Moving from giving to prayer, Jesus says “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.”
Like giving, prayer played a pivotal part in Jewish piety. Prayer is not simply sacred conversation; it is spiritual formation. Prayer shapes in us the Father’s abiding presence. Prayer conforms our character to the righteousness of Christ. Prayer forms us into followers of Jesus. Prayer is the Potter’s means of molding for us his clay. As such, prayer has more to do with what God’s doing than what we’re saying. Through prayer he shapes in us his salvation substance; such artistry requires patient, Father-focused prayerfulness so his “will be done”.
So when some of God’s people started praying with a hidden agenda, making a public spectacle of prayer “that they may be seen by men”, Jesus calls them out as fakers, actors showing off for the praise and approval of people. It is a dangerous line to walk; Jesus said those compliments they were after are the only reward or esteem they should expect, from either man or God. Since they were not seeking God’s esteem, they should not expect it later. Praying for men’s pleasure replaces God with men as the potter who molds our soul. It’s worship of men, desiring to be shaped into their image. It’s a hijacking and twisting of holy conversation to engage in idolatry. Years of this kind of practice will leave us routinely sputtering hollow “christianisms” while inside we ache with bitterness, trying to get yet another cup of people’s pleasure to satiate a dry and dusty soul.
This is not the life of prayer Jesus envisions for his followers; so he lays out another way. “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
The average Jewish home was not separated into individual rooms, but was often one large room. Jesus is likely saying to pray as privately as possible in this situation; or his language may imaginatively suggest his followers withdraw to the most inner part of themselves, locking out spectators in order to privately parley in the Father’s presence. When the Father sees his holy estimation is solely sought, regarded more valuable than all others, he will reward us, or saturate our souls with his sanctifying presence.
Jesus further elaborates “And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.”
The average Gentile, or non-Jew, had a plethora of gods or deities from which to choose. To incur their favor, they would entreat these god-figures by reciting a series of prayers. Hoping to charm them with these spell-like incantations, they would repeat various phrases associated with that deity until they felt they had done enough to earn their favor. Jesus uses this imagery to expose for his followers another way not to pray. He then qualifies his logic, saying “So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”
In his sovereignty God is already aware of our needs. We don’t need to relentlessly babble on as if God is deaf or we must earn his favor. He sees, he knows, and he cares. We need not be panicked and desperate for his acknowledgment. Being aware of his care brings blessed assurance, a restfulness rooted in his sovereign goodness. It affords us a spaciousness to open up to him and creates confidence in the genuineness of his character and concern.
The discipleship reality Jesus’ words cultivate here is a prayerfulness satisfied in the Father’s estimation and sovereignty. An endeavor unlike any other, prayer is our soul’s response to the redemption already at work in Christ. An expansion and maturation of the soul, prayer pulls us into that redemptive work, conforming us to Christ’s kingdom reality. As we continue this lifelong journey of following Jesus, holy conversation keeps us on and further along his way.