“Vain Repetitions”? Light from the New Testament Background

In the evangelical Bible college I graduated from, I once heard a professor of mine advocate that Jesus did not mean for us to pray the Lord’s Prayer, but only to pray “like” the Lord’s Prayer. I, for myself, do not believe that Jesus intended anything so difficult! Sometimes we try to be more spiritual than God. It is true, as C.S. Lewis said, that the Lord’s Prayer is the prayer we “festoon” all our other prayers around, but it is also THE central prayer of the Christian life – from the lips of our Lord, into our hearts and minds.

My professor’s comments reflect (I think) a wider belief sometimes held in the evangelical stream of faith. We believe that praying anything that came from someone else is unspiritual because it cannot be “from our heart.” If that’s the case, the only thing I can say is we’d better stop using all those popular, repetitive choruses! If you believe (like I do) that the songs we use in worship are really just another mode of prayer, then our modern worship songs are every bit as much liturgical prayer as Gregorian Chant!

Okay, enough bantering. In this article, I want to explore a couple of things: (1) What Jesus said in Matthew 6:7 seen in light of the New Testament background and (2) what it means to “pray from the heart.” I want to conclude by reflecting on how we can find space to embrace both original and what I’ll term “expressly” liturgical/historical prayer in our corporate and private worship.

Vain Repetitions?

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. (Matthew 6:7 KJV)

What exactly did Jesus mean here? Did he mean, like my professor apparently believed, that only prayers that are original in content are acceptable to God? There are a couple of good reasons why that just can’t be true. Firstly, there are many instances in the New Testament where Jesus himself prays traditional/liturgical Jewish prayers. They are not immediately recognized by English readers because most of us aren’t familiar with first century Jewish prayer. I’ll cite two examples here. The Shemone Esre Berakot (Eighteen Benedictions) was (and still is) a widely used Jewish prayer which consisted of three introductory blessings, twelve prayers of petition, and then three final blessings. Interestingly, key phrases in the prayer happen to show up  in Jesus’ prayers. In his book Springtime of the Liturgy, author Lucien Deiss says this:

Jesus knew the Shemone Esre and alludes to it in the Gospels. In fact, the beginning of the “Hymn of Jubilation” (Mt. 11:25-27) and the title “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Mt. 22:32. Mk. 12:26. Lk. 20:37) are borrowed from the first blessing [of The Eighteen Benedictions].[1]

Based on the fact that elements of the prayer show up in the prayers and praise of Jesus, it is safe to say that the Shemone was used and prayed by Jesus himself (although parts of the prayer were added in the late first century after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D.).[2] The second example is found in the institution narratives of the Last Supper. The background for the Lord’s Supper is, of course, the Jewish Passover. Within that background, there are plenty of allusions in the Gospels that are made to traditional Passover prayers, and to the historical deliverance of Israel out of Egypt. Interestingly, the command of Jesus in Luke 22:19 to “Do this in remembrance of me” seems to echo a Passover Haggadah prayer prayed during the celebration of Passover. Lucien Deiss again gives us some insight here:

“Our God and God of our fathers…remember the Messiah, the Son of David, your Servant…” [from the Passover Haggadah]. The apostles, then, were to celebrate the Eucharist in order that God might remember Jesus Messiah, the Son of David, that is, that he might establish…the kingdom that Jesus has inaugurated.[3]

So here Jesus actually makes use of a traditional Passover prayer (and no doubt others at the Last Supper). And not only does he use the prayer, he actually transforms it, fulfills it, and reveals it as a reference to himself. Now, the point of explaining the above is simply to tell you this: the New Testament is soaked in the Jewish liturgical environment which it developed out of (so is the Prayer Book tradition, by the way). To think that liturgical prayers were not known and used by Jesus and the early Christians is, well, unthinkable.

It gets better. Along with understanding what Jesus did not mean in Matthew 6:7, we also need to properly understand what Jesus did mean when he used the term “vain repetitions.” Our first clue here is that he went on to specify that these were vain repetitions of “the heathen” (or, Gentiles). Why might he say that? If we do a little digging, I believe we’ll find a good answer. In the ancient gentile world, religion of all sorts could be found and practiced. This was because the loose unity created by the Roman empire allowed people from many different cultures and backgrounds to mingle and interchange beliefs (so long as they ultimately bowed the knee to Caesar). Within this mixing bowl, magical prayers, charms, and a very wide and broad movement known as “mystery religions” (groups that were generally centered around a specific Deity and the attainment of salvation through the same) were prevalent. Here is an excerpt from a magical prayer that was supposed to provide relief for the demon afflicted (this is a real quote, I promise):

For those possessed by daemons, an approved charm by Pibechis. Take oil made from unripe olives, together with the plant mastigia and lotus pith, and boil it with marjoram (very colourless), saying: “Joel, Ossarthiomi, Emori, Theochipsoith, Sithemeoch, Sothe, Joe, Mimipsothiooph, Phersothi, Aeeioyo, Joe, Eocharipththa: come out of such an one (sic). … For I pray to the holy god, through the might of Ammonipsentancho. … I adjure thee with bold, rash words.”[4]

Rash words, indeed. In The New Testament Background, C.K. Barrett goes on to note that some of the words translated here don’t even have a discernible meaning in the original language. They were basically “mumbo-jumbo” that sounded good when said aloud.[5] I think that this kind of thing is much closer to what Jesus had in mind when he admonished his disciples in Matthew 6:7. Using prayer as a kind of incantation to twist God’s arm like a gumball machine is really what Jesus is warning his disciples about here. Of course, prayers of any kind can become “charms.” It is a matter of the disposition of one’s heart that is the concern here, and that is what I want to discuss next.

From the Heart

I have often wondered whether in its stress on earnestness, and even fervor, evangelicalism has not to some extent overestimated most of us. Men like George Mueller, Hudson Taylor, and Praying Hyde were held up to us as models of prayer. But this was like holding Sylvester Stallone up to a young boy and telling him to look like that. What is he to do next? Long years of discipline lie ahead. This part of the matter is not always made clear in evangelical piety.[6]

What does it mean to pray from the heart? Is this not an internal disposition, independent from whether or not the prayers we pray are our own or someone else’s? I don’t know about you, but, if I’m not intentional about it,  I have the ability to be pretty absent-minded while praying my own words. Personally, I’m just not spiritual enough to always pray great, thoughtful, insightful, wise, and articulate prayers on the spot. Oh, I’ve got some good ones, to be sure, but I recognize that the Church (that is, the communion of saints over space and time) has far more wisdom than I do. For instance, consider the Collect for Purity from the Prayer Book:

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is a thousand-year-old prayer that I can’t live without. Why? Because it “does” what Christian prayer should accomplish and it “says” what Christian prayer should say. Most of our own prayers, on the other hand, usually sound something like, “Lord, we just want to…we just want to…and we just want to. Amen” (a kind of liturgy of its own, if you think about it). Now, there’s nothing wrong with the kind of personal prayer I’ve sketched out above. I’ll say it again ‒ absolutely nothing wrong with it. God accepts the most eloquent prayers right along side with the prayers where we just don’t know quite to what to say or how to say it. But would we want to always pray “Lord, I just want to…” kind of prayers? Think about the weekly prayers at Sunday worship. I know at my church that if the leaders all had to make up their own prayers every week, our prayers would all start to sound very similar. Our public prayer life as a church would begin to lack all the richness available to us through historical prayers like the one above! Thank God for the Prayers of the People! We should not make the mistake of thinking ourselves spiritual when in fact we are impoverishing our own worship by not making use of the collective prayer life of the Church Universal.

Prayer and Prayer

Despite leaving much untouched in this article, I hope that my main point is clear ‒ original and liturgical prayers are friends, not enemies. They can both enhance, enrich, and widen our prayer lives, private and public. For instance, when we study the construction of liturgical prayers, we can use this to enrich prayers of our own making. Study the way historical prayers address and describe God, how they address and describe praise to God, and how they lay out petitions before God ‒ if you do this, I think you’ll find that your awareness of how you pray is heightened. Like I said, through Christ our Lord, God accepts prayer whether it’s eloquent and well thought out or not, but that doesn’t mean that we always have to come bustling into to the Throne of Grace with a litany of “Lord, we justs.” On the other hand, when you pray a historical prayer (for instance, at dinner), take time to ensure that the disposition of your heart matches what you’re saying. “Vain repetition” is a danger, and it takes intentionality and humility before God to steer clear of it. Otherwise, our Lord wouldn’t have taken the time to warn against it.

Notes

  1. Deiss, Lucien. Springtime of the Liturgy. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1967, 9-10.
  2. Deiss, Lucien, Springtime of the Liturgy, 9.
  3. Deiss, Lucien, Springtime of the Liturgy, 26. See also Joachim Jeremias. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus. Redwood Press Limited, 1966, 237-255.
  4. Barrett, C.K, The New Testament Background, New York: Harper & Row, 1961, 31-32.
  5. Barrett, C.K, The New Testament Background, 34.
  6. Howard, Thomas. Evangelical is Not Enough. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984, pg. 76.

Fr Justin Clemente

Fr. Justin serves as Associate Pastor to the people of Holy Cross Cathedral in Loganville, GA. He was ordained a deacon in December 2015 and as a priest June 2016. In terms of pastoral credentials, he wants you to know he has never owned a pair of skinny jeans. Justin earned his B.A. in Biblical Studies at Trinity College of Florida and earned a Master of Worship Studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. He has a supportive and strong homemaking wife (Brooke) of twenty years and six beautiful children (Lucy, Forrest, Copeland, Crosby, Theodore & Clive). If he’s not in church, with his family, or reading, then he is definitely fishing.


'“Vain Repetitions”? Light from the New Testament Background' have 6 comments

  1. February 10, 2023 @ 6:21 pm Cynthia Erlandson

    “I recognize that the Church… has far more wisdom than I do.”
    Well-stated. Humans are liturgical creatures; and I believe you are right that, if all church leaders had to make up their own prayers all the time, they would begin to sound very much alike.

    Reply

    • February 13, 2023 @ 2:25 pm Justin Clemente

      Great! Thanks, Cynthia. I appreciate you engaging with article. Thanks for your feedback.

      Reply

  2. February 11, 2023 @ 12:42 pm Paula W Heyes

    An excellent and much-needed article, especially, as you say, for younger folk coming from non-liturgical American backgrounds. I find that the prayers from the BCP consistently cover lots of points I would probably forget to pray about if I didn’t have the prayer in front of me.

    A very minor point — [sic] is not needed in your quotation of the heathen incantation, as “such an one” was perfectly good English at the time the translation was made, and still wouldn’t really be considered an error. it reflects a different pronunciation of the word “one””.

    Reply

  3. February 11, 2023 @ 9:25 pm David Danielson II

    Thank you for the insightful, winsome article. Your concern to not trampoline off the heads of Evangelicals is very much appreciated. My Reformed Church says the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday evening service, and I am so grateful for that. Shared by Anglicans, Reformed, and Lutherans, not only the Lord’s Prayer but also the Psalter is another source of pre-composed prayers, uniting us and sculpting us for extemporaneous prayer.

    Reply

  4. February 13, 2023 @ 2:28 pm Justin Clemente

    Yes, the Psalter is a hugely important part of this topic. I like to say that the Psalter is the place where God’s Word becomes our words to God. Such a gift. In fact, I’ve really enjoyed teaching Simplified Anglican Chant to my congregation over the past couple of years. Should be an article coming out on it soon. Give it a read, eh? Thanks for your time and comment.

    Reply


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