Commented Bible Passages

These Bible meditations are meant as a way of seeking God in silence and prayer in the midst of our daily life. During the course of a day, take a moment to read the Bible passage with the short commentary and to reflect on the questions which follow. Afterwards, a small group of 3 to 10 people can meet to share what they have discovered and perhaps for a time of prayer.

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Matthew 6:5-6: Praying in Secret
Jesus said: 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. (Matthew 6:5-6)

Jesus’ teachings on prayer are often surprisingly direct. We find such a teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, at the beginning of chapter six in Matthew’s Gospel. “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites,” he begins. At Jesus’ time, that word, hupocritēs in Greek, referred first of all to actors. When employed in other contexts, it took on a meaning close to the one with which we associate it today. It meant, basically, a pretender. A hypocrite loves to stand and pray, Jesus continues, whether in synagogues or on street corners, so that they may be seen by others. In other words, their prayer, if one can still call it that, is not intended for God but for those who are watching.

But what, we may ask, is Jesus getting at? Who is he speaking about and why? Given the reference to synagogues, Christian commentators have sometimes taken Jesus’ words as a condemnation of Jewish prayer. Such a reading, however, seems untenable. For one thing, much religious literature of the first century shows that authenticity in prayer was something sought after and valued by many Jewish believers. Secondly, Jesus prayed, as the Gospels themselves tell us, in synagogues and in the Temple. He knew and prayed with the prayers of his people. Rather, Jesus’ words are probably best understood as a form of hyperbole. Hyperbole is a way of speaking where one exaggerates deliberately, often enough with a certain degree of levity or humor. It was common in early rabbinic teaching and can be found throughout much of the Bible. The point being made can be an important and serious one but, to be grasped, the words used must not be taken in a strictly literal way. Two other passages in the same chapter, where Jesus again speaks of “hypocrites” – in the first, giving alms by sounding a trumpet in front of themselves (6:2) and in the second, fasting and distorting their faces so that others notice they are fasting (6:16) – are of a similar style. Who would ever want to act so ludicrously? No one. Of course not, and that’s the point. Do not let yourself get trapped in appearances, Jesus seems to be saying. Do not let yourself forget what you are actually doing.

When we pray, we often experience all too quickly how easy it is to forget what we are doing. Distractions appear. We find ourselves thinking about a recent event or encounter, or else about what others are doing or thinking. We may be in a place of prayer, physically speaking, but mentally we are miles away, our hearts and minds occupied not with God but other matters. The temptation to go on and just pretend or else to give up is often not far.

So when you pray, Jesus says, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is there in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. At the time, houses consisted typically of a single living area and then a second space, a room, where provisions were kept. Jesus is probably referring here to this storage room, readily accessible to all in the house. Go to a place where others will not see you and where you will not see them. God is present everywhere. God is present in places of prayer and whenever we pray together. But in order to be free enough to pray, we need to move, so to speak, from being in the gaze of others to being in God’s gaze. It is a real transition, and the daily challenge of prayer. There, where the one whom Jesus calls “our Father” is present, we are met by a different kind of gaze. If the hypocrites, as Jesus puts it, have already received their reward, those who dare to pray “in secret” open themselves to another kind of reward, namely what God gives and does in their lives.

- What does Jesus’ use of the word “hypocrite” suggest to me? Does it help me identify certain challenges I face when I pray?

- What places help us to pray? Do I think that the room Jesus speaks about is a particular place or could it be anywhere?

Other bible meditations:

Last updated: 1 October 2022