“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when 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. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Matthew 6:5-8

Here we see that Jesus is instructing his disciples in the manner in which they should not pray. Yet there is one poignant observation that should be made in which Jesus uses the term “when” in reference to our prayers. Though subtle Jesus is showing that his disciples are people who pray; even though the term is a subjunctive, implying “whenever”, it carries the force that we are to be a people who pray. Moving from that understanding, we find next that Jesus tells us how we are not pray.

The command is that we “must not be like the hypocrites.” The phrase “must not” is legal terminology designed to cement the comment in the mind of the hearer. Above all else we are not to be hypocrites in our prayers. A hypocrite in the ancient world was originally a term used for an actor – someone who is only playing a part. Our modern understanding carries much of this idea in that we understand it to be someone who is two-faced, saying one thing and doing another. While the term alone would be enough to describe how we should not act in relation to our prayer life, Jesus goes further and provides specific examples that his disciples should avoid.

Standing in prayer was actually a common practice and not the point that Jesus is making, rather he is concerned that the person who is praying is doing so for the attention that it draws to them. It was common practice in Jewish society that a person might be asked to pray in a synagogue service (much like we would ask a member to stand and pray in our own services), and it was also common that a trumpet would sound from the temple three times a day (morning, afternoon around 3pm, and night) calling the people to a moment of prayer. Jesus is not against these public forms of prayer, but against the hypocrite who is doing so for the approval of men and not that of God. Perhaps we have seen this in our own services; someone is asked to pray and for the next 5-10 minutes they proceed to list and praise all the attributes and promises of God using a language that is clearly meant to demonstrate their superior spiritual maturity. It is this type of prayer which Jesus says his disciples are not to imitate, for such a prayer receives its due reward in the accolades of the people around such a person. Rather a disciple of Jesus should pray in a different way.

Unlike the prayers of the hypocrite Jesus’ disciples are to pray in “your room” with the door closed. A typical Jewish home would have a small pantry used for storage and it is this closet that Jesus has in mind. The disciple is to seek a place of solitude in prayer because n doing so the focus is not on the approval of others, but on the approval of the Lord to whom the prayer is directed. He even goes so far as to reassure us that God is able to see us in our solitude, point out the omniscience of God, and that he will reward us accordingly.