Vain Repetition and the Catholic Church

Image of Rosary Beeds“Gotcha! Jesus said in Matthew 6:7, ‘But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking1‘ (King James version). See? All Catholic prayers are nothing more than vain repetition, a violation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!”

Here is another one of those “gotcha” verses that will often be tossed out by a non-Catholic trying to demonstrate how, allegedly, un-scriptural the Catholic Church is. Pointing to our Rosaries, litanies, and volumes of prayer books that we love to pray over and over again, they will attempt to link our devotionals to this verse, and Jesus’ supposed condemnation on all repetitious prayer. On the surface, it does look as though Jesus is doing just that… condemning repetitious prayer, but, I think we can easily demonstrate that this is not the case, and, to the contrary, we will see several examples of how repetitious prayer is a fundamental part of our contemplation of God. To start, let’s see how other translations render this same verse.

Matthew 6:7 (RSVCE)

7 “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words.

Matthew 6:7 (NIV)

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.

Matthew 6:7 (NLT)

“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again.

Matthew 6:7 (NAB)

7 In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.

Clearly, the Greek word βατταλογέω (battalogesete) is more frequently rendered as “babble” rather than “vain repetition” in this passage. In light of this, we can see how the emphasis is not on the words as much as on the intent of the person praying. Said another way, its the “vanity” rather than the “repetition” that Jesus is pointing out here. “Hold on!” You might say, “You Catholics are ‘babbling’ when you pray your rosaries, its nothing but the empty words of others rather than your own words from your heart!” To which I would respond, “has God gifted you with the ability to know for certain the intent of the Catholic’s heart? Somehow are you able to say with 100% accuracy, that the Catholic is just mindlessly babbling the ‘Hail Mary’ for example, without attaching their own intentions to each as they pray?” Wow! If that’s true, that’s impressive, but, you and I both know that is not likely the case. Rather you are simply passing judgement upon another Christian, and reading into this verse your own interpretation instead of allowing the passage to inform you of its proper meaning and context.

Take the ‘Hail Mary’ prayer for instance, do you really want to say this is an “empty phrase?” The prayer is formulated from scripture itself. The first part “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you” is taken from the words of the Archangel Gabriel in Luke 1:28. The second line “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus” is taken from the words of Elizabeth in Luke 1:42, and the last line “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen” is also partly drawn from Elizabeth’s words to Our Lady when she calls Mary the “mother of my Lord” in verse 43. So where do we get the idea that Mary is, or should be, praying for us? Well, Jesus did give her to us on the cross in John 19:27, and we see her crowned as the Queen of Heaven in Revelation 12. The very role of the Queen Mother in the Kingdom of her son was to be an intercessor between the people and the king (for more detail on this, read my article “The Handmaid of the Lord, the intercessor of salvation history!”). If it were me, I would hesitate before ever slandering the Mother of Jesus, and any prayer drawn from scripture for that matter. The Catholic praying the Rosary is simply praying the Gospel, certainly you would agree that the Gospel is not “babbling”, or “empty phrases.”

Is there still an issue with repetition though? Let’s look back to Matthew 6 for the answer. Notice what Jesus teaches His disciples to do in the next line… the “Our Father” prayer!

Matthew 6:9–13 (RSVCE)

9 Pray then like this:

Our Father who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name. 10 Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread; 12 And forgive us our debts,

As we also have forgiven our debtors; 13 And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

Be honest… how many times have you prayed this prayer in your life? Wouldn’t you call that “repetitive?” In verse 9 Jesus tells them specifically to “Pray like this” which is a good indicator that repetition, in and of itself, is not the problem, but, rather, the intent of the person praying is of vital importance. Although there are some who interpret this to mean they are to create their own prayers based on this “model”, or design, rather than to actually pray this prayer as Jesus has given it to us. If you have spent any time around these “types” of Christians, and I have, having grown up in the Protestant tradition of the Church of Christ, you will notice that although they will always use “free-form” prayer, they tend to “repeat” the same phrases often when they pray. I guess the only difference is, it’s their words and not someone else’s… that must make it ok in their view. Notice too how long their prayers are, sometimes going on and on for several minutes, as though they will be better heard for “their many words”. Even before I became Catholic, I often wondered how these kinds of prayers fared against Matthew 6:7-8. Still not convinced the context is on intent and not repetition? Let’s look at another passage where Jesus makes this point about the intent of the person praying.

Luke 18:10–14 (RSVCE)

10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Did you notice which one used more words in their prayers? That’s right, the Pharisee! Jesus here focuses on the heart of each, not on what they did for a living, or which group they belonged too, or any other criteria. When you come to God in prayer, it will be your heart, not your words, that you will be judged by. This is the context of Matthew 6:7-8 as well.

If Jesus truly did condemn all “repetitious” prayer, then why did He practice it in His prayer to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane? If you look at Matthew 26:44, you will read “So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words.2 Seems strange for Jesus to break His own condemnation, don’t you think? If God dislikes “repetitious” prayer so much, then why do we see the Angeles being so repetitive in the prayers they proclaim before Him in Heaven itself in Isaiah 6:3? Or, even better, how about Revelation 4:8?

Revelation 4:8 (RSVCE)

8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing,

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,

who was and is and is to come!”

I don’t know about you, but, this seems awful “repetitious” to me, and right in front of God to boot. You would think they, if anyone, would know this was not allowed. Unless… unless they know that Jesus never forbid repetitious prayer, rather, he speaks of the heart of those that pray, rather than the words used to pray. With a sincere, contrite heart, uttering just the word “mercy” can be a powerful prayer. So too can spending all night in prayer to God, as Our Lord did on several occasions, like in Luke 6:12 for instance. Have you ever read the Psalms? They are replete with phrases used over and over again. Psalm 136 is a good example of this, repeating the phrase “for his steadfast love endures for ever” no less than twenty six times!

PSALM 136 (RSVCE)

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,

for his steadfast love endures for ever. 2 O give thanks to the God of gods,

for his steadfast love endures for ever. 3 O give thanks to the Lord of lords,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

4 to him who alone does great wonders,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

5 to him who by understanding made the heavens,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

6 to him who spread out the earth upon the waters,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

7 to him who made the great lights,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

8 the sun to rule over the day,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

9 the moon and stars to rule over the night,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

10 to him who smote the first-born of Egypt,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

11 and brought Israel out from among them,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

13 to him who divided the Red Sea in sunder,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

14 and made Israel pass through the midst of it,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

15 but overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

16 to him who led his people through the wilderness,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

17 to him who smote great kings,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

18 and slew famous kings,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

19 Sihon, king of the Amorites,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

20 and Og, king of Bashan,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

21 and gave their land as a heritage,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

22 a heritage to Israel his servant,

for his steadfast love endures for ever.

23 It is he who remembered us in our low estate,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

24 and rescued us from our foes,

for his steadfast love endures for ever;

25 he who gives food to all flesh,

for his steadfast love endures for ever.

26 O give thanks to the God of heaven,

for his steadfast love endures for ever.

Didn’t the Psalmist know that repetitive prayer is an offense against God? Here’s a better question; are not the Psalms divinely inspired by God? I think the conclusion is clear, Jesus did not condemn “repetitive” prayer, rather the mindless babbling of the vain and arrogant. We should take great strides to avoid reading our own understanding into a given verse, rather, we must seek the authors intended meaning, the context of the verse. In order to force a complete ban on all repetitive prayer upon Matthew 6:7-8, we would have to remove major sections of inspired text; and besides Martin Luther, who would do such a thing? Our Lord desires a contrite heart, not our many words. When we approach Him as such, our prayers, no matter how repetitive, no matter if they are our own or another’s, they become an acceptable offering to God. I like what St. John Chrysostom said in relation in Matthew 6:7-8.

St. Chrysostom: You do not then pray in order to teach God your wants, but to move Him, that you may become His friend by the importunity of your applications to Him, that you may be humbled, that you may be reminded of your sins.3

I’m not sure who said it, but, there is a saying that goes like this… “if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans!” So true! Prayer does not move God one way or another, to the contrary, it does move us… closer to Him! St. Therese of Lisieux once said about prayer, “I get what ever I want, because I want what ever I get!” The deeper our prayer life becomes, the more our priorities are aligned to God’s for our life. Through our prayer, God chips away at our rough edges in order to bring out the master piece hidden behind the stone. The Lord knows how much I need to be perfected, so prayer is an essential part of my day. It is in prayer, coupled with the frequent reception of the Sacraments, that the Lord performs His work of transforming us to be like Him! We want more than anything to be like Him… so let’s join those Angels, standing before God in Heaven, praying over and over again… “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”

 

About the Author:

Joe McClane – The Catholic Hack! – is the director and events coordinator for Fullness of Truth Catholic Evangelization Ministries, as well as an a Catholic New Media producer & Evangelist. He is married to his lovely wife Michelle and they have five children. The Catholic Hack | Catholic Apologetics, Theology & More!

1 The Holy Bible: King James Version. 2009 (Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version.) (Mt 6:7). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

2 Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britian). (1994). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, translated from the original tongues, being the version set forth A.D. 1611, Old and New Testament revised A.D. 1881-1885 and A.D. 1901 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1894), compared with the most ancient authories and revised A.D. 1952 (Apocrypha revised A.D. 1957) (Mt 26:44). New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.

3 Thomas Aquinas, S., & Newman, J. H. (1841). Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers, Volume 1: St. Matthew (221). Oxford: John Henry Parker.

About the Author: CatholicHack

Joe McClane is the General Manger of KSHJ 1430 AM on the Guadalupe Radio Network, Catholic radio in Houston, TX. Joe spent the last five years serving as the Director and Events Coordinator for the Fullness Of Truth Catholic Evangelization Ministries based in North Houston. Joe has been married, going on thirteen years, to Michelle, and they homeschool their five children. Joe and his family are parishioners of Annunciation Catholic Church in downtown Houston.
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