The Sermon on the Mount 21

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. — Matthew 6:5-6

Jesus does not argue for a privitized faith as some today would contend. In fact, Jesus’ ministry is characterized by public prayer (Matt. 14:19; 15:36). The teaching here stands in the same stream of thought as 6:1 – a warning against practicing righteousness before men in order to win their approval. In particular, the public act of prayer proved to be especially prone to self-promotional diversions in Jesus’ day.

I think we often struggle in our churches to maintain a balance between authenticity and reverence in our public praying. On the one hand, many of us were taught to approach God in prayer with a deep sense of the “hallowedness” of such an exchange, interacting with the Almighty. Certainly, a sense of awe and humility should wash over us as we pray. And yet, in our efforts to show reverence we can all too quickly become a torrent of archaic and flowery language that requires translation. Someone who doesn’t understand our “prayer jargon” would quite rightly accuse us of speaking a different language altogether when we publicly pray.

Jesus seems to be advocating the importance of private prayer against the prevailing norm of public prayer in the life of the Israelite people. At the set hour of prayer, pious Jews in Jesus’ day would stop all activity and pray, often times even in public. Private prayer affords one the opportunity to approach God exclusively. Jesus knows that we’re prone to praying in a way to impress our peers. And this is a reward that is well within our reach. But the way of Jesus is prayer focused solely on Yahweh and His will.

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