“Do not be like them…”
John Stott has observed, “Some people make the glib claim that they live by the Sermon on the Mount. One wonders if they have ever read it. More common is the opposite reaction, that the Sermon is a beautiful ideal but hopelessly unpractical, being unattainable. Tolstoy to some extent combined both responses, because on the one hand he longed to see the Sermon acted out, while on the other he acknowledged his personal failures.
The essence of the Sermon was Christ’s call to His followers to be different from everybody else. “Do not be like them,” He said (Matthew 6.8). The kingdom He proclaimed is to be a counter-culture, exhibiting a whole set of distinctive values and standards. So He speaks of righteousness, influence, piety, trust, and ambition and concludes with a radical challenge to choose His way.
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. (Matthew 6.7, NIV)
The Greek verb battalogeo is variously rendered “to use vain repetitions,” and “to keep on babbling.” It occurs nowhere else, and nobody knows for certain what it means. Some scholars think it was derived from a King Battus, who stuttered, or from another Battus who was the author of tedious and wordy poems. Most, however, regard it as an onomatopoeic expression, the sound of the word indicating its meaning. Just as battarizo meant “to stammer” and barbarous was a “barbarian,” whose language the Greeks could not understand, so battalogeo might simply mean “to babble.”
The reason why Christians are not to pray like pagans is that we believe in a living and true God. We are not to do as they do because we are not to think as they think. If the praying of the Pharisees was hypocritical and that of the pagans mechanical, then the praying of Christians must be real – sincere as opposed to hypocritical – thoughtful as opposed to mechanical.
In the “Lord’s Prayer” Jesus provides a model of what genuine Christianity is like. Matthew records that He gave it as a pattern to copy –
“And when you pray, 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. Pray then like this…” (Matthew 6.7-9.)
Jesus taught us to address God as “Our Father in heaven.” This implies first that He is personal. He may be, in C. S. Lewis’s well-known expression “beyond personality,” but He is certainly not less. Second, He is loving. He is not the kind of father we sometimes hear about – an autocrat, playboy, drunkard – but one who fulfills the ideals of fatherhood in loving care for His children. Third, He is powerful. What His love directs His power is able to perform.
It is always wise, before we pray, to think first about Him to whom we are praying – our Father who is in heaven.
(from Through the Bible, Through the Year
by John Stott, pp 191-201)