Scripture: Matthew 6:5–18
Jesus’ reference to public prayer was not the same as what you and I might consider it to be today. “When you pray,” he said, “don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them.” He describes flamboyant, hypocritical praying that sounds a bit like grand theatre—because it probably was.
Although some Jewish prayers (such as the Amidah) included standing, most did not. Thus, Bible scholar Craig Evans tells us that this word picture of Christ likely hearkens to Greek-influenced performance art of the time. The Greek word we translate as “hypocrite” in verse 5 is one that was typically associated with a career actor, or more literally, a “play-actor.” In Greek culture it also carried the meaning of “pretender.”
This play-actor theme continued Christ’s earlier sentiments about “acts of righteousness” done as performance art (see Matthew 6:1–2), and it would’ve been readily familiar to Jesus’ audience. Only a few miles north of Nazareth, in nearby Sepphoris, Herod Antipas had built a large, Greco-Roman style theatre with seating for a whopping 2,500 people. Antipas’ father, Herod the Great, had also built similar theatres in Jerusalem and Jericho.
Jesus labeled religious narcissists who stood and made their private prayers in public settings as hypocrites. His hearers would likely have pictured the theatre in Sepphoris (or Jerusalem or Jericho), and seen a vain, preening actor, standing center stage, delivering a sloppy soliloquy in hopes of applause. Prayer, according to Christ, was never meant to be that.
“Why does Jesus say it’s wrong to pray publicly?” is reprinted from Bible-Smart: Matthew © 2023 Nappaland Communications Inc. Published Tyndale House Publishers/Rose Publishing. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
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