1 “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding. 2-4 When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘play actors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.
Jesus suggests that there must be attentiveness to human need, as opposed to attention to personal aggrandizement. The practice of service is presupposed. But Jesus teaches here how to serve.
Service must be offered with the recipient in mind. We should not concern ourselves with how the rendering of service will help us—only how it will help the one in need. Aid should be rendered unobtrusively to the receiver with the right hand alone, not offered with both hands in a fashion designed to attract the attention of others nearby.
*The spiritual principle involved here is overcoming selfishness, which is at the root of sin.
5 “And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat? 6 Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.
Jesus seeks to instruct His disciples not just on the importance of prayer, but on how we should posture ourselves spiritually for the maximum benefit of prayer. Jesus helps us to see that prayer should reflect our desire to be like Him.
Jesus’ instruction on prayer is placed in the context of outward versus inward religious practices. Giving, prayer, and fasting are most often associated with religion and, in the this section of the discourse, Jesus speaks again of the inner heart versus outward forms. In the first set of verses, He speaks of giving. In the remainder of our printed lesson, and next week’s lesson, He speaks of prayer. In Matthew 6:16-18, He speaks of fasting. His treatment of all three topics is the same: If you have the outward form only or if the outward form focuses attention on you, the public acclaim that you receive—real or imagined—is all the benefit you will derive.
Those who give to be recognized for their giving, or who entertain with great prayers or fast in agony for the admiration of others, have erected outward forms only. They have confused the approval of others with approval of the Father.Jesus discusses two basic kinds of prayer. The first is that prayer by which the person praying seeks to draw attention to himself. He wants to be known as spiritual and holy. His religion gives him status, and by public prayer, he maintains and feeds it. The preferred kind of prayer is “relational prayer.” This is prayer that seeks time with the Father. Jesus, for teaching purposes, draws a distinct line between the two, but we must acknowledge that most people will fall somewhere between the two extremes. It is also important to understand that no one can read the mind and intentions of another heart. What might seem to be the height of arrogance may only reflect upbringing. Or gentle, quiet prayers may come from one who has no private prayer life at all. Jesus’ instructions are for us to know and personally apply His words and to let the Holy Spirit guide and train our hearts in these matters.
So Jesus advises us to go into our rooms and shut the door. There are places and ways to pray that are between the Father and us. By entering such places, we demonstrate that we “believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6).
The rewards of relational prayer are that it can a) direct the heart, b) receive answers and close or open doors, c) strengthen the character and spirit, d) increase faith and spiritual gifting, and e) bring a deeper sense of the Father’s presence and care. These are good things and worth having.
7-8 The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and He knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply.
Jesus contrasts prayer to the Father with the prayer-ignorant. He describes such prayer as strong on formula and weak on spirituality. That kind of prayer is about the effort to manipulate spiritual forces and entities that do not generally care about you as an individual. Jesus teaches the following:
• We must not pray “like the prayer-ignorant”—praying to God in name, but not in knowledge. This is similar to what Paul wrote to the Romans about the Jews who did not accept Jesus as their Messiah (Romans 10:2).
• We should not engage in repetitious babbling—praying without real content.
• We should resist using many words, just to be heard—praying with an attitude that God is not listening and must be manipulated to answer.
In answer to this, Jesus says that our Father knows what we need even before we ask. We are praying to our Father, which means that we are in a family relationship. We are part of His life, and He anticipates what we need. We can, therefore, come to Him as transparent people. We can come before Him glad, sad, or mad, and He will be there in full understanding. Manipulation is not required.