The following is a homily delivered by a college chaplain on March 2, 2020. The homily is based on the Gospel reading of Tuesday of the First Week of Lent, MT 6:7-15. In this passage, Jesus gives us the “Our Father” and admonishes babbling in prayer like the pagans do.
Brethren in Christ, as we journey through the first week of the holy season of Lent, given to us as a time of repentance or metanoia—a conversion of heart and healing of our relationship with God, our neighbor, and ourselves—we are assisted by the three means offered by the Church: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Today, the Word of God comes to us with admonition about prayer, so it is extremely timely and essential to our Lenten journey. Our Lord’s teaching may seem at first to be quite perplexing, as we know that prayer is affected by the use of words and almost by nature highly repetitive. In the Gospel, however, our Lord seems to be criticizing the use of many words in addressing God.
The first striking realization refers to the fact that our Lord is offering here a comparison with the pagans. So the essence of the message is not about many words of prayer, but about not praying like the pagans. Our Lord is teaching the disciples how to pray, and His fundamental point is that they must do it differently from those who do not know the true God. Pagans pray to false gods and consequently the way they pray is also false, because they do not know any better. Interestingly, we discover here the confirmation of one of the basic principles in religion—lex orandi, lex credendi: how we pray is how we believe.
So, what did the pagans believe about their gods that made them pray in a way Jesus described as “babbling” and unacceptable in a relationship with the true God? This question is the essence of what our Lord wants the disciples to think about: what do you believe about God our Father in heaven? What image of Him do you carry in your heart? Because that will determine how you pray to Him and what relationship you have with Him!
As historians tell us, in the pagan world, with its plethora of gods and deities that needed to be appeased and appealed to, the fundamental perception was that the outward actions or words are the efficacious aspect of prayer. Therefore, praying consisted in performing formulaic recitations that were believed to bring about the desired results.
What is of key importance here is that the pagan gods had to be told what people wanted, for they did not know. This is why Jesus warns the disciples: do not be like the pagans, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
Here we discover the rich meaning of our Lord’s teaching about prayer in today’s Gospel: prayer reflects our belief about who God is and what our attitude toward Him should be like. Christ Jesus condemns pagan prayer as false, because their belief is false, because they do not know the true God.
And so, our Lord teaches the disciples, when you pray, begin with the truth about God: Our Father who art in heaven. This is the foundation for our knowledge of God and attitude toward Him—and our prayer will flow from that, revealing our relationship of love and trust, and not degrading into formulaic manipulation of God, as was the pagan practice.
Brethren, as we journey through Lent, may Jesus’ teaching on prayer inspire us to pray with ever greater confidence, trust and perseverance. For our Father in heaven knows what we need, and, in His love for us, wants to bless us with his grace. May Lent be a time of God’s abundant blessings for each one of you. Amen.