“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 others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 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.
“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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” – Matthew 6:5-8 ESV
The Jews were a prayerful people. Prayer was an important part of their religious practice. They had prayers, like the Shema, that were to be recited both morning and evening. Services were held throughout the day at the synagogue where the people of Israel would gather for prayer. So, prayer was not uncommon or unfamiliar among those who heard Jesus speak that day on the hillside. But Jesus was not promoting the necessity of prayer, He was trying to expose the false motivation behind their prayers.
As He has done throughout His sermon, Jesus begins with a warning against hypocrisy – a form of play-acting, where outward appearances were meant to deceive or delude. The Greek word is hypokritēs and was used to describe an actor in a play. An actor’s job was to portray a particular character, altering his voice and appearance to give the illusion that he was someone else. A good actor was able to distort reality and suspend belief, if only for a short period of time.
The problem Jesus is attempting to address is the presence of hypocrisy in matters of faith. Posing and pretending was not to be part of the life of a child of God. Prayer was important to God. He considered the communication between Himself and His chosen people as vital and worthy of reverence. He had provided prayer as a means by which men could express their needs to Him, but also declare His goodness and glory. They could ask things of Him, but they were also expected to offer praises to Him for all He had done for them already.
And yet, prayer had become just another means of promoting personal piety. Praying in public, where others could see and hear you, was done to get noticed and to seek the admiration of others for your superior spirituality. Public praying was a way to put your righteousness on display, for all to see. But Jesus says, “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them” (Matthew 6:5 NLT).
He redefines the purpose of prayer. It was not to get noticed by men, but heard by God. Prayer was not meant to be a public display of your piety or personal righteousness. Remember what He said just a few verses earlier? “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1 ESV). Like alms-giving, prayer had become nothing more than a means to an end, and the end was the praise of men. When Jesus warns them not to practice “your righteousness” before other people, He is not offering them a compliment for their apparent righteousness. He is not telling them that their giving of alms and public prayers were righteous acts. He is describing their actions as self-righteousness. They were guilty of displaying a self-produced brand of righteousness. And just so we’re clear, Jesus is not saying that alms-giving and public prayer are wrong. He is simply using these two things as examples of good and godly things that had become misunderstood and misused by those who were desperately wanting others to see them as something they were not. In a desperate desire to be viewed by their peers as righteous and holy, they did everything to get noticed.
But Jesus tells them that they are focused on the wrong audience. They are busy trying to convince others of their righteousness when it should have been God they were worried about. He should have been the focus of their prayers. Rather than wasting their time trying to convince others of their own righteousness, they would have been better off confessing their unrighteousness to God. It was Os Guinness who wrote, “I live before the audience of One – before others I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to prove.”
It is important that we recognize that Jesus is not condemning public prayer. But prayer is intended, first and foremost, to be a spiritual activity. It is meant to be a conversation between man and God. Prayer is intended for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It is a way for man to give to God (glory, honor, adoration). But it also a means by which men can get from God (forgiveness, healing, guidance). Jesus is rejecting the idea of righteousness being inextricably linked to public prayerfulness. He is saying that, if you pray to impress men, you will fail to gain approval from God. Acts of righteousness done with nothing more than recognition in mind are not acts of righteousness at all. In a sense, they become nothing more than right actions done for the wrong reasons.
Jesus is exposing the kind of prayer that is self-focused and meant to get you seen and heard. It’s prayer meant to impress, not confess. It’s prayer meant to gain the praise of men, but that fails to offer praise to God. It’s prayer designed to boost our reputation before men and that lacks confession of our transgressions toward God.
So, what are we to do? Not pray? No, Jesus challenges His audience to rethink their perspective on prayer. He tells them to go into their room, shut the door and pray to God – in private – where no one else can see. And God, who sees all, will not only see them but hear and reward them. He will bless them, approve of them, and express His pleasure with them by answering their prayers. The apostle John would later expand on the message of Jesus,
And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. – 1 John 5:14-15 NLT
In essence, Jesus is telling us that if we pray to impress others, we will get exactly what we seek: Their praise. But we won’t get the approval of God. If getting noticed for our prayers is more important to us than getting our prayers answered by God, we will become well-known and revered for our prayer life, but God won’t receive glory for answering our prayers. Prayers prayed to get noticed by men, will always fail to get men to notice God. But our responsibility as God’s children is to bring glory to Him, not us. We are here to point men and women to God, not to us. We are meant to lift Him up, not ourselves.
Jesus goes on to describe an aspect of prayer with which we all struggle. How do you get God to hear and answer you? Even if you pray in private, where no one can hear you but God, how do you make sure He really does hear you? Once again, Jesus exposes a misconception. He states, “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again” (Matthew 6:7 NLT).
When you talk to God, don’t try to impress Him with the length of your prayer or by the careful choice of your words. Don’t drone on and on, somehow thinking that God will be more prone to hear you if your prayers display a proper amount of fervor. It is neither the intensity or longevity of our prayers that cause God to answer. It is the motivation of the heart. James tells us, “when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong – you want only what will give you pleasure” (James 4:3 NLT). Wrong methods. Wrong motives. That’s the problem. Later on, in this same message, Jesus will say:
“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” – Matthew 7:7-11 NLT
We are to ask. And we are to trust God for the answer. He isn’t going to give us something we don’t need or can’t use. But it’s important to remember that God is not going to give us everything we ask for because too often our motives are wrong. Also, we don’t always know what it is we actually need. We may think we need healing, but God knows that what we really need is increased faith. We may ask God for a solution to a financial need, but He knows that the real issue is spiritual in nature. We have a greed problem. So, rather than give us money, He teaches us to live within our means, learning to trust Him for our needs.
Sometimes, we spend far too much time asking God for things. But Jesus reminds us, “your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!” (Matthew 6:8 NLT). This doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to ask God for things, but that the purpose behind our prayer is not to share information with God, but to communicate our dependence upon Him. We don’t pray to keep God up to speed with all that is going on in our life. He already knows. We pray in order to convey to Him our complete reliance upon Him for everything in our life. Prayer is an act of submission to God. It is the adoration of God. It is a means by which we offer up our thankfulness for all that He has done and is doing in and around our life.
Prayer isn’t meant to get you noticed by men. But, on the other hand, it isn’t intended to get you noticed by God. He already knows everything there is to know about you. Prayer is an expression of humility to God, showing Him that we are completely dependent upon Him for all things. But how easy it is to make prayer an expression of pride and self-promotion. So, Jesus warns us not to pray that way. And then He provides us with an example of how to pray. But that’s for tomorrow.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.