In the Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount Matthew has a section about prayer (6:5-15). Among the various things Jesus teaches is the contrast between Kingdom praying and pagan praying:
“When praying, do not babble (battalogēsēte) like the pagans, for they are of the opinion that by using many words (polulogiai) they will make themselves heard.” (v.7)
The two words rendered “do not babble” and “many words” only occur here in the New Testament. What was Jesus requiring his followers to avoid in their prayers?
The compound verb battalogēō has an uncertain pedigree. Matthew’s usage may very well be the earliest occurrence in Greek literature, although there are two other occurrences dated towards the end of the first century AD. Some have theorized that it originates from an Aramaic term meaning “empty, futile” and so the verb signifies speaking in a futile or vain manner. However, the creation of a Greek term from combining an Aramaic word with a Greek work would be rather unusual. If this is a relatively new term, would Greek speakers be able to deduce its meaning if part of it was of Aramaic origin?
A more probable hypothesis is that this compound verb derives from cognate terms that suggest stammering. For example, there is another verb battarizō, meaning to stammer. The noun battarismos describes stuttering and a battaristēs is a stutterer. While the transition is not linguistically exact, it is perhaps close enough given the onomatopoetic nature of the verb battalogēō. If this derivation is correct, then perhaps the verb signifies to babble in a stammering manner. But if this correct, why does Jesus characterize the prayers of pagans in this way?
From various papyri that transcribe magical incantations, we find examples of apparent gibberish that the speaker considered divine language. For example, in the Paris Magical Papyrus dated to AD 300, one of the spells begins “I adjure thee by the god of the Hebrews Jesu, Jaba, Jae, Abraoth, Aia, Thoth, Elem Elo, Aeo, Eu, Jiibaech, Abarmas, Jabarau, Abelbel, Lona, Abra, Maroia,…” Sometimes in these incantations there is a just a string of repeated vowel sounds in these incantations. An exorcism incantation reads “I adjure you by the god Sabarbarathith, Sabarbarbathiouth, Sabarbarbathioneth, Sabarbarbarphai….” Such lists of names or repetition of meaningless vowel sounds illustrates the babbling, stuttering kind of prayers that Jesus was rejecting as appropriate for his followers. As Paul says, he would rather “speak five words intelligently than ten thousand ‘in tongues’” (1 Corinthians 14:19).
Within Hellenistic Greek philosophy there was a rejection of long, repetitive prayers that sought to wear down the gods and plague them into giving what the petitioner wanted. Rather short, general prayers are best, such as the one Apollonius of Tyana apparently taught: “O ye gods, grant unto me that which I deserve!”
Jewish tradition also had divergent practices and advice about prayers. The writer of Ecclesiastes counsels “do not rush into speech, let there be no hasty utterance in God’s presence. God is in heaven, you are on earth; so let your words be few” (5:2-3). Elijah at Mt. Carmel mocks the daylong petitions of the prophets of Baal that in the end fail to move their god to send fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:25-29). His short appeal to Yahweh represents a severe contrast. However, at the time of Jesus some Jewish groups engaged in long, public prayers. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus criticizes the teachers of the law because “they devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers” (12:40).
Fortunately, Matthew did not leave us to guess as to the intent of Jesus’ teaching. In the second part of verse 7 Jesus defines the sense of the first part by characterizing the prayers of pagans as employing “many words (polulogiai).” Jesus indicates that their theology of prayer was flawed (“they are of the opinion that…”). Unfortunately their opinion was mistaken. Garrulity and verbosity in prayer does not capture God’s attention. Humans cannot compel God to act by harassing him.
In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus’ prayers are remarkably short, yet we discover him on occasion spending the night in prayer. In John’s Gospel we discern a different pattern in chapter 17 where a lengthy petition from Jesus is reported. How do we bring coherence to this data? Further, the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) urges believers to keep presenting their petition to God. However, the Lukan context indicates that the focus of such prayers is for God’s Kingdom to come and for justice to prevail. Our persistent prayers to God for the return of Jesus in the midst of injustice and persecution demonstrate a persevering faith. Jesus, however, is critical of mindless repetition, meaningless ‘canned formulas’ that do not express the sincere plea from the heart.
Even though Jesus specifically criticizes the pagans, i.e. the non-Jewish people, for this incorrect prayer theology, perhaps he also through them is criticizing many of his Jewish contemporaries whose practices reflect the same erroneous theology.
Jesus repeated his warning at the beginning of verse 8 – “do not be like them!” God knows already what we need. Our prayers do not inform Him or instruct Him or remind of something He has forgotten. Our prayers reflect our worship, our trust, our confidence. In prayer we express our intimacy with God, our Father, and seek to align our wills with His. The sample prayer that Jesus provides presents us the model we should use. However, if we turn this prayer into a mindless, repetitive chant, we practice the very prayer theology that Jesus is condemning.
Jesus urges us to pray simply, sincerely, and succinctly, but respectfully. Our Father hears.
- What do our prayers reveal about our relationship with God, our Father?
- Do our prayers ask that “God’s Kingdom come”?
- If God knows what we need before we ask, but we do not pray, does this mean that God withholds what we need?
- How do we ensure that our prayers are sincere?