Resurrected Living
"What are you going to do with your new resurrected life? This is the heroic question." Richard Rohr

How Not to Pray

Pharisee-and-Publican-1901-image

“Do not be like the hypocrites when you pray. For they love to be seen in their places of worship and other public places. Pray to God the Father in a private and quiet place. He sees you and he will reward you. When you pray do not use meaningless words like the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard because of their repetitions and abundance of words. It is pointless to pray in this way because your Father knows your needs before you ask him.” (Matt 5:6-8)

It would be easy to simply focus on “street corners” and “closets” and to miss the point of this passage. People no longer pray on street corners and I doubt most people could find enough room in their closet to pray. Jesus is critiquing common prayer practices of both Jews and Gentiles. This critique should cause us to look at our own prayer life. What would Jesus say about the way we pray? Do we pray enough? Do we use this passage as an excuse not to pray in public? What would Jesus say about the length and frequency of our prayers? Would he approve of the content of our prayers? Before we look at the critique of the prayer life of those who lived 2,000 years ago, we should first examine our own.

When we pray we do not do it so others can hear how pious we are, nor do we attempt to persuade God with our eloquent speech and lengthy requests. We would also be wrong to look at this passage in a legalistic way, as if never praying on street corners and only praying in secret would make all our prayers acceptable before God. The point of this text is to learn to approach God with the right attitude of the heart.  We must examine our intents and purposes before we pray, and we must open up to the One who knows our needs before we even ask. God is present when we pray. This means we should not be concerned with others who may be in hearing distance of our prayers, but should be fully aware of the presence of the Creator of the universe. God is understanding. He knows our needs and he is ready to answer our prayers. We do not have to persuade or beg him to answer our prayers, but we must have the right attitude of the heart.

Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus commanded his followers to “let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works” (5:16). In this section (6:1-18) he warns against “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (6:1). What does Jesus want from us? Jesus is not against us praying, fasting, or doing good deeds publicly, but he also understands we will be tempted to do it for the praise we receive from others. In those instances where we are being tempted Jesus gives us a way out. We can always fast and pray privately. We can do good deeds and give to the poor without letting everyone else know what we are doing. In everything we do we are to glorify God, not ourselves.

Jesus critiques both Jewish and Gentile prayer. Some of the things in this passage may be confusing because of our unfamiliarity with both Jewish and Gentile prayer. We assume that everyone is capable of praying silently but this was a foreign idea to the people of the 1st century. Praying was done aloud. This means it would not be unusual to hear someone else’s prayer. Pagans believed they needed to use lofty words and special chants to persuade the gods. Jesus is contrasting the character of God with that of the pagan gods. Our Father is willing to give to those who ask. He is unlike the pagan gods. When we pray we need to keep in mind who God is. He is a loving Father full of grace and mercy.

Other Texts

Luke 18:9-14 presents us with an example of what Jesus is discussing in the Sermon on the Mount with regards to prayer. Two men go to the temple and both pray aloud as was the custom in that day. The Pharisees prayer was all for show. It was a prayer, not for God, but for other men. The tax collector offers a much briefer prayer but it is a prayer from the heart. He simply asks God to have mercy on him, a sinner. Jesus says the tax collector went away justified but the Pharisee did not. Jesus does not condemn praying in public. He is, however, concerned with the intentions of our prayer and the attitude of our heart.

Acts 1:24-25 – In this prayer found at the beginning of Acts the disciples describe God as the knower of the heart. Matt. 6:7-8 is not so much about lengthy prayers and impressive words as it is about the nature of God. He is present in prayer and he knows our hearts. He is good and he is ready and willing to answer our prayers (Matt. 7:7-11). Just because God knows our hearts does not free us from praying, but instead allows us to be open and honest in our prayers. We should find comfort in conversing with the One who knows us better than anyone else.

Takeaway

As the people of God we should regularly examine our own prayer life to make certain our motives are pure and our heart is right. In this passage Jesus gives us ways to pray that free us from the temptation of impressing others with our piety. He also gives us comfort by reminding us how God is different from the gods of this world.

3 Responses to “How Not to Pray”

  1. […] Living | How Not to Pray – People no longer pray on street corners and I doubt most people could find enough room in their […]

  2. I discovered you at Rick’s Saturday Shortcuts. Personally I prefer a prayer that is from the heart and not one from a “prayer book.” The tax collector knew he was a sinner and admitted his need. We must realize our need and face up to telling Jesus all about it !!

  3. I remember being in prayer services and hearing some of the more “spiritual” people in our church give long spectacular prayers using a bunch of KJV language. I wished I could pray like that back then. Now I realize that maybe simpler is better.


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