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Matthew 6:5-8 “Performing Righteousness, Part 2a: Prayer Corrected”

And when you pray, you must not be as the hypocrites, because they love to pray stationed in the synagogues and in the street corners so that they might be recognized by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. So, you, when you pray, go into your inner room and after shutting your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will give to you. So, as you pray, never babble as the Gentiles. For they suppose that by their many words they will be heard. Therefore, never be compared to them, because your Father knows what you have need of before ever you ask Him.

The context of theses verses must be considered on two scales: (1) the immediate context of Jesus’ flow of argumentation and (2) the overall context of the sermon. Regarding the immediate context, Jesus uses a connective καὶ (and) at the beginning of v. 5 and thus ties the flow of these verses to the previous discussion on charity. In other words, prayer is next on Jesus’ list of righteousness performed and His presentation strongly resembles His argument for charity in vv. 2-4: He (a) condemns obnoxious self-seeking versions of the practice, (b) is concerned with internal motivation rather than external methods, and (c) provides instruction for successful and God-honoring piety.

When backing up to see how these verses fit into the larger scheme of the SM, we should notice that 6:5-15 are the center point of the sermon in two ways. First (and most obvious) these verses are the literal midpoint of chapters 5-7.[1] Secondly, as argued for in the introduction to the SM, the sermon is structured in a chiastic fashion. Thus, Jesus’ second main point (6:1-18) is in the center of His outline and this teaching on prayer is in the center of the center point. In other words, all that has been said already has been building up to this point and all that comes after will flow from it. If one is going to worship God and thus show himself a pious individual, prayer heads the list of importance. Jesus first addresses the true objective of righteous prayer (vv. 5-6), continues to correct errant methods of praying (vv. 7-8) only to conclude by providing a model and example of righteous prayer (vv. 9-15). By virtue of what prayer is, how one prays reveals what he truly believes about himself and about God.

Prayer’s Objective & God’s Omnipresence (vv. 5-6)

These verses strongly resemble Jesus’ teaching on charity (vv. 2-4). The exact format of those verses are replicated here. Therefore, all that we learned while studying those verses will be of the utmost use to us here. These verses are basically divided by what Jesus prohibits (v. 5) and what Jesus promotes (v. 6).

Hypocrites: Recognition of Men (v. 5)

And when you pray, you must not be as the hypocrites, because they love to pray stationed in the synagogues and in the street corners so that they might be recognized by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

There are several things to notice at once. First, Jesus again assumes that His disciples will engage in prayer. Just because the practice has been twisted from its original purpose is no reason to abandon it entirely. Prayer is a good thing and Jesus expects His disciples to practice it, but that they practice it righteously. Second, there is a connection to 5:43-48 in this prohibition against being like the hypocrites. There is a remaining assumption that Jesus’ disciples will be as their Father is (5:46) which is to say that they will be (ἔσεσθε) complete/perfect as (ὡς) their Father is complete/perfect (5:48). As such, they cannot possibly be like (οὐκ ἔσεσθε ὡς) or emulate the hypocrites. By mentioning hypocrites (οἱ ὑποκριταί) again, Jesus continues to rely on the image of a play actor who conceals his identity behind a mask while pretending to be someone he is not. Whether he does so purposefully to fool others or is in fact self-deceived is of little consequence to the warning. What follows is the reason for the prohibition.

The hypocrites love to pray. But the reason Jesus refuses to allow His disciples to pray as they do is the reason why they love to pray. As in vv. 2-4, motivation remains the issue more than the setting. True, the hypocrites love a public setting. As before Jesus provides a religious (synagogues) as well as a secular setting (street corners). These street corners (ταῖς γωνίαις τῶν πλατειῶν) are distinguished from the streets where charity was provided in v. 2 (ταῖς ῥύμαις) in that Jesus refers to wide intersections that may resemble something more like city squares rather than smaller side-streets or even back alleys. Yet the setting is not the issue so much as the purpose for which they position themselves in these public locations.

Ὅπως (so that) introduces the purpose for these actions. They love to pray after positioning themselves in public places for the purpose of being seen by men. The term often translated as “seen” (φαίνω) is often translated as “shine” (Jn. 1:5; 5:35; Phil. 2:15; 2 Pet. 1:19; 1 Jn. 2:8; Rev. 1:16; 8:12; 18:23; 21:23) with reference to sources of light. The verb has the general sense of becoming visible, appearing, being recognized. The point here is that what the hypocrites do and where they choose to do it all comes with a purpose of becoming visible to people. They want to draw attention to themselves.

By the 1st century, pious Jews would gather to pray in conjunction with the morning and evening sacrifices (Ex. 29:38-39) offered in the temple. If they could not gather in the temple itself (not living in Jerusalem) they would gather at the synagogue at roughly the same time of day. If they were not able to be present at the gathering, they would stop what they were doing, face Jerusalem/the Temple, and pray where they stood.[2] The sense here is that the hypocrites purposefully loitered in public places so that they would just “happen” to be overtaken by the time of prayer.

Repeating verbatim His statement from v. 2, Jesus states that the recognition of men is all the reward that the hypocrites will ever receive. They have already received all that they have coming to them. Their public display of piety has utterly missed the point of prayer. They literally pray, not to communicate or commune with God, but to be worshipped by men. They have replaced God as the objective of prayer. Though few people may be this ostentatious, the motivation to be heard by others and thus viewed as holy remains in Christian circles today. When one begins praying “about” God rather than speaking to God or stating certain “truths” to influence others, it’s safe to say that the prayer is nothing but a performance in order to be recognized by men.

Disciples: Communion with God (v. 6)

So, you, when you pray, go into your inner room and after shutting your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will give to you.

You” (σὐ) is emphatic. Not only does Jesus change from the general plural in v. 5 to the applicational singular in v. 6 but He also frontloads the personal pronoun. He again assumes, and thus encourages, His disciples to pray. He just doesn’t want them to pray as the hypocrites do. Rather than praying for the purpose of being worshipped by men, Jesus wants His disciples to pray to commune with God.

Much has been said about this inner-room “prayer closet”, most of it utter nonsense. As with the giving of charity, the issue here is internal motivation not physical location. In other words, there is nothing wrong with praying in public. Jesus is not exhorting isolated private prayer as the one and only means of communing with the Father. Rather, He is reminding the disciples of prayer’s objective through hyperbolic language. If Jesus is demanding the use of such a ”prayer closet”, then it is interesting that neither He, nor any of the apostles, are recorded as using one. The image of one isolating himself in a tiny storeroom the size of a broom closet and then shutting the door drives home the point that prayer is communion between two entities: the one praying and God. There is no one else in that broom closet and therefore the prayer cannot possibly be for anyone else’s benefit. This is between the one praying and his God.

While the language here is similar to v. 4, Jesus does not say the prayer is in secret but that God the Father is in secret (τῷ πατρί σου τῷ ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ). The point is that God, who is omnipresent, is in that cupboard with you. The omnipresence of God is the reason why prayer is affective no matter one’s location. The cupboard/broom closet/inner room is only a reminder that God hears and sees no matter what and therefore one should pray exclusively to Him (and Him alone) regardless of who is or who is not watching. If one cannot pray to God in private, then he certainly will not pray to God in public.

Again Jesus refers to the Father as One who sees (ὁ βλέπων) and thus perceives the heart of the one praying. The point is not that God sees the one praying in seclusion, but that He understands and hears the prayers of those who pray to Him rather than those who pray to be heard by men. There are gifts waiting for the one who pursues communion with his Father.

Prayer’s Oration & God’s Omniscience (vv. 7-8)

Jesus’ focus changes somewhat from the motivation of prayer to the content of prayer. While we must emphasize the heart condition of everything we say and do, our actual words and deeds still matter because they also reveal what we truly believe about God.

Pagans: Manipulative Babble (v. 7)

So, as you pray, never babble as the Gentiles. For they suppose that by their many words they will be heard.

Jesus again assumes (for the third time in three verses) that His disciples will be praying disciples. The present participle προσευχόμενοι is the setting for the prohibition. There will be no babbling like the Gentiles do. The negative example of the hypocrites has been replaced by the ever-notorious Gentiles or pagans. The error is no longer the attempt to draw attention to men so much as it is attempting to get God’s attention.

With much debate and little evidence to go on, it seems best to take βατταλογέω (babble, stammer, stutter) as repetition that borders on the nonsensical for one of two reasons. The idea is either (1) the pagan petitioner heaps names, nomenclatures, and accolades upon a particular deity as he searches for the perfect combination to capture the deity’s attention or (2) the uttering of meaningless syllables (abracadabra, alakazam, etc.) that supposedly have magical powers to capture the deity’s attention and thus make the request effective.[3] This attempt to communicate with the divine by hitting upon either a secretive language or at least the right combination of words is eerily similar to the practice of secretive “prayer language” that is carried on in many “Christian” circles. Apparently, such practice has much more in common with paganism than it does with Christianity. Jesus utterly prohibits such practices.

The reason Jesus prohibits such speech in prayer follows the logic of the pagans and exposes it as erroneous. In their thinking, the more words the better for as they pile on honors and nomenclatures, they supposedly improve their chances of hitting the right note and thus flattering the deity. Their wordiness is an attempt to flatter and thus manipulate the deity into doing what they want. Many examples of this kind of logic are available that range from the priests of Baal who railed on and on all day to no effect (1 Kings 18:25-29) to Roman Catholics who repeat the same phrase over and over to the point that they must keep track of the repetition with the aid of a rosary.[4] Yet in all of this, we cannot afford to miss the point. While there are certainly passages that encourage the petitioner to keep his words brief and to the point (e.g., Ecc. 5:2-3), brevity is not the point so much as it is humility. The reptation serves to manipulate God. This is hardly the way an inferior addresses a superior.[5] The squeaky wheel does not get the grease so much as the humble petition is the one who receives an audience.

Disciples: Humble Worship (v. 8)

Therefore, never be compared to them, because your Father knows what you have need of before ever you ask Him.

The inference (οὖν) Jesus draws repeats the original idea of v. 5: don’t be like them, hypocrites or pagans. If one is like or is comparable (ὁμοιόω) to the pagans, then one is certainly not like their Father (5:46, 48). The way disciples pray is entirely different than the way the world prays. The reason Jesus provides for this statement is not what one might expect. Rather than appealing to the sanctified/set apart position of the disciples or the demonic nature of pagan worship, Jesus appeals to the Father’s omniscience. God knows what you need before every you ask of Him. Jesus says so much with so few words.

First, there is an immediate rebuttal to the pagan practice of flattering God in order to gain His attention and seek His approval. There is no need to inform God of one’s plight because He is already aware. In fact, He was aware of the need well ahead of the petitioner. God does not need to be brought into the loop, for He has a better handle on the situation than anyone.

Second, there is an implication that the petitioner is in fact ignorant as to his needs. If God knows what he needs before he does, then maybe what the disciple should pray for is an understanding of what he actually needs. Perhaps what he should be praying for is the ability to understand the situation from God’s perspective rather than his own.

Third, this proves that God’s interest in His people is not limited to a spiritualistic plane. Human beings have needs that are genuine. God is aware of this and is more than capable and willing to meet those needs. If God created a physical world, then the disciple need not fear praying for physical things.[6]

Finally, Jesus’ words again allude to an Old Testament passage: “And it will be that before they call, even I, yes I will answer, and while they are still speaking, even I, yes I will hear” (Is. 65:24). The context is of a restored Israel in the kingdom when there will be peace between wolf and lamb, lion and ox (v. 25). The allusion points the disciples ahead to the day when Messiah’s kingdom comes (6:10). Rather than demanding things of God now as if we were princes living in the kingdom, there is a sense of humility here knowing that God will one day bring His kingdom to pass. The same God who will restore Israel and meet every need before it arises is our Father who even now knows and understands our needs better than we do. Therefore, our prayers to Him are humble acts of worship as we rely upon His wisdom, judgment, and discretion as well as trusting in His ability to preserve and protect His own.

[1] By simple verse count, chapters 5-7 contain 111 verses, making 6:7b the center of the SM. If one arranges the information according to Jesus’ outline (Point 1 = 5:17-48, Point 2 = 6:1-18, Point 3 = 6:19-7:12) and thus disregard the introduction (5:1-16) and conclusion (7:13-29), the center of the sermon is still found in 6:7.

[2] Robertson, p. 51.

[3] Nolland, p. 284.

[4] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 323-4.

[5] Nolland, p. 285.

[6] Ibid, p. 285.


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