For my class, Life of Prayer, we get to prepare briefs (about 700-800 word essays) on selected teachings on prayer by Jesus, looking at the context, the cultural and social background of the day, what commentators say, as well as our own reflections on the message of the Scripture. Last week, we wrote on Matthew 6:5-8.
5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 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. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (RSV)
These verses appear in Jesus’ well-known Sermon on the Mount, contained in chapters five through seven of Matthew. Jesus’ teaching on prayer falls between his instructions on almsgiving and fasting. It is worthwhile to note that in each of these sections Jesus first addresses what not to do, before advising the disciples and the crowd on what they should do. Matthew 6:5-8 is primarily the “do nots” of praying, with the exception of verse six.
It was common in Jesus’ day to stand while praying, and “it was probably common for pious people to recite their prayers individually in the synagogue.” (IVP Bible Background Dictionary) From the context of the verses, it seems that Jesus was not condemning the practice of praying while standing, but of the attitude displayed by some Jews. Jesus indicates that there is true reward from God in prayer that is to God and only God, without the demonstrating for others that existed in synagogues and on street corners. The Bible Exposition Commentary points out that Jesus is not saying it is wrong to ever pray in public, but that it is wrong to only pray in public where others can see you. We should not abandon our private prayer lives, then pray aloud in public as though we have a strong prayer life and close relationship with God. Jesus calls this hypocrisy. In one of his homilies on Matthew, St. Chrysostom says that in praying thus, the hypocrites are casting their eyes around them to others, which is why they receive their reward on earth. Those who cast their eyes to God receive from God.
Jesus goes on to give further instructions on how to pray, saying “do not heap up empty phrases.” It was common in the Gentile world to pray on and on in order to placate their gods; in addition, the Jews had developed prescribed prayers. This does not seem to forbid long or pre-written prayers, but indicates that prayers should have our heart’s desire behind them. Instead of babbling empty words in order to placate God (or look good to our fellow Christian), we are to speak from the heart. All our prayers, whether long or short or spontaneous or prepared, should have the heart and focus of the one praying behind it.
Verse eight indicates that God already knows what we need before we ask, so what is the point of praying at all? This seems to be reminding Jesus’ listeners that God does not need each person to tell Him of what their needs are, but that prayer has a different purpose – that of communicating with the Father (v. 6b). Barclay says, “No nation ever had a higher ideal of prayer than the Jews had; and no religion ever ranked prayer higher in the scale of priorities than the Jews did.” Jesus here is pointing a finger at the hypocrites who pray loud, empty words in public places in order to be seen by fellow Jews as more righteous. Jesus is instructing people to use prayer for its true purpose of daily renewing their relationship with their Father in heaven. “Prayer (even if offered in the context of public worship or a prayer gathering) is to be directed to God in secret and not to be made a public spectacle to display the “righteousness” of the one who prays” (Barclay, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33a). Again, it seems that Jesus is objecting not to the practice, but to the attitude behind it.
In Sermon 26, John Wesley says about Matthew 6:5-8, “Prayer is the lifting up of the heart to God: All words of prayer, without this, are mere hypocrisy.” Barclay seems to agree, quoting a rabbinic adage that says, “If a man says his prayers, as if to get through a set task, that is no prayer.” On reflection, this is a lesson that I have definitely taken to heart. How many times have I let my mind wander in church as I repeated The Lord’s Prayer? I know the prayer “by heart”, but am I really letting the prayer touch and transform my heart? While I don’t leap up to pray in groups, I can easily lead prayer if asked so that it seems I am more spiritual than I am, even if I haven’t prayed in private for days. I need to remember not only to pray from the heart, but also to daily renew communication with my Father in heaven. Prayer should be more than a task to check off my list; it should be a cornerstone of my spiritual growth and transformation.