“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites! They love to stand up and pray in the houses of worship and on the street corners, so that everyone will see them. I assure you, they have already been paid in full. But when you pray, go to your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. And your Father, who sees what you do in private, will reward you.” Matthew 6:5-6 (Good News Translation)
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” (New Living Translation)
The slightly disturbing cultural phenomenon of human billboards runs rampant in my town. Each day as I make the trek from home to work and school, I pass at least one person on the side of the road, holding up a sign for a local business. The sight is so commonplace that I hardly even notice them anymore, but there was this one day…
I could see him in the distance – the male Statue of Liberty – waving at passing cars and holding up his ‘tax time’ sign. Nothing new – he’s been there since February. I drove past as I normally do, probably grinning at him ever so slightly, feeling badly as he stood there in the not-yet-springtime chill.
Twenty minutes later, on my way back home, I approached the same area and noticed another human billboard on the opposite side of the road. This one was directly across from the torch-bearing guy in the green dress, only he wasn’t exactly costumed. His sign was propped up next to him and he had a Michael Jackson-esque hat on his head, sunglasses on his face, and headphones on his ears. He wasn’t dressed for the weather, but this isn’t what made him stand out. In an effort to attract more attention than his counterpart across the street, this guy was singing at the top of his lungs (I could hear him as I drove by, windows rolled up) and dancing as if to save his life.
I looked over to the Statue as I drove past. No longer was he waving benignly at the disinterested drivers – now HE was dancing his stately heart out and looking directly at the rockstar across the road. It was a competition now – a street corner dance-off!
I laughed out loud all the way home.
Jesus knew that even in the church, people like to put on a show. You can act surprised, but I know you know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen the spiritual version of the street corner dance-off take place in God’s house, drawing attention to the outwardly pious at the risk of bringing glory and praise to people rather than to our Father.
Matthew Henry’s commentary on this text points out that Jesus teaches us to pay attention to at least three things when we think about how we pray:
The hypocrites Jesus refers to here have chosen the street corner for their prayer demonstrations. Maximum exposure for maximum recognition. While this may be the best course of action for drumming up business during a slow season, Jesus makes it very clear that God isn’t impressed with human billboards when it comes to prayer. The second glance these showmen get from passers-by is their pay-off. God Himself is going to drive right on by.
Standing is, of course, a legitimate and acceptable posture of prayer – was for Jesus, is for us today. What Jesus notices, though, about these public pray-ers is that their posture conveys a sort of self-importance and ill-placed confidence in themselves rather than the reverent humility which is becoming of a follower of God. Yes – we can stand as we address our Father in prayer. We can also kneel. We can bow. We can even pray with eyes wide open and mouth closed shut while walking down the street.
If the point of prayer is to connect our hearts with God’s, we would do well to be mindful of what our posture communicates to GOD as we address Him through our prayers.
Jesus knows that there are times when what we do for Him and His Kingdom will be visible to the people in the world around us. Is He saying we shouldn’t pray in public? No. But what Jesus is saying is that our public prayers ought to be a reflection of our private life of prayer with God. When our roots of relationship with the Father run deep, there is no need or desire to trivialize the holy by making a spectacle of our words and actions. To pray publicly in the context of Christian community is one thing, but to love doing it is something else altogether.
As Matthew Henry says, ‘they love to pray there. They did not love prayer for its own sake, but they loved it when it gave them an opportunity of making themselves noticed.’ And being noticed for their prayers led to pesky issues of pride in these street corner performers of Jesus’ day.
Think costumed, sign-bearing, dancing roadside billboards…
And run away.
- A Way To Pray by Matthew Henry edited by O. Palmer Robertson (This book teaches “A” Way to pray & “THE” Way to Pray!) (haroldcameron.wordpress.com)
- How to Pray for a Friend (averageus.com)