Notes on Prayer: Matthew 6:5-8

Matthew 6:5-8

The main section of teaching by Jesus on prayer, in the Gospel of Matthew, is in chapter 6 (part of the “Sermon on the Mount”). In Matt 6:1-18, Jesus gives instruction to his disciples regarding their religious behavior and attitudes, drawing upon three basic components of conventional (Jewish) religion—(1) charitable giving to the needy (vv. 2-4), (2) prayer (vv. 5-6ff), and (3) fasting (vv. 16-18). All three are discussed according to the pattern laid out in verse 1:

“You must hold (yourself carefully) toward your right(eous)ness [dikaiosu/nh], not to do (it) in front of men, (and) toward it being looked at by them, and if not [i.e. if you are not careful], (then) you hold no payment [misqo/$] (from) alongside your Father in the heavens.”

This statement illustrates the problem with translating dikaiosu/nh as “justice” or “righteousness”; something like “right-ness” would be more appropriate. Here it is used, in a conventional religious sense, of a person who lives and acts (or would so act) in a right way before God; or, perhaps more to the point—that such persons, through their behavior, would show themselves to be right and just. In this regard, Jesus’ teaching to his followers is as clear as it is striking: such religious behavior should not be done publicly in front of others. Actually there are two components to this injunction: (a) it should not be done in front of others, and (b) it should not be done for the purpose of being seen by others; this second aspect clarifies the meaning of the first, and represents a more serious situation. Jesus warns them that, if they are not careful in this matter, they will receive no recognition from God for their religious way of life. The word misqo/$ refers to payment made for the work a person does (and is hired to do)—that is, a wage, though sometimes it can also be used in the sense of a reward. Here, the basic idea is that a person would normally expect to receive recognition (payment, reward) from God for right and proper religious behavior.

This teaching by Jesus is illustrated through three examples of typical religious behavior, as noted above. The expository pattern followed is precise for each case, with the exception of the ‘added’ teaching on prayer in vv. 7-15. The pattern may be outlined as:

    • The u(pokritai/
      • Warning against behaving like them
      • Description of how they behave
      • They already have all the payment they will receive
    • Jesus’ disciples
      • Description of how they should behave
      • If so, they will receive future/heavenly payment from God

The noun u(pokrith/$ is difficult to translate accurately; it is often simply given in the transliterated form which has passed into English—hypocrite—but this is generally inappropriate and can be misleading due to the negative value-judgment built into this word. Originally, the verb u(pokri/nw (middle/passive u(pokri/nomai) literally would have meant something like “separating out from under”, generally in the sense of bringing out an answer or explanation. This came to be applied widely in the technical sense of an actor or poet interpreting a role or work (before an audience), and along with this basic meaning, the more negative connotation of acting falsely/deceptively by “playing a part”, “play-acting”, etc. Here, Jesus draws upon this idea of a person playing a role, and doing it in front of others—note in v. 1 the verb qea/omai (“look [upon]”) from which comes the noun qe/atron (our “theater” in English), lit. a place for viewing (looking at) something.

With this in mind, let us consider Jesus’ illustration of the teaching with regard to prayer—first, a description of the u(pokritai/:

“And when you would speak out toward (God), you shall not be as th(ose who) respond under (a mask) [oi( u(pokritai/], (in) that they are fond (of being) in the (place)s of gathering together (to worship) and in the corners of the wide (street)s, having stood to speak out toward (God), (and) how they might be made to shine forth (so) to men—Amen, I relate to you, they (already) hold their payment from (this).” (v. 5)

The verb typically translated “pray” (proseu/xomai) literally means “speak out toward”, which, in a religious context, obviously refers to addressing God. To preserve something of the literal meaning of the noun u(pokrith/$, I have translated the plural here as “the (one)s responding under (a mask)”, with the added detail of a mask capturing the image of the stage-actor playing a role. Who are these ‘actors’? In context, it can only refer to those who seek public recognition or affirmation for their righteous/religious behavior; implied in this, is that many (or most) religiously-minded people, to some extent, would fit under the description—that is, it is typical of conventional religion. It is said that such people “are fond” (filou=sin) of two things related to their prayer:

    • First, of being around other people, either in the buildings where people are brought together to worship (the sunagwgh/, or “synagogue”), or outside in the open (“wide”, platei=a) streets and squares.
    • Second, of standing (e(stw=te$) when they pray, which enhances their visibility

Both are done so that these persons “might be made to shine forth” (fanw=sin) as righteous and devout, and to be recognized as such by others. It should be pointed out that this portrait by Jesus is something of an exaggeration, one that is meant to illustrate typical religious behavior—one concerned with appearances and what others think about what we do—in a rather extreme manner. By contrast, Jesus’ instruction for his followers points to the very opposite extreme:

“But when you would speak out toward (God), you must go into your (own) place (where things are) gathered, and, closing your entrance, you must speak out toward (God) in the hidden (place); and (then) your Father, the (One) looking in the hidden (place), will give forth (payment) to you.” (v. 6)

There is, I think, an intentional contrast here, based on the motif of “gathering together”, which is largely lost in translation. I have tried to preserve this above by rendering the noun tam[i]ei=on most literally as a place where things are collected/gathered together (for use)—i.e. a store-room, closet, etc. Here this is understood to be a private room in a person’s own house, in contrast to a public place (or building) where groups of people gather together (i.e. sunagwgh, “synagogue”). Moreover, the door is to be shut, so that the person is entirely hidden (krupto/$) from all other people. The contrast could not be more definite. Is this meant to be taken concretely, as though one should avoid all public contact or gathering when one prays? Or does it rather symbolize the overall attitude and outlook Jesus’ followers (believers) should have? Probably the latter, with the specific details representing the same extreme or exaggerated portrait with which it is contrasted in v. 5. At the same time, Jesus absolutely emphasizes the “hidden” vs. the public—that is, recognition from God alone, since it is only He who can see into the hidden place. Ultimately this hiddenness is a matter of the heart—of inner attitudes and intention—rather than any sort of external behavior. Paul uses much the same language, though with a different purpose and emphasis, in Romans 2:28-29:

“For (one) is not a Jew in the shining forth [e)n tw=| fanerw=|] (to others), and circumcision (is not) in the shining forth in the flesh, but a (true) Jew (is so) in the hidden [e)n tw=| kruptw=|] (place), and circumcision (is) of the heart—in the Spirit, not the letter—the praise of which (comes) not out of men, but out of God.”

Interestingly, the conclusion is the same: praise and reward for one’s religious behavior is to come entirely from God, not other human beings. Jesus casts this in an eschatological light—the outward-oriented behavior of most religious people is rewarded in the present, from the public praise and recognition they receive; but, for Jesus’ followers, there will be a heavenly/eternal reward from God in the future.

Jesus’ teaching in verses 7-15

As noted above, the pattern for all three areas illustrated by Jesus—charitable giving, prayer, and fasting—is precise, and very nearly identical (vv. 2-6, 16-18). However, the prayer-illustration has been expanded to include additional teaching on prayer. While it is possible that this association could be part of the earliest tradition—that is, made by Jesus himself in his preaching—most critical commentators would hold that this section, like the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, represents a collection of Jesus’ teaching, originally given on different occasions (presumably), which has been gathered together based on theme and “catchword-bonding”. The disruption of the teaching pattern of 6:1-18, along with the fact that some of the teaching in vv. 7-15 (such as the Lord’s Prayer itself) occurs in a different narrative location (in Luke), would seem to confirm this. At any rate, this ‘additional’ teaching on prayer may be divided into four distinct sayings or traditions, including the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 9-13). As I have discussed the Lord’s Prayer extensively in prior notes, I will here address, briefly, only the sayings in vv. 7-8, 14-15.

Verse 7

“And (in your) speaking out toward (God), you should not give a stuttering account, just as the (one)s (among the) nations (do), for they consider that in the many (words of) their account they will be listened to (by God).”

Here the contrast is specifically with the way that people in the surrounding nations pray; as in vv. 5-6, this again is certainly an exaggerated portrait of pagan prayer, characterized by two related terms:

    • The verb battologe/w, the first portion of which is of uncertain derivation but is usually understood to mean something like “stammering, babbling”, etc; I translate the verb above as “give a stuttering account”. It possibly refers to the tendency to extend or enhance prayer with ‘magical’ or strange-sounding words. Such use of ‘tongues’ can give a false impression of the special/inspired character of the prayer; cp. Paul’s careful instruction regarding the use of ‘tongues’ in (public) worship in 1 Cor 14.
    • The noun polulogi/a, “account/speech” (logi/a) of “many” (polu/$) words; again, there is a common religious tendency to extend the length and complexity of prayer with words, phrases, petitions, epithets, etc.
      (For more on both terms, and what they may signify, with examples from Greco-Roman literature and religion, cf. Betz, Sermon, pp. 364-7.)
Verse 8

“(So) then you should not be like them: for your Father has (already) seen [i.e. known] the (thing)s which you hold as need(s) (even) before your asking him (for them).”

The first portion of v. 8 clearly relates as much to the saying in v. 7 as what follows; I suspect that vv. 7-8, at least, belong together from the earliest (or very early) layer of Gospel tradition. Even if the core of v. 8 represents a separate saying, together here they form a contrast for how Jesus’ disciples should conduct themselves in prayer, as in vv. 5-6—it should not be the way most people (whether Jew [vv. 5-6] or Gentile [vv. 7-8]) typically do. In particular, there should be recognition of God’s providential foreknowledge regarding what His people (the righteous/believers) need, and that he will not fail to provide. There is a general parallel to this idea elsewhere in the Sermon (5:45; 6:25-34; 7:7-11; par Lk 11:9-13; 12:22-31). As such, this teaching is fundamentally theological—Jesus’ disciples are to understand this aspect of God’s nature and character. Indeed, it is this very awareness that shapes our prayer and also serves as a fitting introduction to the Lord’s Prayer (vv. 9-13).

Verses 14-15

“For, if you would release for (other) men their (moment)s of falling alongside, your heavenly Father will also release (them) for you; but if you would not release (them) for (other) men, (then) your Father also will not release your (moment)s of falling alongside.”

This dual-saying has a parallel in the wider Synoptic tradition (Mark 11:25[-26]), and has been included here (whether by Jesus as speaker or as a traditional association) because of its similarity to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer (v. 12). Moreover, it also relates back to earlier instruction in the Sermon itself (5:23-24), which similarly connects forgiveness/reconciliation toward others with the legitimacy of our (external) religious behavior—with the point that forgiveness takes priority over even our dearest offerings and prayer to God. The parallelism in this teaching is precise and absolute in its reciprocity—as we do (to others), so it will be done to us (by God). This is a core teaching of Jesus’, central to the Sermon (7:12, etc) as well as found in parables, etc, throughout the Gospel Tradition, and yet one that remains most challenging for us to follow. For more on the Gospel parallels and the relation of this saying to the Lord’s Prayer, see my earlier note on Matt 6:12 / Lk 11:4a.

References above marked “Betz, Sermon” are to the outstanding critical commentary on The Sermon on the Mount by Hans Dieter Betz, in the Hermeneia Series (Fortress Press: 1995).