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. (Matthew 6:5)
For the last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at the subject of giving as one of the 3 main symbols of piety at the time of Jesus. This week, and for quite some time, we will be looking at the next symbol of piety that Jesus addresses – prayer. Jesus is going to give us the richest teaching on prayer ever taught, but first He is going to address the wrong way of praying – as showing off!
Jesus again uses the word ‘hypocrite’ to describe the people who love praying in public places. If you remember a couple of weeks ago, I said that a hypocrite was another word for an actor; someone who is putting on a show, playing a role of someone they are not. This was exactly what was going on here. These ‘prayers’ were all about the performance. It was all designed to show how pious they were.
The Synagogue and street corners were normal places to pray, because devout Jews would stop whatever they were doing at the appointed hour of the day and pray (much like Muslims do today). The appointed times were; 9am, midday and 3 in the afternoon and you can imagine these pious Jews making sure they were in a very public space at these times for maximum exposure! They were not seekers after God but seekers after popularity and honour. They just wanted to be seen and that was their reward (all of it!).
I don’t believe that Jesus was condemning all public prayer. As was very often the case, He was addressing his listener’s attitudes. He was showing them (and us) that we can very often be more worried about our reputation and what people think about us, than what God thinks. God is much more interested in our character than our reputation. One version of Philippians 2:7 is that Jesus made himself of ‘no reputation’ (New King James version). If Jesus wasn’t worried about His reputation, then neither should we.
I want to bring this closer to home and consider how this might look in our day. Very few of us have access to a synagogue or are likely to stand on street corners and pray but we can sometimes have a wrong attitude when we pray in public. I think certain attitudes can affect us when we pray in corporate prayer meetings and as I have given some thought to this, I must confess I have been guilty of some of these attitudes too. How many of us like to demonstrate how knowledgeable we are when we pray out loud in a prayer meeting, quoting verse after verse we have memorised? Or pray for an extended time for added effect? We can show off without even noticing it. Our natural inclination to be popular and well thought of takes over.
God is not interested in how long our prayers are or whether we have remembered lots of verses to quote. He is looking at your heart, your desire and your sincerity. We have such an awesome privilege when we pray, to speak to the God of the universe. Let’s not spoil it and ignore Him to impress others.
Next week we will look at how God wants us to pray most of the time – in secret!