Enthusiastic believers are particularly enthusiastic about prayer. They are always wanting to pray with you or to enjoy “a time of prayer.” Special pieties auch as prayer in the spirit, prayer holding hands, prayer with hands laid on one, prayer across parishes or across continents, prayer breakfasts, lunches, dinners, not to mention speaking with tongues, are eagerly encouraged and practiced.
How does all this match up the Jesus we might reclaim from the Gospels? In particular, do we get a picture of Jesus as a “man of prayer”? Well not really. Matthew gives the instance of an agonised prayer in Gethsemane. Mark gives that also, along with an instance in which Jesus prays alone in the midst of a very active ministry. Luke expands references to prayer, for example he adds prayer to Mark’s story of the transfiguration. He shows Jesus praying at cricial times, such as his baptism. We sense that he likes the idea of Jesus’ praying, but even so, limits it mainly to private prayer. John has Jesus pray lengthy theologically profound prayers, which are interesting examples of John’s own faith, but are not realistic examples of Jesus’ practice.
Matthew provides an explanation. He quotes Jesus’ teaching that genuine prayer should be private, brief and like the model Jesus gives. Anything public, anything that has one eye on being seen, is dismissed by Jesus, with the dry expression, “They have their reward.”
For Jesus, a relationship with the Father is the heart of faith, but as it is the human child talking to the one who is beyond all worlds, it must be secret, intimate, sober. As soon as it is made public its mystery is prostituted.
Jesus also shared happily in the prayers of the temple and synagogue, which were the common property of all believers, shared matter-of-factly or passionately as the occasion demanded. Such prayer was of its nature public and no one could pretend to do it better or more effectively than others.
On the whole, Jesus doesn’t come over as a very “religious” person. He spent most of his time, teaching, arguing and healing. He didn’t show or teach ways of drawing near to God, but rather announced the joyful news that God had drawn near to his people, and expected them to accept his way. Jesus seems not to brought a new way of being religious, but rather a new way of being human. His example, together with his teaching on prayer in Matthew chapter 6, is a sober challenge to all specious religiosity, and a call to something quiet, intimate and practical.