When You Pray

Matthew 6:5 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 others. 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 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. 9 Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come, your 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.” 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Jesus moves from one important topic to the next on and on through the sermon on the mount. He describes and clarifies what it means to be a follower of God. Just as in our day, there was much confusion in the first century regarding being a spiritual person who loves God. Many thought it meant that certain rituals must be followed, that if you just do the prescribed works at the right time on a regular basis then you would be in with God and He would smile upon you. You know, just follow the list, do the list, be careful to do the right things at the right time and God will like you, He will be proud of you and He will be honored to have you as His child.

We can fall into that kind of thinking as well. We can think that if we just do good works, do good works consistently, then He will like us. Or even as a bonus do the right works in front of other people and not only will God like us but other people will like us too.

Take the matter of prayer. Jesus talks about prayer. Prayer is the most intimate spiritual communication between man and God, from man to God. It is man reaching out to God, reaching out sometimes in great pain and agony, with tremendous emotion. It is man reaching out to God in praise and adoration. It is man asking God to have mercy on him, to protect and guide him. It is real communication with the most awesome being in all of the universe. It is God bending his ear to hear from His children. It is an incredible thing, prayer is. A close and intimate fellowship made possible because God is merciful and He cares.
This is what prayer is, yet like all things that God has created and made available to us, we, mankind, have such an innate ability to just reduce it from a most meaningful spiritual endeavor to a meaningless effort used for self promotion. We can take such a gift meant for our comfort and joy and make it a means for pride.

Jesus sets many of us straight with His words regarding prayer. It is important that we see what Jesus is getting at here. Remember, prayer is not for God’s benefit, God can do without our prayers. In fact, God can do without us. But God has chosen to pour out His grace upon us. He has chose to bless us with good things both now and for eternity. And part of this grace that He has given us is this ability to come before Him in prayer. Jesus is not interested in setting us right regarding prayer because He or the Father need to hear from us or because they are missing out on something because we don’t pray right, no. If we are not praying according to God’s way then it is you and I who are missing out on the benefit of prayer. Christ is looking out for us here—He is leading us to pray for our good because He cares.

In fact He begins with the words, “When you pray.” Jesus indicates that God’s people will be a people who pray. These are the same words he used concerning giving to and helping the poor. In chapter 6 verse 2 Jesus said, “when you give to the needy,” not if you give to the needy. Just as true believers are compassionate toward those in need, they are also a people who will pray.

The word “when” as in “when you pray" may also express a rejection for fixed ritualistic type praying as well. And the Jews of the first century were really big on ritualistic, rote praying. Praying for many had become simply what you do at certain times just because it was what you were supposed to do in contrast to intimate fellowship with a merciful, caring God.

Let me give you a few examples of this. First century Jews were expected to recite the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. In the morning it was to be recited while standing and in the evening while reclining.

Prayers were prayed at the beginning and at the end of each meal with different prayers depending on what was on the menu. There was a prayer for fruit, another for vegetables, another for bread, for unripe fruit, for sour wine and so on. The rabbis even debated over what amount of food was necessary to consider it a meal. They decided that if the food amounted to the size of an olive it was a meal and the prayers were mandatory. At the end of the Sabbath three prayers were recited, one for the lamp, one for the spices and one for the end of the Sabbath.

And there were many more required prayers: A prayer that was required when approaching a miracle, seeing a shooting star, experiencing an earthquake, hearing thunder, seeing lightening. Prayers that were offered when seeing a mountain, hills, the sea, rivers and a desert. Prayers were even required when getting a new cooking container, when entering town and when leaving a town.

I’m not sure how they kept up with all this! And if you think about the origin of these prayers we can imagine that they may have been started for very good reasons. For instance, someone might say, “If we see the splendor of the Lord in the presence of a great mountain, we ought to stop and acknowledge that God is great, mighty, powerful and creative. We should praise Him. And if we see the sky light up by the lightening that He creates we should prayerfully acknowledge His presence in it. And we should pray in the morning and at night, when we eat and when we rest.” I can see the good in many of these things. The problem may be when all of it is required and pressed upon people by religious leaders.

What are we commanded to do? We are commanded to pray always. The whenever or when you pray that Jesus starts with alludes to this. Jesus assumes a constant life of prayer: As you pray, whenever you pray, as you pray always. So prayer is important not just at certain times or at particular events but always.

Now, Jesus says how not to pray.

Matthew 6:5 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 others.

A hypocrite was a word used in the first century to describe and actor, an actor in a play. An actor is one who plays a part, who pretends to be someone else, pretends to be someone he is not. Rarely does an actor perform solely as himself. I learned this from a friend of mine who was really into theater: Sometimes a person can play so many parts on stage that they really begin to lose touch with who they really are. Have you heard of that? This friend of mine explained to me that he would get so into his part, into his role playing some character that even when he would leave the set, he would continue the part at home or out with friends or wherever. It was like he could not let the role go and be himself.

Today we don’t really use the word hypocrite to describe an actor or actress but instead as someone who just pretends in life, pretends to be someone they are not. They are not being true to who they are but are putting on a show to be seen by others. Some are such good actors that they begin to think they are this other person rather than themselves.

Jesus says, hypocrites are those who pray but pray for attention. They pray as if they are someone they are not. They are pretending, in this case, to be religious and to be God lovers, to be spiritual when in fact they are none of those things. They are instead lovers of self-seeking attention, adoration, even affirmation from people around them.

So this solemn duty and joy of prayer becomes a selfish pursuit for attention. Any spiritual endeavor can end up this way—teaching, counseling, evangelizing, attending church, obeying parents, serving. Any of these things can be selfish pursuits but in this passage Jesus focuses on prayer.

There was certainly nothing wrong with standing and praying in the synagogue in and of itself. But it was a problem if the motive was simply to be seen by others. To be asked to pray aloud in a synagogue was a big deal. The public prayers were usually done by the messenger of the congregation who would stand before the scrolls as he prayed. Those who were believed to be most spiritual would be those asked to pray in this way publicly.

That should be a humble task yet for the hypocrite it was a proud moment of attention getting fame. “Look at me,” he may have thought, “Look at me praying here, of all the people here I am the one chosen to pray.” This would be a problem. In fact, this kind of praying is not really praying at all.

Another place the hypocrite loved to pray was on street corners, high traffic areas. The Greek text says street corners on the broad streets. So not just any old street corner or not some remote street corner but on the busiest of street corners. By praying on the busiest of street corners the hypocrite would be sure to be seen by the greatest number of people.

Putting on a show to impress other people with their deeds, such is the life of a hypocrite. What does Jesus say about this? Jesus warns that those who pervert prayer in such ways have received their reward. If that is what you want, shallow attention from others, adoration of man, well okay, here you go, that is all of what you will receive. Whatever good feelings you get from your hypocrisy is what you get, the temporal praise from people, that is it.

But there is another way, a truly spiritual way that is real and that is pleasing to our Lord. Here is what Jesus says:

Matthew 6:6 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.

Faithful prayer in private. Real prayer to the Father, no human audience, no crowds, no show, just private prayer alone with the Father.

What does this private prayer accomplish? Well one thing is it takes away perhaps our fleshly tendency to impress others. Private prayers give us an opportunity to bare our souls before God, to be completely honest before Him without some fear of what others think. It is a way to be transparent and authentic in intimate communication with God. Our words don’t have to be rehearsed or perfect, just simple honesty where God will understand our intent—so refreshing for those who truly want to commune with our heavenly Father. Jesus further presses His point:

Matthew 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.

Again, the desire for attention can lead to us using empty phrases, impressive language, spiritual talk just to be heard by others. We don’t have to pray that way.

How is your prayer life? I mean your private prayer life? Are you spending time with the Lord in private prayer? Are you praising Him, rejoicing in Him, sharing your heart, making requests for others and yourself? Is prayer real for you? Is praying for you true communion with the Lord? Do you only pray when others are around? If you don’t have a robust prayer life, I want to encourage you to begin praying privately this week, begin even today. Go before your God in prayer, along with Him in prayer.

Now, not next week, because I will be out next Sunday, but the week following, we will begin going through what is commonly called the Lord’s Prayer. I am looking forward to that. Jesus gives us an example of prayer and I think it will be beneficial for us to really understand what He says and its purpose for us. So begin reading through it and become familiar with it if you aren’t already.

Here it is. Jesus said:

Matthew 6:9 Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come, your 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.” 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 6:5 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 others. 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 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.