9 August 2016

Matthew 6:5-8

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever 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. When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (vv. 5-8)

Psalm: Psalm 131


Standing to pray was normal Jewish practice: one of Judaism's best known prayers is called the 'Amidah' (the 'standing'). Like yesterday's passage, standing and praying in public is likened to being a hypocrite, a reminder of the play-actor who stands in the theatre and gives a soliloquy. Jesus contrasts this behaviour with the virtue of going into a "room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret"'. The Greek word for room is 'tameion',which refers to a private room where time could be spent with friends. We may find an echo here of the words of Isaiah 26:20, "Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you".

Jesus does not only give guidance for the location of our individual prayers, he also comments on the content of our prayers. One of the central aspects of our Christian discipleship is prayer. Through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we can talk to God in a different way. Rowan Williams comments on this in his book, Being Christian (SPCK, 2014): "Jesus speaks to God for us, but we speak to God in him. That, in a nutshell, is prayer - letting Jesus pray in you, and beginning that lengthy and often very tough process by which our selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes are gradually aligned with his eternal actions". In this way prayer is no longer something we do, but something we are letting God do in us. God knows what we need before we ask.

An understandable question then arises, which has been asked in countless generations: if God knows what we need, why do we pray? It is not God who needs our prayer, but it is God who desires our prayer that we might be orientated to God and God's purposes for our lives and the life of the world. Prayer is not about changing God, but being willing to allow God to change us. Jesus does not see prayer as optional, but assumes "when you are praying". Our prayer life individually and corporately is an essential part of our discipleship.

To Ponder

  • What dominates the thoughts and words of your prayers?
  • What, for you, is the purpose of prayer?
  • If you find praying a struggle, what might help you to work on this with God? 

Bible notes author

Deacon Eunice Attwood

Eunice is a Methodist deacon. She is a tutor in Pastoral Theology at the Queen's Foundation in Birmingham, and a member of the Centre for Ministerial Formation since 2012.