14 September 2020

The street-corner show-off.

Matthew 6.5-6.

Throughout history people have prayed publicly for various reasons. Some noble, some not.

And a regular problem throughout history has been the person who gets up and prays publicly, not because they legitimately wanna talk with God, or call to him for help. It’s because they wanna be seen praying. They wanna look religious. Usually so they can look more religious than they actually are. In other words hypocrisy.

Nothing annoys Jesus like hypocrisy, which is why he tries to discourage his followers from doing this. Although you know some of us do this anyway.

Matthew 6.5-6 KWL
5 “When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites who enjoy standing in synagogues and major intersections,
praying so they might be seen by the people. Amen! I promise you all, they got their credit.
6 When you pray, go into your most private room with the door closed.
Pray to your Father in private. Your Father, who sees what’s private, will credit you.”

Standing was how the ancients prayed. They didn’t kneel, bow their heads, and fold their hands; that practice arose in the middle ages ’cause it’s how European kings wanted to be approached, and since Jesus is King it seems appropriate. But the ancients stood, looked to the sky (where they imagined God is) raised their hands to get his attention, and spoke with him. This posture made it really obvious someone was praying. Don’t need to get loud; just assume the position.

And Jesus notes the folks who prayed in really public places. Like synagogue. Which is not a Jewish church; it’s a Pharisee school, where you went to ask rabbis questions. Prayer times, before and after and during the lesson, would be short. But people would stand right outside the building and make a public display of prayer, “getting right with God” before going in. Or similarly praying this way after the lesson, ostensibly to thank God for the wisdom they just got… or maybe to ask him to straighten out some wayward rabbi. Whatever; the point was they were making it nice ’n obvious they talked with God a lot.

“Major intersections” is how I translate ταῖς γωνίαις τῶν πλατειῶν/tes yoníës ton plateión, “the corners of the wide streets,” namely the avenues where there was lots of room between buildings for people to shop, interact, people-watch, and otherwise hang out. Street corners were obviously where people were coming in from other streets—so the busy parts, busier than our own major intersections.

In both cases people were on their way someplace, and wouldn’t have had the time, nor spent the time, listening to this petitioner with his hands in the air. That wasn’t the point anyway. They didn’t care about being heard. Not even by God. They wanted to be seen.

The way we pray nowadays, doesn’t assume the ancient posture. Usually it’s heads bowed, eyes closed. Sometimes hands get raised, if the folks in the group have any Pentecostal influences in their background. But generally we’re not as noticeable when we pray. Unless we get loud… or unless there are a lot of us, like when a bunch of people pray in front of public buildings or around a flagpole.

But in those places, same as with the people Jesus critiqued, the point was to be seen and noticed by other people. Not so much God. And that’s what Jesus objects to.

“But people need to see us pray!”

Back when I taught junior high school, one of our teachers came up with the idea of a “missions trip” to Washington D.C. so we could pray over civic buildings. Supposedly prayers are more powerful when you do ’em at the places you’re praying for… even though Jesus demonstrated you could be miles away. I went because an educational tour of the capital was a good idea, but since our “mission” didn’t include any evangelism or ministry (apart from a few hours playing with kids at an Anacostia church’s VBS), I didn‘t bother to call it a “missions trip.” Field trip.

Anyway we’d go to the Capitol, or the Lincoln Memorial, and take five minutes to gather in a circle and pray. A number of kids thought this was a bold, radical idea… but this is the United States, which is full of Christians doing stuff like this, so Washington is totally used to the practice. I saw at least three other prayer groups during our trip. (Including one at the Natural History Museum, loudly praying against the displays which suggested evolution. Yeesh.)

Did we need to form circles for prayer? Nah. We could’ve done as I’ve done on missions trips to places where people don’t approve of prayer: Pray silently or quietly, with eyes wide open in case anyone catches us and objects (or, in cities with more criminals, in case anyone takes advantage of all these silly Christians with their eyes closed, and pickpockets as many of us as they can). The point of the prayer circle was to make us feel more bold, more conspicuous, and to somewhat show off that we were praying in public.

And if anyone saw us praying, you’d get the usual two responses: Christians who feel the same way, and approved of our behavior; or people (including fellow Christians!) who feel this is inappropriate, and walk away annoyed.

What about how God feels? Gonna quote Jesus again: “Amen! I promise you all, they got their credit.”

“Credit” is how I translated μισθὸν/misthón, which the KJV renders “reward”—a word that’s changed meaning over the centuries, so no, it doesn‘t actually mean “reward” anymore. It properly means compensation. When you work, you get paid. When you hold a position or public office, you get a stipend. When you pray, you’re typically asking God for something, and God’s response is our compensation. Including when he tells us no, because God’s “no” is always the right answer to a question that should really get a no.

Yeah, sometimes we get Christians who insist misthón does so mean “reward”—that when we pray, God rewards us. Kinda like we’re racking up good karma whenever we pray. Do it often enough and we’ll have a vast storehouse of merit, ’cause God’ll owe us big-time. But this mindset warps Jesus’s meaning. God owes us nothing. As his kids, he’s granted us access to everything—if we ask.

But when we’re not really praying—when we’re just going through the motions of prayer to show off—we’re not really asking, are we? Are any of those prayer requests legit? Nope. Need God answer any of them? Nope.

Does the hypocrite even care that God doesn’t bother to answer these prayers? Not really. Prayer answers wasn’t the point. Public acclaim was. They were seen praying. That’s all that matters.

Same with some of the folks in public prayer circles. When the high school kids gather round the flagpole for a “See you at the pole” thing, some of them are legitimately there to pray for the school and nation. Others are there only because they want their classmates to know they’re Christian. Or because they’re not all that Christian, but they think Jesus’s “If you don’t acknowledge me I won‘t acknowledge you” Lk 12.8-9 means he’s threatening them with hell if they don’t make public displays, so clearly they don‘t have the sort of relationship with him where they know better than to resort to grand but empty gestures.

In any event they make the display, get their satisfaction, and that’s the extent of things. That’s as far as their “relationship” with God goes. Which is actually fine with them. They don’t really care to make things more than superficial.

“You’re gonna lose your reward.”

More often the way I’ve heard Christians interpret this passage is to warn one another, “If you pray in public, you’re gonna lose your reward.” If you were hoping your prayers get turned into heavenly Skee-ball tickets which you can later trade for a plush unicorn, watch out, ’cause you won’t win any tickets for public prayers.

Really it’s a demented interpretation, ’cause it reduces talking with God to a earned transaction. As if the only reason we interact with him is to accumulate material goods or power. But y’know, plenty of us Christians are materialistic like that.

Hence I rendered Jesus’s verb ἀποδώσει/apodósei the same way I did his noun misthón: “Will satisfy.” You come to God with needs; he’s happy to satisfy those needs. You come to God with wants; he’ll either help change your wants to his wants, or he’ll likewise satisfy those wants. He’s not granting you a reward for fulfilling your prayer obligations: He’s being your Father and taking care of you.

When we’re being hypocrites, it’s usually to give off the impression we’ve already been rewarded. We want everyone to figure we’re blessed; that God’s given us everything we want, and made us prosperous and victorious and wealthy, and supposedly this is connected to the fact we pray at him loudly and proudly. In truth most hypocrites only pray to be seen, and therefore have no authentic prayer life at all… and any “blessings” they have are the ones they paid for, usually with maxed-out credit cards.

When we’re being authentic, there’s no pride involved. We’re in our closets, talking to God privately, sharing everything, being honest, being humble. We don’t need to show off our blessings, ’cause anyone can see them. We don’t need to show off our good example—the usual excuse people have for public prayer—’cause that’s likewise obvious for anyone who’s looking. God satisfies our needs, and there’s far more trust and comfort in our relationship with him. That’s what Jesus wants us to pursue. Not the noise of people who don’t want us to notice the real messes of their lives, but the steadiness of those whom God satisfies.