Christianity without Hypocrisy (Part 2) – By Rev Gabriel Gan
II. Praying to Be Heard (vs. 5-8)
The second of Jesus’ examples of religious piety and the one he deals with at greatest length is prayer. He assumes his disciples will pray, but he is concerned about how prayer is done. Jesus warns us not to seek man’s praise, assures us that those who do will get only an earthly answer, commands us to perform such acts privately, and promises that God, who hears in secret, will reward us openly.
Jesus warns of two wrong types of prayer.
- Ostentatious prayer (vv.5–6)
In synagogue services public prayer was customarily led by a male member of the congregation who stood in front of the ark of the law and discharged this responsibility. A man could easily succumb to the temptation of praying up to the audience/congregation. The acceptable clichés, the appropriate sentiments, the well-pitched fervency, all become tools to win approval, and perhaps to compete with the chap who led in prayer last week.
But whenever a person prays in order to enhance his own reputation, God is not listening.
We have an example of this in Christ’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee “stood up and prayed about himself” (Lk 18:11). He had his reward; he was noticed by the people standing by. They must have said, “Look at that Pharisee! How pious he is!” Yet Jesus said that it was the tax collector who was justified. He did not call attention to himself but rather “stood at a distance,” praying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (v. 13). He had his reward in heaven.
- Repetitious prayer (vv. 7–8)
The second kind of wrong prayer is repetitious prayer, which Jesus identifies as characteristic of Gentiles or pagans. The prayers of the priests of Baal in the days of Elijah are an example. They called on Baal “from morning till noon,” calling louder and louder and even “slashed themselves with swords and spears” (see 1 Kings 18:25–29). But Baal did not hear them.
Jesus is not condemning long prayers in these verses since he himself spent long nights and many hours in prayer. What he is condemning is “vain repetition.” Sadly, many prayers are like this. Indeed, we can even be idle in our repetition of the so-called Lord’s Prayer, which follows these verses.
What, then, is to characterize our prayers? Jesus mentions two things. First: “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly” (6:6). We will comprehend Jesus’ point better if we each ask ourselves these questions: Do I pray more frequently and more fervently when alone with God than I do in public? Do I love the secret place of prayer? Is my public praying simply the overflow of my private praying?
How, then, should we pray? Jesus himself gives us a wonderful example, usually referred to as “The Lord’s Prayer,” but more appropriately designated “The Lord’s Model Prayer.”
II The final “act of righteousness” Jesus discusses is fasting. In the Jewish calendar there were certain special fasts in which everybody participated. These took place in connection with the high feast days, such as the Day of Atonement or the Jewish New Year. Fasts might also be called when, for example, the autumn rains failed to appear; these fasts, too, would be national in scope. In addition, many individuals would fast at other times, allegedly for reasons of moral and religious self-discipline, and especially as a sign of deep repentance and brokenness before the Lord.
But what began as spiritual self-discipline degenerated into an occasion for pompous self-righteousness. Some would wear glum expressions on their faces, go about their business unwashed and unkempt, and sprinkle ashes on their head, all to inform peers that they were fasting. What was once a sign of humiliation became a sign of self-display.
The issue is not how often we should fast. It is how we fast and why. “But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; Thou thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. (vv. 17–18). As far as the “how” is concerned, we are to do it privately before God and not to seek attention from men. Once the believer has told someone about his fasting, God is looking the other way. However, God is conscious of all forms of self-denial for His sake and is pleased with His faithful servants.
The question is raised in its most practical form: Whom am I trying to please by my religious practices? Honest reflection on that question can produce most disquieting results.
Genuine piety is superlatively attractive. But the real beauty of righteousness must not be tarnished by sham. May God help us!