What did Jesus mean when he warned about praying in public?
There can be at least two difficulties with this portion of Scripture. One, I have seen people misuse and abuse this text, missing the actual point that Jesus is trying to make here. And two, it may seem that what is said here contradicts what Jesus had just said in the previous chapter – especially 5:13-16.
What this passage is warning against is fake spirituality: of striving to be seen by men and praised by them. In Matthew 6:1-18, part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks about various religious activities such as prayer and fasting. One thing that stands out in this passage is how often Jesus warns against doing these religious duties in public, or in front of others.
Four times in these 18 verses Jesus clearly says we should not be so public about such things for the purposes of trying to impress others, of seeking to get their attention, and so on. Here is Matthew 6:1-18:
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Notice the four instances where this command is given:
-a warning about ‘practicing righteousness’ in public in verse 1
-a warning about giving in public in verses 2-4
-a warning about praying in public in verses 5-15
-a warning about fasting in public in verses 16-18
All of these religious practices should really be between you and God, and you should not be doing them just to try to be seen by others, to impress others, or to try to parade your spirituality in public. Putting on airs in public for the purpose of having others think how spiritual you are is just not on according to Jesus.
Now these are not blanket statements that must be absolutised. For example, we know that Jesus and the disciples did at times pray in public and the like. So this is not saying such things are always wrong. What is being said has more to do with our motivation.
Trying to look good in front of others, and trying to put on a spiritual show to get others to be impressed with us is certainly what is being warned against here. Our aim, our motivation, should always be about pleasing God, not pleasing men. Our desire is to do that which glorifies God.
It is far too easy to do things to be liked by others and rewarded by others. But Jesus wants us to do that which God sees and likes, and we are to let him reward us. We are not to be like the Scribes and Pharisees in this regard. As we read in John 12:42-43:
“Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God.”
As always, we need biblical balance here. We must compare Scripture with Scripture. In the chapter just before this Jesus told his followers that they are the light of the world. He went on to say, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (5:16).
Yet here he is warning against any public display of our spirituality. So is this a contradiction? No – again, it has to do with attitude and motivation. We DO want the world to see the fruit of a life transformed. But we do good things, not to get the praise of men, but to glorify God and draw men to him. John Stott helpfully speaks to this seeming contradiction:
In both verses he speaks of doing good works ‘before men’ and in both the objective is stated, namely in order to be ‘seen’ by them. But in the earlier case he commands it, while in the later one he prohibits it. How can this discrepancy be resolved? The contradiction is only verbal not substantial. The clue lies in the fact that Jesus is speaking against different sins. It is our human cowardice which made him say ‘Let your light shine before men’, and our human vanity which made him tell us to beware of practising our piety before men. A. B. Bruce sums it up well when he writes that we are to ‘show when tempted to hide’ and ‘hide when tempted to show’. Our good works must be public so that our light shines; our religious devotions must be secret lest we boast about them.
Again, all this is about our motivation. Why do we do religious things? Are we being hypocritical or sincere? Do we seek the praise of men or the praise of God? Just what is our motivation? Concerning the entire passage, many other commentators could be drawn upon to offer insight and reflection.
Let me utilise just one: Daniel Doriani. Writing in the Reformed Expository Commentary series he makes this very clear and helpful elucidation of this text:
We must clarify Jesus’ teaching. He does not mean we must always hide our good deeds. He does not say that it is wrong to be seen praying. Rather, it is wrong to pray in order to be seen. He does not say it is wrong to be seen giving a gift to the needy. But it is wrong to give in order to be seen giving….
If we regularly invite the divorced and the widowed to holiday dinners, or if we invite the singles and college students to share a Sunday meal, then someone will eventually discover it. It is no sin for the word to leak out that we are hospitable. But it is hypocrisy to be hospitable so that people will discover and praise our hospitality. True hospitality looks to the joy of the lonely and the needy, not the glory of the host. The desire to be recognized for doing good must not displace the simple desire to do good….
Jesus warns against hypocrisy, but he never says that we should avoid expressing our faith in traditional, visible ways. Indeed, he assumes that his disciples will manifest their faith in activities such as giving and praying. He does not say, “If you give to the needy . . .” Rather, he says, “When you give to the needy . . . When you pray . . . When you fast . . .” (6:2, 5, 16). When we do such things, we must beware of practicing them “in order to be seen” (6:1 ESV). Yes, since a righteous person is equally righteous in public and in private, good deeds will invariably be seen in public.
In sum, how common is it for us to do religious things in front of others, and to try to parade our spirituality before men? We all have done it, but we need to take the warnings of Jesus seriously. We need to stay on our knees, allowing God to wean us from this false and man-made religiosity, allowing him to get all the glory, while drawing men heaven-ward by the good deeds he graciously allows us to do in his name.