“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
For us to properly understand these verses, and the ones to follow, we need to be reminded of what Jesus was talking about in this entire section; He set the context in 6:1:
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
If we remember this context, and that prayer is His second illustration for this point (after giving to the needy) then the significance of these verses becomes quite stark, even convicting for many of us.
Prayer, talking with God, the very core of our relationship with God, is not intended to be a public spectacle. It is not something you do to impress your family and friends with how righteousness you are; it is never to be a “look at me” kind of thing in whatever form the “look at me” might take. In fact, there really is no part of our relationship with God that is “public” except that others will see the results of our closeness as He works through us to accomplish His purpose.
I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh; but to be fair, I’m being more diplomatic than Jesus was!
With all of that said, there is of course an important role to be played by corporate prayer and worship, but clearly that isn’t what Jesus is referring to here.
Let’s be honest, when these verses are considered in context, they really don’t need much explanation, but I would like to add a note on prayer and relationship with God: God created each one of us, He knows each of us better than we know ourselves, and He comes to us where we are, relating to us in the way that He knows is most likely to be meaningful and significant. As a consequence, He relates to each one of us a little differently; there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to our relationships with Him, and anyone who tries to tell you that your relationship with Him must be like such and such is making a mistake, for our God is much bigger than that. In hearing people describe their relational experiences with God, I am often amazed by what I hear, they are so different from my own rather matter-of-fact “conversations” with Him, yet they are precious to the one describing them, just as mine are to me… and this is perfectly fine, perfectly normal, right and proper.
Yet God’s relational method is never just to make us look impressive to other people; that is the point Jesus is making here.
“This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Keeping the context of 6:1 in mind, take a look at this prayer- what do you see?
Do you see “look at me”? Do you see “gimme the goodies”?
What we can see here is humility, putting God’s purpose first and foremost, necessities, forgiveness, and overcoming the evil one; it is elegant in its simplicity.
We are addressing the Father in heaven, acknowledging His glory and giving Him honor, and then asking for His kingdom to come in its fullness, where His will be the only will that is done on earth, just like in heaven. Notice that this doesn’t leave all that much room for my own will to be done, in fact, my will and your will are not mentioned at all.
There is a request that God would provide for us, a humble request to be sure, which is an acknowledgement that we are entirely dependent upon Him and not on our own abilities. Next there is a request for God’s forgiveness as we forgive others; a scary thought for many, I might add. Finally, we are to ask God not to lead us into temptation, but to deliver us from the evil one, again a request of supreme humility. When you put this all together, Jesus is teaching us to pray in a manner that is entirely foreign to the religious life of His time, and a lot more foreign in our own time than we might like to think about, with only God’s will being mentioned.
After this, Jesus goes on to expand a little bit on the whole subject of forgiveness making a conditional statement in verse 15, which must have blown the minds of the Pharisees and their gang of friends. Truly, this is radical now as it was back then.
Was it Jesus’ intention that we simply recite these words over and over? I really doubt it; I see this as a model for prayer, the elements to be included in prayer, rather than something to be memorized and recited to the absence of anything else, particularly when we lose what He is actually saying here. Of course, I would never say that there is anything wrong with reciting these, or any verses.
Here’s some homework: Reflect and pray on this passage, asking Him to reveal them in their fullness to you. I think you’ll find this to be a fascinating exercise in spiritual practice.