Praying Like The Pagans – Matthew 6:5-8

In my first semester of Bible college an older student stood up to prayer in a chapel and began by addressing God as Father, Lord, el-shaddai, Jehovah Jirah, and every other name of God he could think of from the Bible (or from the latest Amy Grant song). This went on for several minutes and became more and more awkward as this student oiled on the names of God and showed off their preaching skills in their public prayer. Looking back on this, I wondered if the student realized they were drawing attention to themselves by praying in this way. I imagine they were genuinely trying to worship God in the prayer and would have been horrified to find out people were distracted from real worship by his overly-flowery prayer.

This first kind of prayer common Jesus addresses is the long, flowery public prayer which draws attention to the person praying. For many people, Jewish and Greco-Roman prayers were ritualized. While it is impossible to know the exact wording in the first century, there are some remarkable parallels between these prayers and the prayer of Jesus in Matthew 6. Roman public prayers were read exactly as they were written, “if one syllable or one ritual gesture was performed incorrectly, the prayer might well be invalid” (Stambaugh and Balch, cited in Keener, Matthew, 213).

Benediction 6 Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned against You. Blot out and remove our transgressions from before Your sight, for Your mercies are manifold. You are praised, O Lord, who abundantly pardons.

Benediction 9 Bless, O Lord our God, this year for us, and let it be good in all the varieties of its produce. Hasten the year of our redemptive End. Grant dew and rain upon the face of the earth, and satiate the world out of the treasuries of Your goodness; and grant a blessing to the work of our hands. Exalted and hallowed be His great Name in the world which He created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the whole household of Israel, speedily and at a near time. And say, Amen. (From Petuchowski and Brocke, The Lord’s Prayer and Jewish Liturgy)

But the other extreme seems to also been a problem. For some (in Matthew, the Pharisees), long flowery prayers were common. Although we cannot know what they prayed, it is likely these hypocrites wanted to demonstrate how spiritual they really were. As with his comments on giving, Jesus uses hyperbole: the hypocrite loves to stand on the street corners or in the Synagogue to pray for all to see.

Not all Jewish prayers were like this. Rabbi Simeon advised caution in reciting the shema and in prayer. “Be meticulous in the recitation of the shema and the Prayer. And (2) when you pray, don’t treat your praying as a matter of routine” (m.Abot 2.13).

Public prayerA second problem Jesus addresses is the “pagan babbling.” Jesus is directly attacking memorized prayers which are repeated over and over again in order to gain favor from a god. This kind of prayer was likewise condemned in Sirach 7:14, “Do not babble in the assembly of the elders, and do not repeat yourself when you pray.”

Christians babble in their prayers as well. We waste lot of words, whether because we don’t know what to say or we run out of things to say. While it is good to thank God for everything, offering God a daily weather report is probably unnecessary Christians use certain words which have no meaning outside of a prayer. What does a Christian mean when they say “pray for this….” Are we asking God to pray for this, or are we abbreviating our prayer? Think about how many times some people say “just” and “really” during their prayers. Why do we close prayers with the quickly spoked word injesusnameamen? Is that a Latin word for, “open your eyes now”?

It is important to understand how the original Jewish audience would have understood Jesus’s words here. He is saying, when the Jewish person prays in public and focuses the attention on themselves, they are praying “like the pagans.” They might as well be pagan Roman priests reciting the prayers like a magic spell. This is shocking, and quite likely very insulting!

For Jesus, the solution for the problem of self-serving prayers is keep prayer private. Just as giving is a private spiritual discipline, prayer should be as well. Jesus says to go into your room, or closet, close the door, and pray in private. He recommends finding a hiding place, a small room where no one can hear you pray. If no one will hear your prayer there is no need to impress people. The problem is with the attitude behind the prayers. They want to be seen by men. Just as with giving, these people want everyone to know that they are praying and how spiritual their prayers are.

Yet there is often a need for public prayers. To lead a congregation in a corporate prayer is not necessarily a violation of the spirit of Jesus’s words here. But as is often the case in the Sermon on the Mount, it is the internal motivation for the public prayer that must be carefully examined.

  • If a politician participates in a “national day of prayer” and publicly leads a group in prayers for our country, are they genuinely praying, or do they need to be seem as a “Christian Person” by their constituency?
  • When a Christian sits down to a meal in public, why do they bow their head and offer a short prayer for their meal? Are they genuinely thankful, or is there a Christian peer pressure to at least appear to prayer for a meal?

How can a careful examination of our motives re-invigorate our prayers?

13 thoughts on “Praying Like The Pagans – Matthew 6:5-8

  1. Nice, just a few things I thought were typos. In paragraph 10 you wrote, “close the door, and prayer in private.” I think you meant “pray”.

    Same paragraph you wrote, “a small room where no one can hear you prayer.” I thought it should be “pray”…

    Good article.


  2. Hah! “…and every other name of God he could think of from the Bible (or from the latest Amy Grant song).” I can remember being faculty adviser for a student group at a college, and the group President was fond of “Our dear Lord heavenly Father” as the opener for every heavy breath the took while praying. I privately corrected him a few times without having any impact; so I finally forbade him to lead meetings in prayer until he worked on that and showed improvement. If I remember correctly, we shifted that part of each meeting to another officer’s care, and that officer led and also invited others to lead in prayer. BIG improvement. I do think I may stick with “inJesusNameAmen” though, even though it appears to be Latin.

  3. As much as we do not like to admit, praying with the wrong motives is just as common today as it was when Jesus spoke this. I was just praying tonight where everyone in the group prays out loud at the same time and I felt as though it felt odd. Although it sounded like a jumbled mess altogether, some prayed really loud and I found it difficult to concentrate on my own prayer as I was basically just comparing what I was trying to think to what they were saying. I also find it difficult that in group settings the leader will ask for someone to pray, and if no one volunteers, they always seem upset. This is because they believe that we should always be eager and excited to pray. Alternatively, the people who usually volunteer right away pray those types of long and flowery prayers as you suggest as they do it to be seen. These types of leaders seem to display that those who volunteer love God more, or are more spiritual than the rest of us, when in reality those people just want attention, and maybe want to think they are more spiritual. I appreciate how Jesus gives instructions here on where we should pray and that he encourages praying in quiet and that it does not have to be long. I think it all comes back to having the right heart and motives when we pray. McKnight also points out that there are too few prayers that are short but say so much, we like to babble, but a great place to look for these short but impactful prayers is in the Psalms (McKnight 172).

    • Mary, this is all really well thought out. I appreciate you sharing this! I feel that there is a fine line between encouraging people to pray out loud, such as freshman in a theology class, and having people praying out loud to simply pray out loud. I feel often that many people are scared to pray out loud or even ashamed to at times. This is why teachers, such as Dr. Vinton, encourage students to pray out loud in class. However, it is important to understand the intentions and heart behind the person who is praying. Some people may not want to pray out loud because they struggle with self gratification. These are the people who pray to seek the compliments, glory and recognition of others. Not everyone struggles with this type of intent as the Pharisees did, sometimes it simply may be that a person prays because they like knowing everyone has to listen to them. These are the type of people who may need to pray silently with a group rather than out loud. McKnight brings out an interesting point that Gentiles would pray prayers to show their sincerity to the gods. The longer the prayer, the more sincere (p. 172). However, it is important to know that our God does not work this way. Before man even begins his prayer, God sees the heart of this person and knows their intentions and sincerity. Prayers can be short, long or somewhere in between. However, this will not change the heart of the prayer or the person praying.

  4. When we pray for our meals, sometimes it’s a brief prayer for the food. Which I do not think is a wrong type of prayer. Thanking God for the food that was prepared for us, and praying for the hands that had provided the food for us. However, is it really that meaningful? Because most of the time, when we pray for a meal it comes with peer pressure in the fact that if you don’t pray someone will make fun of you. But who’s more in the wrong? The person who does a quick prayer that may not be that meaningful? Or the person making fun of you for not praying? Now Jesus, says that when we pray to pray in private. Etc., which the article writes and explains how Jesus asks us to pray. But to me, praying in public is not bad. Prayer should be treated as a direct conversation with God himself. With praying in public, there can be many distractions, which is something that we need to considerate of. In the article, it is written about us evaluating our prayer lives. When we pray, are we going to pray for ourselves? When we ask selfishly for God to do all these things that we want to do. Which is wrong, God isn’t a magic genie to grant you wishes. When I pray for a meal, I treat that prayer as a prayer of thankfulness for all that God has provided unto this point.

  5. I found I can really relate to this post. When talking about ritualistic or babbling prayers, it recalled how my kids prayed when they were young. One would pray the same prayer, including siblings, parents, grandparents, even family pets, for years. It became such a habit that when one of the pets died, for the next few years the still dog remained in the prayer! Obviously as a child, this is not abnormal and may be a silly example. Yet, it makes me think on how I can better approach my prayer life now. Often, I feel like I approach prayer in the same ritualistic sense, often using a “format” of thank you, please help, as a “prayer checklist”, instead of approaching prayer as a personal conversation with God.
    I also found the reminder of the importance of our internal motivation of public prayer (Long) interesting. I have never been one who enjoys praying in public, something that I have always felt is not how a Christian should feel. It seems to be expected that one should be comfortable with public prayer. This stems from a fear of not sounding correct or “Christian enough” in my praying. Who wants to be the one that says something that is not theologically correct in a group prayer or can only think of a 1-2-word prayer when others pray so “intellectually”? I was reminded in this reading that a healthy balance between private and public prayer is important, regardless of any insecurities. When we approach God in prayer, whatever the setting, this is a good reminder that the prayer is to God alone, not those who may be listening. Perhaps by keeping this as a reminder when asked to pray in a group setting, it will help to bring the focus back to God. It may still be uncomfortable, but to be reminded that even if the “right” words do not come, God knows the heart of the person praying and that is what matters.

  6. This post is one of my favorites because the question of genuine prayer is an important one to consider. I especially liked the second question about praying at mealtimes. There are definitely times when I can tell that others are just performing a routine before chowing down on their Big Mac. However, there have been a surprising number of times when I’ve prayed with either family or friends for our food in public and had a random stranger come up to us and say that they were impressed that we were brave/bold enough to pray in public and that we had encouraged them just by thanking the Lord for our food! Though we didn’t pray secretly, we didn’t make a show of it and as Scott McKnight says, we should “do things that have to be done publicly in such a way that we focus on God and are not driven by public congratulations” (160).
    It’s usually easy to tell the difference between someone who is praying for public praise and someone who isn’t. Tone, words, and the length of the prayer can all indicate the difference. However, as the post said, sometimes people are just being genuine and want to pray the best they can to the Lord which, in their minds, requires the prayer to be long and elegant since they are talking to the Creator of the universe and I completely understand that. God knows the motives of every heart and that’s enough for me to encourage others to pray often and be thankful for what God has blessed them with even if it’s in public.

  7. For Christians, prayer certainly seems to be a “make or break” moment among other Christian peers. A good prayer results in compliments, envy, and a feeling that “God HAS to answer THAT one!” However, not once did Jesus misspeak, nor does any human have the ability to say “well, He REALLY only meant this when he said…” Jesus is clear that private prayer is the best way to go. This is not because public prayer is a sin, but simply because human nature will always take over and people will fall victim to praying for their own glory rather than praying as a petition, praise, and thanksgiving to God.

    Some will argue that public prayer is perfectly acceptable due to the fact that the perfect Jesus appeared to have prayed in public several times throughout the Scriptures. He prayed when He was baptized (Luke 3:21), He blessed the five loaves and two fish (Matthew 14:19), and He gave thanks for the bread and wine at the last supper (Matthew 26:26-27). However, the wording here must be looked at carefully. When he is praying following His baptism, it is not clear whether or not He is in public or private. And the wording is “blessed the” and “gave thanks for” the food, rather than saying He prayed. Perhaps giving thanks for food is excluded from this command. Even if He did publically pray in these scenarios, the intent of His heart (the true reason for this command) would have been to glorify the Father and not Himself due to the lack of a sinful nature that gave Jesus an advantage over the rest of mankind.

    And of course, there are plenty of examples of Jesus praying privately, such as Matthew 14:23, Mark 6:46, Luke 6:12, Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16, Matthew 26:36, and many more.

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