Sermon on the Mount - Praying in Secret

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Power of Prayer, Sermon on the Mount, Sermon on the Mount (Bible Study)

Matthew 6:5-8

  • Chapter 6 talks about the pitfalls of being righteous, about those actions that can be very dangerous for one’s spiritual health.
  • Jesus gives three examples that have to do with “prayer, charity, and fasting.”
  • These are the three major tenets of Judaism.
  • First, Jesus discusses prayer. Prayer involves relations to God.
  • Jesus says, “But 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.”
  • The word for hypocrite is a transliteration of the Greek. That means the Greek letters are simply replaced by English ones.
  • In Greek, it is the ordinary word for an actor in the theater. The actor plays the part assigned to him and wins applause for his performance.
  • It is the hope for applause that is stigmatized here.
  • In the first century, Rabbinic rule forbade people from praying loudly in public.
  • So they prayed silently in public.
  • Jews are to pray at three appointed times every day.
  • Now if a Jew had any thought of display or wanted to build up a reputation for piety, he could just arrange to be in a public place when it was time to pray.
  • He would deliberately choose the place because it was conspicuous—someplace where one was sure to be seen, like the marketplace.
  • Imagine being there when someone suddenly drops to his knees and begins to pray in a most devout fashion.
  • According to Jesus, “I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” Public recognition is all they’ll get.
  • The problem is that prayer is typically not a public display; it is addressed to God.
  • It’s not meant to be addressed to God and people. It’s to be addressed to God.
  • Now some might argue that it can be a witness to God, but the danger of its slipping into display is quite great.
  • If we are totally honest, prayer is only vertical. An activity directed towards God is not meant to impress others.
  • Jesus says, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.”
  • People are told to go into their room, into their closet.
  • Many are immediately inclined to spiritualize this concept, referring it to our consciousness.
  • Shutting the door symbolizes shutting out material clamoring, turning away from human turmoil, and opening our thought to the all-ness of God.
  • It is allowing God to transform our thoughts spirit-ward.
  • But closet also had another meaning in antiquity.
  • In Greek, it means the supply room.
  • It is the only room that has a lock on it.
  • The rest of the house is pretty much open, but the place where people have their tools and their food can be secured.
  • The supply room is probably the least sacred room in the house; it is where mops and brushes are kept.
  • Consider this in contrast to the Holy of Holies, which is the innermost part of the Temple.
  • That is such a holy and sacred place that the High priest can enter it only one day every year.
  • Jesus is saying the absolute opposite.
  • He’s picking the most unsacred, common room of the house, and he’s saying, “Go in there and pray.” Be that secret. Be that quiet.
  • Go in that room and lock the door behind you. Keep everything else out.
  • This does apply to conscious thought, but it occurs in the most common, ordinary aspects of life.
  • Prayer is not just for the big temple ceremony; true prayer is conversation with God, and God alone.
  • This happens in the minutiae of our lives, and it can happen anywhere and all the time.
  • Again, “Then your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
  • Jesus continues, “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”
  • The pagans are big on quantity. Seneca, a Roman philosopher, says, “You have to fatigue the gods.”
  • Seneca’s point suggests that the gods are reluctant to listen. Pagans oftentimes repeat their names over and over, trying to get their attention. The gods want you to work for their attention.
  • They say the way to prove sincerity is by constant chatter.
  • The problem with this is that it makes God a very grudging giver; it also makes us beasts of burden.
  • Jesus says, “Don’t pray long prayers; don’t babble on and on.”
  • In a sense, this sounds somewhat paradoxical.
  • In other biblical passages, we are told to pray without ceasing. There are stories of importunate praying. We might feel that our entire life is a prayer. We know that Jesus sometimes spent the whole night in prayer.
  • So, how are we to understand Jesus’ statement in light of all these?
  • He is saying, first of all, that we have to be relieved of the necessity of long prayers.
  • And when we realize that we don’t have to, we’ll probably want to.
  • If we feel that we have to pray a certain length of time or put the right words in the right order, praying becomes quite mechanical.
  • On the other hand, if we’ve really got something to say, we can take as long as we want to say it.
  • God is not a reluctant listener.
  • Jesus says, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”
  • He already knows our need. The purpose of prayer is not to give God information. He already knows. It is not a debriefing session.
  • It is conversation. And we must be willing to listen too.
  • In our prayers, we can affirm that God already knows, and that can be the very basis for our prayer.
  • It’s our thinking that needs to change.
  • Now even among people, it is easiest to talk with those who know us best. That’s what’s ultimately at stake in this passage. God knows us best.

Bible Characters