"5 And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
We are in a section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is speaking to His listeners about the practice of their personal piety. Jesus first spoke on the giving of alms. Here He addresses prayer. These two sections are very similar, as will be the last section on fasting. In all three of these sections, Jesus deals with the motivation for the practice of one’s faith in these particular areas. Here, as in the section on almsgiving, the motivation, for those who Jesus refers to as "hypocrites," is--to "be seen by men."
The desire to be recognized by others in one’s prayer life is especially interesting because prayer, by definition, is our communication with God. In our prayers, we are speaking not to those around us but directly to God Himself. We thank Him for His grace in our lives, we praise Him in response to seeing His goodness and glory, we hand Him our sins in confession, and we unburden ourselves of our concerns in petition.
So what happened with these people Jesus calls hypocrites? Why did their prayer life become something that had to do with people around them? Jesus said that these people had come to a point where they loved to pray in public places so "that they may be seen by men." No longer was their primary purpose in praying to communicate with God. Their main reason to pray was to impress others, to build themselves up by having the admiration, or at least gaining the attention of those around them. For various reasons they had ceased to pray as a way to count on God to be at work in their lives. Possibly they came to equate God’s reaction to their piety with the reaction of others. If people were impressed with the wording or fervency of their prayers, surely God would be as well. Or it had just become more important to them to find favor with the people around them. Getting attention from others was now their primary motivation in life
Certainly the opinions of those around us can often seem more immediate and influential in our lives than God’s presence. We know people see and hear us--after all, they are solidly right here with us. I wonder if that motivation begins with the deep desire to be heard, to be recognized or acknowledged. We all long to be seen clearly by others, to meet with a positive response from those around us. This longing comes from our very creation, for we were created to be in relationship, to participate in a mutual giving and receiving, loving and being loved, hearing and being heard.
It is not a bad thing that we long to be heard and accepted. It is woven into the deepest part of our being. Because Jesus speaks negatively about the hypocrites who are driven by the desire to be heard by people, it can be tempting to believe that the longing itself to be truly heard is selfish, sinful, wrong.
But it is not the longing that Jesus here condemns. Jesus calls the group that He is speaking against "hypocrites." A hypocrite is someone who is divided between their outside behavior and their inner convictions and motivations. These people were praying supposedly to God, but they were doing it in such a way as to be heard by those around them. They didn’t want to directly call attention to themselves by speaking to the people because they wanted to appear pious and therefore, worthy of respect. They wanted to be heard as people who were devoted to their God. So they used their prayer time as an opportunity to influence the opinions of others in their favor. Their piety, expressed here by their prayers to God, had become a means to another end.
Jesus tells His listeners that these people have already received their reward. They desire to be "seen by men" and so they are. Since the purpose of their praying is not speaking to God, but gaining a certain reputation among others, their actions are seen by others and not by God. God does not receive the prayers as if they are directed at Him, for in truth they are not.
Jesus’ purpose in this teaching is to encourage His listeners to pray. He speaks against the hypocrites lest His audience believe that these people really are more pious and therefore are far more likely to be heard by God than they are. They see these people often, out at the public places praying and are tempted to be impressed. They seem so much more pious than me, why would God listen to my prayers?
To motivate His listeners to pray, Jesus tells them about their heavenly Father. He is a Father, Jesus assures them, who is "in secret" and "sees in secret." God is paying attention. He does not need us to be loud, or out in public places so that He can find us. God is already actively listening to us in those private places where no one else can hear our thoughts and aches. We are created with longings to be clearly seen and heard. Jesus tells His listeners that God is the One who can clearly see, who sees where no one else can. Our heavenly Father does indeed hear us, and He is ready to fill that longing for us when we pour out our hearts to Him.
Jesus tells us that our Father will reward us when we pray to Him in secret. What does He mean? In the context, it seems to me that the reward is the reward of being truly heard and responded to. In the first part of this passage Jesus says that the hypocrites have received their reward. He has told us that they are seeking to be seen by men, so the reward they have already received is that they have been seen. In the second half, Jesus continues the idea of "seeing." God sees in secret and when we pray to Him in secret He will reward us by truly being seen by Him.
We live in a world today that is not that different from the world of Jesus’ listeners. We feel pressure to be noticed and validated by others around us. We fear that we are insignificant, that what we do will go unnoticed. We wonder if anyone out there is truly able to see us as we are, to hear us. So we are tempted to make sure someone sees us, and rewards us with some admiration and respect. The funny thing is, this is already available to us in God while the people around us are often oblivious and sometimes even reluctant to reward us with anything (perhaps because they are often looking to us, rather than God, to reward them first!). There's no need to do something religious or impressive to get God to pay attention. Jesus tells us that God is in secret, watching and listening for His children to come to Him, ready to reward them with his divine attention. That's what prayer is really all about.
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