The Sermon on the Mount—“When You Pray, . . .”
FOLLOWING his comments about avoiding hypocrisy when making gifts of mercy to the poor, Jesus said: “Also, when you pray, you must not be as the hypocrites.”—Matt. 6:5a.
The expression “when you pray” indicates that, for Jesus’ disciples, prayer would be a regular part of true worship. However, they were not to imitate the “hypocrites,” or self-righteous Pharisees, whose public display of religious devotion was merely a pretense.—Matt. 23:13-32.
Concerning those hypocrites, Jesus declared: “They like to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the broad ways to be visible to men.”—Matt. 6:5b.
By the first century C.E., it had become customary for Jews to pray as a congregation during the time of the morning and evening burnt offerings at the temple in Jerusalem, about 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Many inhabitants of that city would do so along with a crowd of fellow worshipers in the temple precincts. Outside Jerusalem, devout Jews frequently would choose to pray twice a day “in the synagogues.” The usual position during prayer was “standing.”—See also Luke 18:11, 13.
Since the majority of people would not be near the temple or a synagogue at the time for morning and evening prayer, the custom prevailed of praying wherever a person might find himself. Certain individuals ‘liked to’ have the time for prayer catch up with them while “on the corners of the broad ways.” They relished the thought of being “visible to men” passing by in four directions. In a display of false holiness, they would “for a pretext make long prayers,” so as to arouse the admiration of onlookers.*—Luke 20:47.
Concerning those hypocrites, Jesus declared: “Truly I say to you, They are having their reward in full.” (Matt. 6:5c) They were getting what they earnestly desired—the recognition and praise of fellow humans; and that was the whole of their reward. Their hypocritical prayers would get no response from God.
“You, however,” continued Jesus, “when you pray, go into your private room and, after shutting your door, pray to your Father who is in secret; then your Father who looks on in secret will repay you.”—Matt. 6:6.
These words of Jesus did not forbid prayer with the congregation. The admonition to pray in ‘a private room after shutting the door’ was meant to discourage public prayer for the purpose of calling attention to oneself and drawing the complimentary remarks of admirers. It is similar to the counsel about almsgiving in support of the poor: “Do not let your left hand know what your right is doing.” (Matt. 6:3) Jesus set a perfect example in praying without calling attention to himself. For example, when spending an entire night in prayer before choosing his twelve apostles, he did not petition God in front of onlookers but “went out into the mountain to pray.”—Luke 6:12.
Directing attention to another way in which hypocrites abused the privilege of prayer, Jesus said: “When praying, do not say the same things over and over again, just as the people of the nations do, for they imagine they will get a hearing for their use of many words.”—Matt. 6:7.
Jesus was not saying that his disciples should avoid repeating heartfelt supplications and expressions of thanksgiving in prayer. The gospel of Matthew relates that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed late into the night, repeatedly using “the same word.”—Matt. 26:36-45.
However, it would be wrong to mimic the repetitious prayers of “people of the nations.” They were in the habit of babbling “over and over again” memorized phrases that included many superfluous words. The Bible contains the example of Baal worshipers of ancient time who “kept calling upon the name of Baal from morning till noon, saying: ‘O Baal, answer us!’” (1 Ki. 18:26) And concerning Gentile opposers of Christianity at Ephesus, we read: “One cry arose from them all as they shouted for about two hours: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’” (Acts 19:34) In a work of the Roman poet Terence (second century B.C.E.), we read the following complaint: “Pray thee, wife, cease from stunning the gods with thanksgivings, because thy child is in safety; unless thou judgest of them from thyself, that they cannot understand a thing, unless they are told of it a hundred times.”
To this day, many “people of the nations” make repetitious prayers to their gods. For example, some Buddhists use a rosary of up to 108 beads in chanting the namu amida butsu (“may the soul rest in peace”). Similarly, in many churches of Christendom individuals pray the same phrases over and over again by rote, thinking that they “will get a hearing” because of such constant repetition. But this “use of many words” is of no value in the eyes of God.
“So, do not make yourselves like them,” continued Jesus, “for God your Father knows what things you are needing before ever you ask him.”—Matt. 6:8.
Evidently many of the Jewish religious leaders had ‘made themselves like’ the Gentiles through excessive wordiness in their prayers. Illustrative of this tendency is the following account in the Babylonian Talmud: “A certain [reader] went down in the presence of R[abbi] Hanina and said, O God, the great, mighty, terrible, majestic, powerful, awful, strong, fearless, sure and honoured.” The rabbi denounced such needless piling up of words as “an insult” to God.
Regular heartfelt prayer that includes praise, thanksgiving and petition to God is an important part of true worship. (Phil. 4:6) But it would be wrong to say the same things over and over again believing that such uninterrupted repetition is necessary to inform God of our needs, as if God were ignorant, inattentive and absentminded. A person should pray in full recognition that he is communicating with the One who “knows what things you are needing before ever you ask him.”
Concerning prayer on the streets and in public places, Jewish rabbinical writings give examples such as the following: “Rabbi Jochanan has said: ‘I have seen how Rabbi Jannai would stand and pray in the Marketplace of Sepphoris and then walk four cubits and say the Musaf [additional] prayer.’” (Palestinian Talmud) “If one is standing and praying on the street or in an open area, he steps aside [for an oncoming] ass, an ass driver or potter without interrupting his prayer. Concerning Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa [about 70 C.E.] it is related that he was standing and praying. Then a poisonous serpent bit him. He, however, did not interrupt his prayer.”—Tosephta (writings supplementary to the Mishnah).