In the sixth chapter of Matthews gospel, Jesus gives his disciples some advice about prayer. He begins by telling them how not to pray… which to me, would seem to indicate there is more that is okay than there is that’s not when it comes to prayer.
This advice comes in the middle of a section of scripture where Jesus is telling them that they need to be careful not to “practice their righteousness” in a way that they get attention for it. He says that if your religion is about getting attention, then whatever attention you do get is also all the reward you ever will get. He addresses such things as prayer, giving to the poor, etc. He says you shouldn’t “sound a trumpet” before you when you come to give your offering.. can you imagine someone actually having trumpets blast to announce them as they walk down the main isle at church to drop their money in the plate?!?! Apparently, people actually did that! He calls these people hypocrites because they pretend to honor God, but they’re really wanting to be honored by men. He says that when you give, don’t even let one hand know that the other is giving, he says to be sneaky about it! Don’t let anyone see you, give cash instead of a check, wrap a $1 bill around the outside so nobody can see how much you give.. it appears that God is less concerned with what or how much you give than He is with how you give it. My church has an app for my phone for giving your tithe, I love it because A) I don’t have to remember to bring anything with me on Sundays, but also because B) I can give right out of my bank account when I get paid and nobody sees me giving or knows how much. The only one who would ever know would be some nosey accountant rooting through a list of bank transactions. Jesus says God knows and rewards what is done in secret.
Jesus goes immediately from this discussion on giving onto the topic of prayer… again he warns his followers to make sure they aren’t like the hypocrites and the religious elite when they pray, people who are flamboyant and dramatic in their prayers to get attention from anyone listening (and they would do it loud enough to make sure everyone was listening). Again he says that whatever attention they get from this is their reward. It appears that not only will God not answer prayers like this, since prayer draws us near to God, which would be a reward, God does not even listen to these prayers! I know of people who are very poetic when they pray… very rehearsed… they bow their heads and start monologuing about love a grace and sin and forgiveness, like they’ve got a thesaurus and a concordance open in front of them.. and after the second or third time they’ve used some word like “propitiation” or “fellowship” the rest of us start thinking “would it be rude if I just start eating? …the Wendy’s staff is staring…” .
“Do not practice your righteousness before men to be noticed…”. It goes against everything we know to keep things to ourselves… especially today where we have smartphones and things like Twitter and Facebook and FitBit, Foursquare and Instagram, where every bodily function is photographed, tagged, geolocated and posted on the web for everyone to see… as if anyone really cares. I’m just as guilty as anyone when it comes to being lazy about this… I just don’t pay attention and make sure I’m not drawing attention to myself… I don’t think twice about sharing a Bible verse or checking in at church.. but why do we even do that? God doesn’t stalk your Facebook page to see if you’re being faithful, he doesn’t read your posts to see how holy you are… we can’t trick God with our words like we can with others… He knows what is done in secret, and that is how He will judge you. Why did you post how far you ran this afternoon or how many sit-ups you did at the gym? Why did you really send that email, leave that comment or post that photo? Why did you really volunteer to help or drive the van? Why did you really ask that person to have coffee with you?
In Matthew 6 Jesus tells us to practice our religion in a closet. Does the language of a closet sound familiar? Pop culture associates closets with shame… it’s a big deal today when someone “comes out” of their closet, usually in regards to being homosexual or bisexual, which is really the exact same thing Jesus is talking about, it’s about making a public statement about your private life… and Jesus says the attention you get is all the reward you’ll ever see. Some things do belong out in the light, they should not be kept a secret, but when they’re broadcast for the attention, that’s when we start wading into the areas of pride and hypocrisy.. and that’s a very dangerous place to be. It’s nearly impossible to ever convince someone (or ourselves) they’re behaving like a pharisee and they need to repent.. because it really does produce a lot of “fruit” that looks healthy… but Jesus words should send a little chill down our backs any time we’re complimented on our faith or our “religiosity”… “I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full… they’re Father in heaven has nothing for them…” It’s difficult to realize when our good intentions become empty works, and when the fruit of our labor is attention in bloom instead of invisible seeds planted.
It’s interesting to note that after Jesus instructs us to practice our religion in secret, he gives some practical advice about things to pray for. He says, don’t just recite the same things over and over, because more words won’t get you more attention from God. He then says a prayer, which has become knows as The Lords Prayer and has become one of the most recited passages in all of scripture! I think we’ve sort of missed the entire point!
God doesn’t care about the words you use, or if you’ve memorized the exact prayer Jesus said in Matthew 6. God doesn’t care about how much money you drop in the plate or how many weeks a month you sit in a pew.. what gets Gods attention is what is done in secret… what your heart looks like when the money drops, the tears you cried in bed last night when you couldn’t even find any words to pray at all… He doesn’t give a crap how many Bible verses or “encouragements” you post on Facebook to be seen by your 17,000 friends… He cares about what runs through your head while sitting at your desk, He cares about the state of your relationships, your intentions… in everything He cares about the reason why, and no matter how hard you try or how much you talk, you can’t hide it from Him.
The world really is a stage, and you have an audience of only One. At this very moment the Creator is there with you… He is the origin of life and love, time, galaxies and the sound of E minor. He tossed the stars in the sky and keeps the entire universe spinning… and at the same time he knows your name. He is wrapped around you, enveloping, penetrating and sustaining you… you cannot see Him, but he is looking you square in the eyes, every thought laying bare before him… Even now, He’s listening to the very beating of your heart… He knows you, every single thing about you… everything you have ever done and why you did it… you cannot hide from Him or run from Him any more than you can run from your own skin..
“…and your Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you accordingly.”