Read Matthew 6:5-8
Did you know that the word hypocrite in Greek means an actor, stage player or pretender? In other words, someone is pretending to be what they are not. In the matter of prayer, Jesus said these types of people, "Love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men" (Matthew 6:5). In other words, they made a show of praying to God so that people would think they were righteous. But Jesus said, "When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (Matthew 6:6). Does this mean that all public prayer is wrong? Not at all. It is clear from scripture that corporate prayer was practised (Acts 12:12). But to understand what was going on, we need to look at the culture of the day behind Jesus' statements.
When the Temple stood, there were regular times of prayer, and scripture confirms this (Psalms 55:17; Daniel. 6:10; Acts 3:1). However, when the time of prayer occurred, pious Jews would stop what they were doing, no matter where they were, and make a great show of the fact that they were praying. It is clear from Matthew 6:5 that this happened. Proving Jesus' point that they were hypocrites who cared more about what people thought of them than actually praying to God. Hence, Jesus' admonishment to pray in secret.
Jesus also said, "Do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words" (Matthew 6:7). This is another area that must be looked at from Jesus 2nd-century viewpoint. Idol worship was rampant during these times, and idol worshippers often chanted the same words or phrases for hours to appease the gods. Jesus' words indicate that some Jews thought that maybe that's how they should pray to God by chanting. In 1 Kings 18:26, Baal worshippers chanted from mid-evening to morning. The multitude in the theatre at Ephesus shouted for two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” (Acts 19:34). But Jesus said, "Do not be like them" (Matthew 6:8).
Yet, today we find many popular Christian leaders encouraging chanting to centre ourselves to become more focused on God. They are ignoring Jesus' warnings against such things. Christian author and pastor Tony Campolo says, "I say His name over and over again, for as long as fifteen minutes, until I find my soul suspended in what the ancient Celtic Christians called a ‘thin place’—a state where the boundary between heaven and earth, divine and human, dissolves. You could say that I use the name of Jesus as my koan” (Campolo, Mystical Encounters for Christians). FYI - A ‘koan’ is used in Zen Buddhism as an aid to meditation and a means of gaining spiritual awakening. This is similar to what the pagans did during Jesus' time, so we should avoid it.
So how do we apply Jesus' principles to our prayer times?
Three Steps to Appropriate Prayer Times
Don't draw attention to yourself: As I thought about the type of people Jesus was referring to in this verse (where they made a show of the fact that they were praying to God), I could think of only two examples where this is seen today. The first and most apparent are the Jews who pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. You will often see many men putting on a show with constant bowing while praying at the wall. In all likelihood, Jesus would call them hypocrites and admonish them to pray in secret for two reasons:
The second group of people might hit home with some of you because it hit home with me when I considered it. So bear with me while I ask you some questions. When you go to church, how are you behaving during prayer times? Are you drawing attention to yourself? For example, are you following the correct way of using tongues? Suppose your whole congregation is speaking in tongues at once. In that case, there is no benefit to anyone without an interpreter. To the outsider, we are just a bunch of babbling fools. Jesus has told us not to make a display of ourselves when we are praying. So before you pray in public, consider your behaviour and your motives.
Pray privately: While it is good to pray with others, we need our "alone times." Here we can share the concerns of our hearts with the Father and focus on what He is saying in response. This should be a time with just you and God and no interruptions. Granted, this can be difficult with a house full of kids, so take those moments when and wherever you can.
Don't chant: Despite what Tony Campolo says, Jesus says don't use vain repetitions. In other words, don't keep saying things over and over again - don't chant. Some believe this means we shouldn't say the Lord's Prayer as it becomes repetitious. I would agree if we said it repeatedly during a service, but we don't. However, it should not be used in the place of genuine prayer either. The Lord's Prayer is our template for how to pray appropriately to God. And I will discuss that next time!