“Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. 7 When you pray, do not babble repetitiously like the Gentiles, because they think that by their many words they will be heard. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.
What impresses God?
My favorite definition of an opportunist is a person who has a keen eye for the main chance. The guiding light for such a person is not principle — they take all kinds of contradictory positions — their guide is advantage. Short-term advantage is what an opportunist seeks.
An opportunist can often manipulate people, but can they manipulate God? How?
Some people know how to turn on the charm when the cameras are rolling. Since there were no cameras in the first century, some Jews did the next-best thing: they sought places where lots of eyeballs would be gathered, like a street corner or an assembly. There they would recite their daily prayers “so that people can see them” (6:5). We could also translate that phrase as “so that they might shine for men” (my translation).
Jesus did not deny that this strategy worked, but he vowed that momentary attention was all the reward such prayers would bring. Craig Keener points out that Jesus was not forbidding public prayer — as shown by 18:19–20; 21:13; and 1 Tim. 2:8 — but was banning prayer designed to gain personal approval from others.
Jesus next provides the contrasting principle that should control his disciples’ prayers: privacy (6:6). Keener says that Galilean homes had one or two rooms, and the only one with a door would be the storeroom. There you may pray “to your Father who is in secret” (ESV and HCSB for 6:6). While the Father is unseen, he sees the seeking heart of his children and rewards them.
Instead of understanding this instruction as a literal formula for prayer, the whole point is that the private person is seeking God while the public person is seeking people. While Jesus often prayed privately, he also prayed aloud in the hearing of others (11:25; 14:19; 26:39, 42), so it is plain that he is not forbidding public prayer. The actual, deeper issue is: why are you praying?
In 6:7–8, Jesus also criticizes the prayers of “religious outsiders, people who do not understand what it means to know God as a heavenly Father.” The verb translated babble repetitiously means “to speak in a way that images the kind of speech pattern of one who stammers, use the same words again and again, speak without thinking.” Jesus explains that this practice is based on a false belief that piling up words will move God to act (6:7). To the contrary, the Father already knows what you need (6:8) before you open your mouth!
A fascinating example of useless babbling is presented in 1 Kings 18:16-29. That is followed by a short model of public prayer by Elijah (1 Kings 18:30-39). Check out the difference!
I suggest that a key theological test of prayer offered in public is that the person praying must actually be speaking to God — perhaps on behalf of the gathered believers — and not to the people listening. You will know the difference! Further, if you do not speak to God frequently in private, allow those who do pray to lead you to his throne of grace in public.
The goal is to shine for God!
In explaining what Jesus taught about prayer, some may feel I have crossed over from teaching into meddling! Prayer practices are a sensitive subject, but Jesus is the one to tell us how it is done.
In private prayer, there is no temptation to play to the people, because the sole audience is God. All your prayer should be heart-felt, and delivered in plain words. Then your prayers will shine! Your Father in heaven already knows what you need, and he will hear all you say with love.
Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1999) 211.
 Keener, Matthew, 210.
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 240.
 BDAG-3, battaloge?, babble, speak without thinking, q.v.