All of us pray and have our own ways of saying prayers. Prayer not only connects us to God but also to one another through which we find comfort, strength and guidance. It is both communal and personal. While each of us have our own religious affiliations prayer serves as a cornerstone. If prayer is an expression of the heart – at ease or unease – at any given moment it has to go beyond the need to conform to a certain religious standard. And it is in the desire to conform the act of prayer to an external standard that prayer often slips into becoming a ritual, and when prayer becomes a mere religious ritual (not to say that rituals are wrong), the essence of prayer is found wanting. Hence, I believe there are no right words, no right postures and no right time to prayer.
First, prayer isn’t a passive act; it is an act of engagement with realities and people around us. Often times our prayers are rhetorical and are never translated into transformative acts, and there lies the problem. Second, prayer isn’t just a private act but a public one. When I say prayer is a public act I am not talking of one standing and piously reciting prayers in a public space (and annoying people) but rather engaging in acts of justice and kindness. Too often the personal aspect of prayer and the emphasis on a personal relationship with God (alone) has resulted in a life of escapism, escapism from the realities that we need to engage with as people of faith.
I am reminded of a certain passage in the Bible that, perhaps, reveals to us the consequences of prayers going wrong. In Luke 21:1-4 Jesus is with his disciples seated in the temple. While the rich come in and offer their treasures into the temple treasury, they notice a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. We’ve often used the widow’s act of giving to induce congregations to give whatever they have at that moment to the Church or God (often people don’t really know whom they’re giving to and to some both seem to be the same). In doing that we’ve actually missed the message of the text.
A reading of this pericope within the larger context of what precedes and succeeds this incident is critical. Luke 20 ends with a strong admonition of the Scribes. Verse 47a says, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Likewise Luke 21:5-6 talk of the destruction of the temple. Sandwiched between these verses is the story of the poor widow. Therefore, Jesus is not applauding the widow for her offering but rather questioning the piety of the religious leaders and the very purpose of the temple. On the one hand, the duty of the temple was to take care of the poor, the widows and the orphans and the fact that the widow was poor – giving what little she had – is a clear reflection of the temple’s failure in performing its God-given duties. On the other hand, the scribes, who were the Teachers of the Law, aware of all the laws, moral codes, and requirements in Judaism yet failed to provide for the poor, the orphans and the widows. Their devouring of widows’ houses, reciting long prayers, and failure to do acts of kindness only made the poor poorer. This is what happens when prayers that form our spirituality are devoid of action. This is what happens when prayers go wrong – the poor get poorer and the world gets sicker.
James 2:15-16 says “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” Prayers go wrong when it is ritualistic, individualistic and rhetorical. It is only when prayers are turned into deeds – acts of justice and kindness – our prayers will be biblical, ethical, relational and importantly transformational.
May Jesus teach us to PRAY!