Arguing About Words but Missing the Message: A Meditation on Jesus’Admonition not to Babble in Prayer.


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.

10 Replies to “Arguing About Words but Missing the Message: A Meditation on Jesus’Admonition not to Babble in Prayer.”

  1. I wonder if Jesus would have ever used a word like consubstantial when teaching his followers how to pray.

    1. Ouch! It sounds like you’re taking a shot at the Nicene Creed here, Robert.

      Of course, it is worth pointing out that the term “consubstantialis” (homoousios) does not appear in the New Testament, never mind as a term used by Our Lord to describe himself. Historians have suggested that it was imposed on the Council of Nicaea by Constantine himself, mainly as a means of marginalizing the Arians. This is one of the many interesting topics in the history of early Christianity.

      1. Yes, occasionally iotas DO matter. Of course I ought to clarify that my article here does not mean that words do not matter but that IN THIS CASE debating about the word babble is to miss the point. Thus, I would agree, I think Robert’s point goes too far. Jesus didn’t use a lot of words which the Church, his body and presence in the world later found necessary to use in order to clarify disputes. Those words, (e.g. Trinity etc) are important and very valuable.

          1. Esqueeze me. No offense. Just an observation. It was One in Being with the Father for so many years and then they felt a need to change the terminology. Does this somehow universally translate better? I’m sure many Catholics in all the other countries who profess the Crred in their native language had to go to a dictionary for the definition and doubt their creed was any less sincere than before the change. Although it has increased my vocabulary, I haven’t found an opportunity to use it in conversation ouside of the creed. I would guess it is consubstantial with the old version.

          2. “Consubstantial” is simply a more literal translation. The Latin word is “consubstantialis”. Sure, you’re not going to use “consubstantial” in conversation, but who cares? The use of the word “consubstantial” is simply a reflection of the contentious Christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries.

  2. Whether many or few, our words of love and prayer to Our Father should be from our heart.

    As for “consubstantial,” that isn’t in a prayer, it is in our profession of faith, what we believe. It is the accurate translation of the Latin, which was the norm for centuries. We could go back to full Latin or maybe Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic and really let Catholics learn how to pray as the Church has prayed throughout the centuries. The problem is that our Liturgy became so weak as it was dumbed down to the point of uselessness. The more it comes back to being the Holy Sacrifice that it is, the better for everyone. If you can’t get the word out, offer it up and pray on it.

    1. We Catholics learn the truth from the Church herself, through the teaching of the Magisterium. We learned the fullness of truth about Jesus and His relation to God the Father and the Holy Spirit only after decades of contention over who, exactly, Jesus was. Christological disputes were worked out in the 4th century Council of Nicaea, but dissent was not fully put to rest until the Council of Chalcedon in the following century. Meanwhile many beautiful liturgies were developed, differing slightly from one another in form. We have many such liturgies, including that of St. John Chrysostom, whose liturgy uses the Apostles Creed and not the fuller, more theologically nuanced Nicene Creed. The full teaching of Nicaea, that Jesus was of the same substance with the Father (homoousios in Greek, consubstantialis in Latin, “of the same substance” in English) was thus not spoken in early liturgies.

      You seem to be suggesting that any liturgy which fails to call Jesus “consubstantial,” preferably by the use of Latin or some other language traceable back to the very beginning of the life of the Church, is the wrong liturgy. A weak liturgy, dumbed down perhaps to the point of uselessness? The difficulty here is that you’re simply wrong about the use of “consubstantial.” It never entered into early liturgies, simply because the Church did not reach the point of consensus about the meaning of “consubstantial” until the 4th century. It is the Magisterium, headed by the Holy Father, which has taught us the orthodox truth about Jesus, and it is this same Magisterium which tells us which liturgies are acceptable and which are not.

  3. “In fact, Jesus mentions the Father a dozen times in Matthew 6.”
    There’s the number Twelve yet again. I wonder what (and if) the significance.
    Twelve tribes, Twelve disciples and, in other places drawing from Scripture, such things as Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.
    Sometimes a person is reported to have been born with twelve fingers and twelve toes (such as Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII of England who broke away to start the Anglican Church) I’ve encountered speculation about it being a Nephalim gene surfacing which may imply six fingers and toes on angels and a, perhaps base twelve, rather than our base ten.
    Food for endless and, possibly meaningless, speculation of of significance and answers that I haven’t encountered? Or something else.
    Admit I’m a bit off topic but, it is mentioned.

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