Read Matthew 6:7-8
ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: ‘Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: “To an Unknown God.” This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the One I’m telling you about.’” (Acts 17:22-23 NLT)
I have yet to reveal this in my devotions, but most who have known me over the years know that I had once practiced Wicca[i] for nearly a decade of my life. I was brought up in a Christian home, raised to be a Christian in a church, and had even experienced the call to become a pastor as a child. With that said, as a teenager I became disenfranchised with Christianity and with institutionalized religion as a whole. More than that, I was disenfranchised with myself and was seeking who I was, as opposed to who everyone else though I should be.
I know, I know, it’s a common teenage thing: the search for identity; but it’s not to be scoffed at, and it led me to Wicca. Honestly, I thank God for that. Yes, you heard me right, Wicca was a gift given to me from God and I am thankful for it. Through Wicca, God gave me the space to grow, to discover myself, to find my God-given identity, and it kept me seeking the divine rather than denying it. It gave me the space to, overtime, reconnect with my calling and to wrestle with my faith. What’s more, there is truth within the teachings of Wicca and I learned a great deal about God through it.
Since, then (in 2004 to be exact) I came back to Christ, not because Wicca was bad or wrong or (add your adjective here), but because Christ had laid a claim on my life long before I ever chose to go out and explore my spiritual identity. While I may have left the Church, I never left God and God never left me; rather, believe it or not, I grew closer to God through Wicca and gained a much better appreciation and affinity for God’s creation.
The relevance of all of this is that, because of my experience in religions outside of Christianity, I have something to offer in terms of understanding what Jesus is talking about when using the term “pagans” (depending on what translation you use). Matthew was written in Greek, and the word that Matthew quotes Jesus saying is, ἐθνικός (pronounced eth-nee-kos’). This often gets translated to “pagan” or “Gentile”. It is where we get our English word “ethnic” from and, in Jesus’ Jewish context, it refers to anyone who is NOT ethnically Jewish and/or has not converted to Judaism.
In this passage, Jesus uses the common Jewish perception of Gentiles (or pagans) in regard to prayer. In the ancient pagan world, people would go to great lengths to pray the right prayers, say all the right things, and perform all the right rituals in order to appease the gods and make them happy. To fail to do so could result in the prayer not being answered. In other words, the prayer was intended to manipulate the gods to do what the person was praying for.
If taken literally, Jesus’ words could be seen as an oversimplification, if not a mischaracterization of those religions. In the ancient, Greco-Roman world, there were many different types of pagan religion and cult groups. Each of them had different practices and different beliefs. What’s more, to take his words and try to literally apply them to a modern-day, neopagan religion such as Wicca, would be a mischaracterization. Wicca is a religion that seeks to find balance and harmony with nature and doing one’s part to add to that balance. It is not a religion that solely focuses on self, nor does it seek to prayerfully appease angry, fickle gods.
Yet, Jesus’ point in teaching about prayer was not to put down “pagans” as much as it was to distinguish what prayer ought to be in the Judeo-Christian context. It ought not to be focused on self or on manipulating God/nature in order to affect self-driven (not always self-centered) change in the world around us. That is not what prayer, as defined by Jesus, ought to be. Yet, can Christians truly hold non-Christians to account on that? Do Christians model God-driven or self-driven prayer? Is one’s prayer life centered on self, and on what oneself needs, or is one’s prayer life centered on God and what God wills?
That is what Jesus is talking about in today’s passage. It is not a judgment against “pagans” or other religions, as Christians have unfortunately interpreted it; rather, it is a mirror that Jesus is holding up to Christians to measure themselves in. He utilized language that the people of his time would understand, drawing a comparison between the way the Greco-Roman world practiced prayer, and the way Christians ought to practice it.
The questions for us are these: Are we set apart for God, or are we set apart for ourselves? Are we living the talk, or are we talking differently than how we live? In what is to follow from this passage, Jesus is about to show us what God-driven/God-centered prayer is all about. Reflect on your prayer life between this devotion and next in order to prepare for the instruction our Lord is about to give.
THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” – Søren Kierkegaard.
Lord, I center my prayer on you. What is it you would have of me? Show me the way. Amen.
[i]Due to time and the focus of this devotion, I cannot go into detail about Wicca. If you want to learn more about it, here is a reasonable and accurate web site which you can visit: http://wicca.cnbeyer.com/wiccan-basics/