In today’s Gospel (Tue. Week 1 Lent) is the Lord’s discourse on prayer. The Lord begins with the familiar admonition:
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matt 6:7-8)
The underlying Greek word is βαττολογέω (battalogeo); from battos (a stammerer) + logos (word). Hence the word means to chatter, utter long-winded or empty words, to stammer or engage in vain repetition.
Of course when such a text is considered, critics of the Catholic practice of rosaries and other litanies go into rebuke mode, and Catholics go into defense mode. And while there are legitimate debates about what the Lord is actually referring to historically, there is the danger that we can miss the deeper summons of the Lord’s teaching here.
At the real heart of the Lord’s message here is not the concern for babbling, but the concern that we lay hold of the truth that “your Father knows what you need.” In fact, as I have argued elsewhere (e.g., HERE and HERE), the whole focus of Matthew 6 (the midpoint of the Sermon on the Mount) is for us to shift our focus from human praise and worldly preoccupations to “our Heavenly Father.” In fact, Jesus mentions the Father a dozen times in Matthew 6. Add to that the fact that the Lord’s Prayer is given here by Jesus.
Thus, to focus the debate on “babbling” and how many words are too many is to lose our way; it is to focus on words rather than to focus on the Father. And focusing on the Father is the real goal of Jesus in this midpoint of the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus insists, “Your Father knows what you need.” In teaching this he invites us to a deep and trusting relationship with his Father.
Consider the following analogy: if I am going to make a request of some powerful person I don’t really know who has something I need, I will approach the moment of request nervously. I will likely rehearse my speech and even ask others for advice in order to carefully craft it. I will also likely multiply words and try to say a lot quickly, attempting various entreaties that appeal to several motives he might have. I do this since I do not really know the person or what words might “work” to produce the desired result. Thus anxiety and a lack of a personal relationship will tend to make me nervously multiply words to try to “cover all the bases.”
But how differently I will approach the moment if I go to ask a beloved and well-known friend or caring family member. I will speak plainly and unassumingly. I will not nervously prattle on, and would find little need to rehearse a speech or get others to craft my message. I would simply and plainly, and confidently state my request.
And this is what Jesus is teaching. He is summoning us to a deep and trusting relationship with his Father, a tender, affectionate relationship wherein we experience that we are sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. And in this experience of our Father we do not feel anxious about asking him anything. Neither do we feel the need to carefully craft our words, or multiply our words to coax an unwilling potentate. We are not praying merely to the “Deity” or the Godhead. Our Father is not a stranger, or at least should not be experienced by us this way. We are praying to our Father who loves us and whom we love. We speak naturally, affectionately, confidently, plainly, and unassumingly. And if we do multiply words, it is only out of an extravagance of love, not because we think that such a tactic is necessary to “spring the result.”
It is true that Jesus tells us elsewhere to persevere in prayer, and persist in asking. But this is different than nervously or superstitiously multiplying words, or thinking we need to use certain catch-phrases, etc.
Here then is the heart of Jesus’ message: your Father knows what you need. That is, your Father loves you. Speak to him in this confidence; come to realize that you are his beloved children in me and approach him reverently, but naturally, lovingly, and without pretension.
To focus merely on words (how many and what kind), is to miss the message.