The next example from the first Gospel that we’ll consider briefly concerns praying that is not presumptuous. The same principles hold for prayer as for almsgiving. All one needs to do to appreciate Our Lord’s wisdom in these verses is to attend a prayer meeting where the light shines on the pray-ers.
In verses 5-8 Jesus provides us with two modes of prayer that are unacceptable. The first of those was performed by the hypocrites (note again the assumed “when” you pray and “hypocrites” in v. 5). The hypocrites—Pharisee leaders of his day—prayed so that public attention would be focused on them. In the synagogues, the leader of the congregation would present himself visibly toward the front near the Ark and, lifting up his hands as noticeably as possible, proceed to pray a deeply-felt, well-rehearsed prayer. If out and about at one of the three required times of prayer (9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m.—think how Muslims stop for prayer at set times) a Pharisee would stop, sometimes on a busy corner or the top step entering into the synagogue, and halt traffic with his dramatic posture. With head bowed and arms outstretched, he would pray a loud, but perfect Jewish prayer.
I imagine if one planned just a little, he could be at an optimal intersection or visual point, even slap several neighbors’ hands out of the way, as he enthusiastically raised his own hands, and attract who knows how much attention. Meanwhile, the neighbors knew this person was cheap, or that he mistreated his children, or was lazy, or a host of other sins that brought embarrassment to his religion.
Public prayer has its place as a vital element of worship. Jesus is certainly not ruling out that kind of important prayer, much less private prayer or family prayer. What he is roundly condemning is private devotion turned into spectacle, and it can happen more frequently than we want to admit, for example:
– when Christians think prayer is not as effective, unless accompanied by thousands, as if more numbers made God more attentive;
– when Christians mistake the length of prayer with the depth of devotion;
– when Christians want everyone else to take the exact same outward acts, unless commanded by Scripture, that one individual does;
– when Christians treat prayers, prayer retreats, or prayer walks as a magic formula as an ancient shaman would.
Christ, I assure you, does not despise any believing prayer. What he blasts here, however, are ostentation and formalism.