Saturday, April 3, 2021

Did Jesus forbid "vain repetitions"?

There are plenty of Catholic articles that address the issue of "vain repetition" which Jesus forbade in Matthew 6:7, so rather than repeat them I want to share some unique findings that most of those articles don't tell you. 
First of all, it is shocking how everyone automatically assumes "vain repetition" is even an accurate  translation in the first place! The Greek word that Matthew uses for "vain repetitions" is a single term, battalogeo (see here). This Greek word is found nowhere else in the Bible, and apparently nowhere else in Greek literature (see here). This detail alone means we cannot be too dogmatic about the meaning. The Greek term is a compound of "batta" and "words". You can look to see that scholars admit they aren't sure what "batta" means, so they can only propose various theories based on the rest of the verse! So not only does the Greek term not clearly suggest "repetition," much less "vain," there's actually plenty of room to propose other meanings. Scholars seem divided on whether "batta" refers to an ancient pagan king who "stuttered" (which could mean various things), or whether "batta" refers to a pagan poet who wrote long drawn out poems, or whether "batta" is a made up word and equivalent to our term "blah blah blah" (i.e. babbling). The last option seems the most reasonable if the word appears nowhere else, and thus Jesus was saying something along the lines of: "When you pray, do not pray blah blah blah like the pagans".

From this first point onward, we should stop giving the so-called translation "vain repetition" any credibility at all. The origin of "vain repetitions" seems to actually be a Protestant agenda to "translate" the Bible into English with an anti-Catholic spin. This is one reason Catholics were always suspicious of Protestant Bibles. Think about it, how often "vain repetition" is turned into an instant attack on the Rosary, when this one Greek term doesn't actually clearly say anything about "vain repetition"? This Protestant bias is confirmed in the fact the King James Version is what translated "vain repetitions," whereas some honest mainstream Protestant translations use other phrases (see here), such as "do not keep on babbling like pagans" (NIV), or "do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do" (ESV). The Catholic Bibles that I consulted say "speak not much, as the heathens" (Douay-Rheims and Latin Vulgate), and "do not babble like the pagans" (NAB), and "empty phrases" (RSVCE). Again, using the word "repetition" in one's translation is disingenuous per the limited data we have, and can really only signify anti-Catholic bias.

As far as Church Father commentary goes, St Augustine seems to endorse the "much speaking" reading, when commenting on this passage says:
But when you pray, says He, do not speak much, as the heathen do; for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. As it is characteristic of the Jewish hypocrites to exhibit themselves to be gazed at when praying, so it is characteristic of the heathen, i.e. of the Gentiles, to think they are heard for their much speaking. And in reality, every kind of much speaking comes from the Gentiles, who make it their endeavour to exercise the tongue rather than to cleanse the heart.
And St John Chrysostom, also commenting on this verse, says:
calling frivolousness, here, by the name of vain repetition: as when we ask of God things unsuitable, kingdoms, and glory, and to get the better of enemies, and abundance of wealth, and in general what does not at all concern us
Augustine sees the emphasis on how merely saying a lot isn't the point of prayer, while Chrysostom sees the emphasis on praying for Gentile things such as wealth and fame.

Tertullian interprets it as "we think not that the Lord must be approached with a train of words" since the Our Father that Jesus is about to teach is not only brief but also "is comprised an epitome of the whole Gospel" (On Prayer, Ch1).

Origen reads it as: "For according to the passage in the Gospel only heathen babble, being quite insensible of great or heavenly petitions and therefore sending up every prayer for the material and the external. To a babbling heathen, then, is he like who asks for things below from the Lord who dwells in heaven and above the heights of the heavens." The heathen don't know God as benevolent Father and thus ask for all the wrong things, as if God didn't really care for them. When your mind is focused only on earth, you suddenly want all kinds of earthly comforts, and are oblivious to internal matters like forgiveness and heavenly realities.

St Cyprian seems to address this passage when he says "we ought to be mindful of modesty and discipline - not to throw abroad our prayers indiscriminately, with unsubdued voices, nor to cast to God with tumultuous wordiness a petition that ought to be commended to God by modesty; for God is the hearer, not of the voice, but of the heart" (On the Lord's Prayer). Cyprian says the Gentiles do not pray with modesty, or even formally in a structured manner, and see prayer's efficacy in the sound rather than the state of one's heart. 

St Gregory of Nyssa actually explains what he thinks the mystery word means:
"It is worth discussing what is meant by the term battalogia (babbling), so that by realizing its sense we may avoid what is forbidden. It seems to me that He is castigating empty minds and crushing those who immerse themselves in vain desires. Hence He invented this strange novelty of a word in order to rebuke those foolish people who rush hither and thither in order to gratify their desires for completely useless things. For the sensible and rational word, which is concerned with useful things, is properly called a logos (word), but that which is poured forth by vain desires for empty pleasures is not a logos, but a battalogia. . . . They daydream about riches, marriages and kingdoms and big cities that are to be called by their name . . . In the same way if a man during prayer is not intent on what profits his soul, but would rather that God should fall in with the emotional uncertainties of his own mind, he is truly like a silly battalogos, who prays that God should become a willing servant of his own crazy ideas. To give an example. Someone approaches God in prayer, but failing to appreciate the exalted greatness whom he is addressing, unwittingly insulted His majesty with nothing but base petitions." (On the Lord's Prayer)
Special thanks to this Catholic website that lists the Church Father's commentaries on the Lord's Prayer.

Next, someone suggested that Jesus might have further explained Himself later on in the Sermon, consider:
Matt 6:7 And when you pray, do not "heap up empty phrases" as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Matt 6:30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.

In both passages, the Gentiles are mentioned as having the wrong mindset, and both are within the context of needing to affirm God as a loving Father who looks out for your needs. With this in mind, it's not so much that the Gentile problem is "vain repetition" (which is irrelevant here), or even babbling incoherently (since the Gentiles didn't need to babble), but rather that the Gentiles didn't realize there was a God who loved them, just as a Father loves and looks out for His children. The "gods" within the Gentile mindset was deficient, as Yahweh was only known in shadows, compared to the divine revelation given to the Israelites. The babbling could refer to using 'magic words' or long prayers to 'cover all the bases' (e.g. "please give me food, and drink, and clothing, and heat, and shelter, and..."), or it could refer to simply praying with ignorance of Who God is (e.g. "God, if you can hear me, please help"). The Our Father thus raises the mind to heavenly things and spiritual things, which the Gentiles would have inadequate knowledge of. Even asking for our "daily bread" (Greek: "more-than-essential bread") has been interpreted by many Church Fathers to be a reference to the spiritual food of the Eucharist, not mere bread. As for forgiveness of sins, in the prior chapter Jesus spoke of the need of forgiving enemies, which Jesus says the Gentiles typically do not do, since it is seemingly irrational. And when it comes to forgiveness of sins in general, one Catholic fellow that I know said he was speaking to an atheist woman about the forgiveness of sins, and she cried because it was such a beautiful concept that she desired but forgiveness of her sins had no place in her world-view.

Obviously, there is nothing intrinsically "vain" or "babbling" or "empty" about the Rosary, but in honesty there is a risk in Christians falling into the errors that Jesus warned about, hence the reason Jesus gave us the warning. It is possible to "mindlessly repeat" any prayer, and we can all fall into this trap with even the Our Father and Hail Mary, which is why sometimes I follow the method of St Alphonus by changing the words slightly so as to not make the prayer so mechanical. In his famous book, The Secret of the Rosary, St Alphonsus Liguori has a section titled "A WAY TO CURB OUR IMAGINATION AND TO LESSEN DISTRACTIONS" during the Hail Mary whereby after we pray "blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus," we add our own tag corresponding to the mystery we are currently praying (e.g. "and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, risen from the dead. Holy Mary, Mother of God..." (link to full book here). And even when it comes to praying in a liturgical language, it is important to make an effort to learn what those words mean. But more than anything, we must not pray as if God didn't really care about us, as if He wasn't a loving Father, as if He wasn't looking out for us, as if our prayers were merely a means of getting by in this world drifting along on our own.

"He prayed a third time, saying the same words again."
-Matthew 26:44


Gary said...

Thank you Nick for this important clarification. On another note, I know you are busy with many things but I miss your more frequent contributions and insights. Thank you again

Nick said...

Hi Gary, thanks for your post. I have various posts that are in "drafts" that I've not had the time to finish up, but I will hopefully be posting more than once a month.