Don’t do things hoping that people will notice how awesome you are. Is there anything more gross than a religious show-off? Someone who wants to be praised for their good deeds? Jesus doesn’t seem to think so. He starts of by talking about giving to the needy but it’s the same with other spiritual activities, like going to church, worship and prayer. He’s gonna spend some time talking about how making a big show when we pray—making the prayer about us—is a really bad idea.
Prayer. But again, He assumes we’re gonna pray. Followers of Jesus are gonna pray. Not just say we’re gonna pray—He assumes that prayer is gonna be an important part of our life. But when we pray, He doesn’t want us to make a big spectacle of it. Praying so that everyone can see how spiritual and holy we are. That’s not cool.
Jesus exaggerates again—He says, “When you pray, just go into a little closet and shut the door,” “go pray somewhere that no one can even see you praying.” In other words, pray like you actually believe God exists and is listening to you. Wake up in the morning and before anything else say, “Good morning, Lord.” Out loud. Like there’s really a God and He’s listening to you. Prayer is just talking to God. Just talk to Him. No flowery speech. No strange affected voice. Don’t make yourself sound all sweet and sugary like you’re talking to a puppy. Or a child. Just use your own voice, the same words you use talking to everyone else when you’re talking to God. People get so weird when they pray.
And sometimes it seems like instead of going to God with whatever’s on our mind, we just want to ask other people to talk to Him for us.
Like something happens in life and instead of going to God in prayer, we call or text a friend and ask them to pray for us? That’d be like if we were at the dinner table and Von said to Angel, “would you ask Dad to pass the bread?” And then Angel would be like, “I’ll definitely ask him to pass the bread to you. You got it. My thoughts and prayers about bread are with you.” And then he just goes back to eating—he doesn’t say anything to me. Meanwhile, I’m over there like, “are you guys mad at me? Von do you want some bread? Talk to me, girl!” God is already there, ready to listen. Just pray. I mean, it’s fine to call a friend and ask them to pray with you—to pray for you—but don’t be weird about it. Don’t ignore God when you’re asking for prayer. Just talk to God.
Jesus says when we pray, we’re just to talk to Him like He’s our Father—because He is. It’s not about trying to sound impressive, some performance to impress anyone who might be listening to us. We don’t have to explain theology in King James English. We don’t have to mansplain whatever we’re praying about—sometimes we act like God’s a senile old dude who doesn’t get how the world works anymore. It’s fine to be specific, it’s fine to just talk and say anything that’s on our heart, but keep in mind that God knows what we need before we ask, He just wants us to ask. The prayer is more for us than it is for Him—it aligns our heart and mind to be faithful. God is already faithful.
Don’t make prayer weird. As a culture, we’ve definitely made prayer weird. Don’t be a show-off when you pray, but don’t be afraid to pray either. We’re people of faith. We need to be quick to pray. Quick to pray for other people, quick to pray with other people—out loud—on the spot. If you ever feel intimidated about praying out loud—like you feel shy about it or think you’re not particularly good at praying out loud and leading other people in prayer—please remember this sermon. If you don’t think you can be impressive in praying—great! That’s the perfect place to be—you’re not supposed to impress anyone with your prayer. Just pray. You are exactly the right person for the job.
So what are we supposed to say when we pray? If we’re not supposed to show-boat or sound like a tent revival preacher—if we’re not supposed to go into some weird chant to manipulate God with mindless empty phrases that we repeat until He’s forced to give us what we want—what are we supposed to say? How should we pray? That’s the easy part.
It’s right here in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapter 6—we have the prayer Jesus taught us to pray. The Lord’s Prayer—which some call the “Our Father,” but I think should actually be called “The Disciple’s Prayer” because that’s who Jesus taught it to, that’s who’s supposed to pray it. It’s for us. It’s our prayer. It’s the way we’re supposed to pray.
That’s why we pray it each week as part of our worship service—but how often do we just say the words and hardly pay any attention to what we’re saying? It’s a danger. It’s kinda exactly what Jesus warns us not to do. How crazy is that? The prayer Jesus gives us to avoid empty religious sounding prayers is exactly the prayer that Christians are the most guilty of using in an empty religious sounding way.
So, let’s walk through the Lord’s Prayer—the Disciple’s Prayer—in different words. I think this is what it means to “pray like this”:
We address God—it’s important to know who we’re actually praying to—Father in heaven, thank You for adopting me as Your beloved child. Like a father, You are always willing to listen to anything I have to say. By the way, it was almost unheard of for a Jew to refer to God as “Abba” which means “Father”—so Jesus is putting prayer in a relational context that would have been new and very intimate for His disciples.
The prayer continues—but You’re not just an earthly father, You’re God, You’re in heaven, yet You can hear me because of Jesus—we have access to You because Jesus makes us holy.
Your name is already holy—hallowed—there’s nothing I can do to make it more holy than it already is—but I can certainly abuse it. I can profane it. I can treat it in an unholy way. Help me to keep Your name holy in the things I say and do. In the way I pray, in the way I treat people—in the way I carry Your name and the name of Your Son. Your name must be kept holy.
May Your kingdom come. I mean, it’s already come in one sense when Jesus came into the world. And it’s come in another sense when You saved me and delivered me from the curse of sin—but in another, more perfect sense—Your kingdom will come at the end of time to bring a new beginning to all things. May that day be soon. But until then, please help me to bring Your reign and kingdom into my life—into my corner of the world. Help me to do Your will on earth as it is in heaven. Help me to love people, to show mercy, and to be faithful as I live a life of faith.
Then we turn to our needs—Give us this day our daily bread. We have not because we ask not. Help me to trust You, to not worry, to be satisfied with what You give me and to be thankful for the timing of when You give it to me. Your ways are not our ways.
Forgive us our sins—and we have many sins—forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us. We’re gonna need help with this, help us to forgive others, heal the pain in our hearts that’s left from the wounds people have given us. We’re not gonna refuse to forgive but we’re gonna need Your help to walk in that forgiveness—to treat them like we’ve forgiven them.
And life if full of temptations—when we are tempted, help us to not give in to it. Lead us away from temptation whenever possible—but when we must face temptation, help us to overcome it. This world is full of trouble, please rescue us from the evil one—to deliver us from evil.
And then there’s the various endings we put on prayers:
Most commonly we pray in Jesus’ name—meaning we can only call God “Father” because Jesus is God’s Son and He has made us His brothers and sisters. We pray in His name. By His authority. We have no access to our Heavenly Father, Almighty God, without Jesus—without the forgiveness He purchased for us by coming to earth, dying on the cross, and resurrecting from the grave—unless He ascended to heaven, we would have no access to heaven.
Or we usually add this to the Lord’s Prayer, “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. AMEN.” Which isn’t in the Matthew text but it’s a perfectly fine way to end a prayer. The world belongs to our Father, everywhere we look is His kingdom, He rules and reigns with power and grace and glory. AMEN. Which means, “Yes, so say we all.”
Jesus assumes we’re gonna pray, He warns us about trying to impress people with our prayers and then He gives us a perfect example of how we should actually do it. When it comes to the Lord’s Prayer, sometimes it’s good just to say it word for word—keep it fresh in our memory. That’s what we do each week when we rehearse it together. But other times we should go off script—pray it concept by concept—making sure to keep the meaning fresh in our heart.
After Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray, He really underlines one aspect of the prayer—like triple underlined in red ink. Verse 14 says, “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” That’s kinda heavy, don’t you think? Is He really saying that God isn’t gonna forgive us if we don’t forgive other people? Kinda sounds like it, doesn’t it.
I think it goes back to the blessings at the beginning of the teaching—the beatitudes. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” When Jesus shows us mercy, it changes us. We become merciful. When we realize that we bring nothing to this salvation deal—that it’s all grace, all a gift—then we’re gonna want to share the mercy we received with other people. Remember the parable of the unmerciful servant? He was forgiven a huge monetary debt and as soon as he was free, he bumped into a fellow servant that owed him a little bit of money and demanded to be paid—didn’t forgive. So when the master found out what the ungrateful servant had done—he was unforgiven—the debt was put back on him, he was beaten and thrown into prison. Triple underlined in red—Jesus is pretty serious about this whole “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” thing.
The reason is simple: He gave His life so that you could be forgiven. He paid the ransom so you could be free. He took the beating so you could go free—so you could be healed. So you could have hope and eternal life. All He wants you to do is be thankful. The main way you can show how thankful you are for the mercy that’s been shown to you is by showing mercy to others.
So, today’s been all about acting religious—spiritual pride. Isn’t that the dumbest thing you ever heard of? Spiritual pride? Like being proud of how humble we are.
I told you about my first swimming lesson but I have a much more embarrassing story. It was my first time going to a Wednesday night youth group meeting. I had been Christian for about five minutes and I walked into this funky little classroom where the teens met for Bible study. I knew all the kids from school but I hadn’t grown up in the church, so none of us knew each other as Christians—we were just classmates, it was a small town. The youth pastor was a recent Bible college graduate named Kevin, he was super friendly and nice, he made me feel really welcome. I can’t say the same for the rest of the kids. So, he starts off by asking a bunch of questions—sorta open ended theological questions—trying to find out where our head was, what we thought about whatever he was gonna teach on.
Well, Mr “I’ve been a Christian for 5 minutes” could keep his mouth shut. I had an answer for everything. I might have new to faith, but I was pretty sure I knew more about the ways of Jesus than all those losers. And I wanted them to know that I new stuff, too. I’m pretty sure I came off like Mr Know it All—I’m glad nobody had cell phones with video cameras.
Pastor Kevin and I became good friends and He was a big reason why I ended up wanting to be a pastor. I’m so glad he wasn’t put off by a teenager who wanted to show off his spiritual handstands and somersaults.
I want to point out one more big idea from this teaching of Jesus on helping people and prayer. He keeps saying, “If you do these things to show off, then you have your reward,” meaning “I hope your happy with the petty applause you got—because that’s all you’re getting—God’s not gonna pat you on the back for being a glory hound. He’s not gonna answer your prayers the way you want Him to if your prayers are just a way for you to look good in front of people.
However...However, we’re not supposed to be people who don’t expect anything from God. We need what God has to give. We are at His mercy. We are all beggars. Jesus makes it clear that if we give so that we look good, if we pray so that we look spiritual—God will not reward us, but if we give to help people, if we pray to talk to God—Jesus says then, “your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”
You’ll get your daily bread. You’ll receive forgiveness. You will be shown mercy. You’ll be granted eternal life and joy and peace. You’ll be called the sons of God and you will inherit the earth. We need what He has to give. Receive by faith, and be thankful. AMEN