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).

A 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 publically 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?