Lesson for Nov. 20, 2011: Praying Sincerely (Matthew 6:1-18)

This week’s treatment of the International Sunday School Lesson (for November 20) is written by Jim Littlejohn, pastoral care minister at Connection Pointe Christian Church in Brownsburg, Indiana.

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Praying Sincerely (Matthew 6:1-18)

By Jim Littlejohn

There seems to be a growing number of books about who we are when no one is looking. Our true character jumps up when our guard is let down. Even though we need accountability, the other side of the coin can be just as ugly. How are other people—people we may trust—when we are not looking? For example, ask that question of investors who know prisoner 61727-054 from the New York Metro Correctional Center. Those investors thought they knew Bernie Madoff. They met with him regularly and were reassured that he was sincere and above board. Everything seemed fine until Madoff was arrested December 11, 2008, and the investors learned their money was gone. Maybe we need a book called, Who Are We When Everyone Is Looking? How are we held accountable for the thoughts behind our actions? Who will keep us true when we are tempted to go off course?

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Jesus’ prayer in Matthew 6 is known as the model prayer, the benchmark by which other prayers are measured. Fasting and giving to the poor are also integrated into this teaching on the mountainside. Fasting and prayer are often intertwined—but giving?

 

Our Attitude in Giving

The American Institute of Philanthropy, a watchdog group, rates the effectiveness of humanitarian organizations. How does one decide the criteria used to determine whether giving is effective? Was the gift given out of guilt, compassion, legalism, or self-promotion? Whatever the reason, the newly formed church in Scripture saw giving to the poor as pivotal to living out the gospel. Paul records the one stipulation other apostles had put on his sharing of the gospel, accompany his preaching with remembering the poor (Galatians 2:10). Perhaps the biggest test in this type of giving is in knowing there will be no repayment. Jesus requires our giving to be without attention or attachment, and that is difficult. So difficult, in fact, that he compares it to our right hand not knowing what our left hand is doing (vv. 3, 4).

 

Our Attitude in Fasting

The Old Testament Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27) was a day of public sorrow and affliction as atonement for sins. In other times of national crisis, leaders called an assembly. “Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people” (Joel 2:15, 16). And we see Ezra prompt fellow captives to fast and pray for safety on the dangerous road back to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:21-23).

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The early church gathered and linked prayer and fasting. Few today would disagree that local church members are drawn together while fasting and praying. Most fasting, though, is a private matter between the individual and God. Richard Foster describes fasting as an accompanying means to reaching the inner life. Christ’s followers are instructed to fast with an attitude of humility—looking outwardly no different than any other day (Matthew 6:16-18).

 

Our Attitude in Praying

We must not confuse our hours in prayer as just another duty on our to-do list. Jesus calls us to align our prayers with God’s will. The process may take a slow bending to the Spirit within us to agree with the Master’s plan, or at least to trust him in the unfolding of the plan.

 

Our Model to Follow

We talk to people we know—is it any different with God? Are any subjects off-limits with God? Did Jesus scribble a list of “must include” topics before he released this prayer prototype to the masses?

In this short passage, Jesus’ teaching on prayer can be divided between two overlapping worlds: heavenly concerns and earthly cares.

 

Heavenly Concerns

Jesus pictures our Father to be wholeheartedly revered as God alone (v. 9). We should look forward to the final day when he shuts down all disobedience to reign over all (v. 10). We should live on earth as if we were already in the heavenly realm (v. 13).

 

Earthly Cares

We admit dependence on our Father to provide for daily needs. This cuts through a ton of selfish wants in our materialistic world (v. 11). We ask God to forgive our wrongs, as we forgive others with dignified grace (v. 12).We ask for special protection because of our natural bent toward sin. Protect us from our own rationalizing ways and from falling for Satan’s deceptions (v. 13).

Jesus sternly warns us how mercy works. We would do well to remember his parable of the unmerciful servant. It ends, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).

 

Summary

Having a sincere attitude is the thread that holds Matthew 6:1-18 together. Separating selfish motives from outward actions is difficult to achieve. A reward comes from our Father God because we give to the poor on his behalf. We quietly fast to focus attention away from us and onto him. We honestly pray Heaven’s objectives, knowing God sees our temporal cares.

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*Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.

HOME DAILY BIBLE READINGS
November 14: Genesis 32:6-12
November 15: Numbers 14:13-19
November 16: 2 Samuel 7:18-29
November 17: 1 Kings 17:17-23
November 18: Isaiah 12
November 19: Jeremiah 29:10-14
November 20: Matthew 6:5-15

 

ABOUT THE LESSON WRITER:

Jim Littlejohn is the pastoral care minister at Connection Pointe Christian Church in Brownsburg, Indiana. He and his wife, Marianne, enjoy time with their adult children, Laura and Jenna. New son-in-law Nate is now in the circle of trust.

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