Matthew 6:5-6 (NIV) “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Many have read these words and have come to the conclusion that praying in public is wrong, or sinful, and that God will not hear public prayer. But again, Jesus is pointing out a trap that religious people can easily fall into, and that many of the Jewish leaders were trapped in even then. The key words “to be seen by men” speak of motivation, not action. This is illustration two of three about doing good things in the public eye in order to receive the praise and admiration of people.
The Jewish leaders and the Pharisees were known for their ability to pray lengthy and impressive prayers, and they often went out in public places near each of the five times of prayer each day. When the time for prayer came, they would stop where they were, pull their prayer shawls over their heads, and pray and chant Psalms in a loud voice.
Of course when they started this, everyone else stopped what they were doing to watch in admiration as this holy man conversed with God. But the loud, pious prayers did not move them to prayer; it simply moved them to admiration of the man doing the praying.
These men loved the fact that they were seen as ultra-pious and holy by the regular people. It fed their egos mightily when they were pointed out as they passed through the streets, and when their prayer style was emulated by others.
The real problem, as Jesus pointed out, was not that they were praying in public; it was that their prayers were not actually directed at God’s heart but at the people listening in. Their goal was not a deeper relationship with God; it was the praise and admiration of other people. So when the people did admire them, that was the sum total of what their prayers accomplished. Their prayers were not received by God, and their petitions went unanswered by Him, because God saw their true motives.
As Jesus pointed out here, when I pray in public, if there is any temptation in my heart to do so in a way that will draw out the praise and admiration of those who are listening, it is better for me to go somewhere private, where no one but God can hear my prayers. Then He and I can have a real conversation. Since there is no one around to impress, my words will be simpler, my thoughts more direct, and my heart more open to hearing His response to my petitions. And my prayers will be much more effective.
Father, help me to never forget that the purpose of my prayer is communion with You. Obviously, if I allow any other motivation to take the place of that, it will short-circuit that communion, no communication will take place, and I might as well keep my mouth shut. Lord, I so appreciate and enjoy our times of communion. Help me to always keep my motives pure so that those times are always good, pure, and uncontaminated by a heart that seeks the praise of people. Amen.