A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:5-6. A Christian’s religion: Christian praying.
In his second example of the ‘religious’ kind of righteousness Jesus depicts two men at prayer. Again the basic difference is between hypocrisy and reality. He contrasts the reason for their praying, and its reward.
What he says of the hypocrites sounds fine at first: ‘They love … to pray.’ But unfortunately it is not prayer which they love, nor the God they are supposed to be praying to. No, they love themselves and the opportunity which public praying gives them to parade themselves.
Of course the discipline of regular prayer is good; all devout Jews prayed three times a day like Daniel (Dn.6:10.) And there was nothing wrong in standing to pray, for this was the usual posture for prayer among Jews. Nor were they necessarily mistaken to pray *at the street corners* as well as *in the synagogues* if their motive was to break down segregated religion and bring their recognition of God out of the holy places into the secular life of every day. But Jesus uncovered their true motive as they stood in synagogue or street with hands uplifted to heaven in order that they might ‘be seen by men.’ Behind their piety lurked their pride. What they really wanted was applause. They got it. ‘They have received their reward in full’ (NIV).
Religious pharisaism is far from dead. The accusation of hypocrites has often been levelled at us church-goers. It is possible to go church for the same wrongheaded reason which took the Pharisee to the synagogue: not to worship God, but to gain for ourselves a reputation for piety. It is possible to boast of our private devotions in the same way. What stands out is the perversity of all hypocritical practice. The giving of praise to God, like the giving of alms to men, is an authentic act in its own right. An ulterior motive destroys both. It degrades the service of God and men into a mean kind of self-service. Religion and charity become an exhibitionist display. How can we pretend to be praising God, when in reality we are concerned that men will praise us?
How, then, should Christians pray? *Go into your room and shut the door*, Jesus said. We are to close the door against disturbance and distraction but also to shut out the prying eyes of men and to shut ourselves in with God. Only then can we obey the Lord’s next command; *Pray to your Father who is in secret*, or, as the Jerusalem Bible clarifies it, ‘who is in the secret place’. Our Father is there, waiting to welcome us. Just as nothing destroys prayer like side-glances at human spectators, so nothing enriches it like a sense of the presence of God. For he sees not the outward appearance only but the heart, not the one who is praying only but the motive for which he prays. The essence of Christian prayer is to seek God. Behind all true prayer lies the conversation which God initiates:
Thou hast said, ‘Seek my face.’
My heart says to thee,
‘Thy face, Lord, will I seek.’ (Ps.27:8)
We seek him in order to acknowledge him as the person he is, God the creator, God the Lord, God the Judge, God our heavenly Father through Jesus Christ our Saviour. We desire to meet him in the secret place in order to bow down before him in humble worship, love and trust. Then, Jesus went on, *your Father who sees in secret will reward you.* R.V.G.Tasker points out that the Greek word for the ‘room’ into which we are to withdraw to pray (*tameion*) ‘was used for the store-room where treasures might be kept’. The implication may be, then, that ‘there are treasures already waiting’ us when we pray. Certainly the hidden rewards of prayer are too many to enumerate. In words of the apostle Paul, when we cry, ‘Abba, Father,’ the Holy Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we are indeed God’s children, and we are granted a strong assurance of his fatherhood and love. (Rom.5:5; 8:16). He lifts the light of his face upon us and gives us peace. (Nu.6:26). He refreshes our soul, satisfies our hunger, quenches our thirst. We know we are no longer orphans for the Father has adopted us; no longer prodigals for we have been forgiven; no longer alienated, for we have come home.
Our Lord’s emphasis on the need for secrecy should not be driven to extremes. To interpret it with rigid literalism would be guilty of the very Pharisaism against which he is warning us. If all our praying were to be kept secret, we would have to give up church-going, family prayers and prayer meetings. His reference here is to private prayer. The Greek words are in the singular, as the AV indicates: ‘But thou, when thou prayest, enter thy closet, … shut thy door, pray to thy Father.’ Jesus has not yet come to public prayer. When he does, he tells us to pray in the plural ‘Our Father’, and one can scarcely pray that prayer in secret alone.
Rather than becoming absorbed in the mechanics of secrecy, we need to remember that the purpose of Jesus’ emphasis on ‘secret’ prayer is to purify our motives in praying. As we are to give out of a genuine love for people, so we are to pray out of a genuine love for God. We must never use either of these exercises as a pious cloak for self-love.
Tomorrow: Matthew 6:16-18. Christian fasting.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.