I once saw a video on YouTube that criticized a large segment of American Christianity, claiming that many Christians today ignore several of Jesus’ key teachings. For example, it said that many who claim to follow Jesus have abandoned his teachings about forgiveness, love for the poor, and not hoarding our possessions. Interestingly, the video also claimed that while many Christians like to pray in public, Jesus actually condemned the practice. Now, the video didn’t specify where Jesus was supposed to have said this, but it must have been referring to this passage:
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6)
On the surface, these words do seem to condemn public prayer. Jesus tells us not to be like the hypocrites who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men,” so it seems that this YouTube video was right. However, I would argue that’s actually not what Jesus meant. If we look at his words more carefully and read them in context, we can see that he was simply using hyperbolic language to get his point across.
The Passage Itself
To begin, let’s take a close look at what Jesus is saying here. He tells us to “go into your room and shut the door” when we pray, so if we take his words super literally, we would have to say that we can only pray in our rooms with the door closed; if the door is open or if we’re anywhere else, we can’t pray. Does that sound reasonable? Of course not! So right off the bat, we can see that we can’t take this teaching too literally. Rather, Jesus was speaking hyperbolically, going to the opposite extreme of the error he was condemning in order to make his point more forcefully.
And what was that point? Look at the first sentence: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men.” Jesus’ main point was that we shouldn’t pray in order to be seen praying; we shouldn’t pray in order to seem holy to others. And when he told us what we should do instead, he went to the opposite extreme, telling us to go pray in a private place entirely cut off from everybody and everything else, in order to make his point stick.
The Passage in Context
For confirmation of this, let’s look at the context of the passage. Right before this teaching, Jesus gives another one that’s even more obviously hyperbolic:
Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:2-4)
In this text, Jesus clearly doesn’t mean that we literally shouldn’t let one hand know what the other is doing; that doesn’t make any sense. Rather, he is just using a hyperbole to get His point across: we shouldn’t give alms in order to seem holy to others or to be praised by them.
Now, when we read our passage about public prayer in light of this one that came right before it, we can clearly see that Jesus wasn’t literally condemning all prayer outside of our rooms. No, the connection between these two passages argues against that interpretation. They both have the exact same form (including many of the same words and phrases), implying that they are meant to be taken the same way. Both start with a warning against doing what “the hypocrites” do in synagogues and on the street; then they both explain that the hypocrites “have their reward;” and finally, they both tell us to do our righteous deeds “in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Given all these similarities, if one of them is hyperbolic, the other very likely is as well.
Jesus’ Own Example
Finally, if there’s still any doubt left, we can look at the example that Jesus himself set for us. If we read the Gospels carefully, we’ll find that he sometimes prayed in public. For example, the Gospel of Matthew tells us:
And commanding the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. (Matthew 15:35-36)
In this passage, Jesus is in front of a large crowd, and he gives thanks to God before distributing food to them. This is a form of prayer, and he’s definitely in public, so we have our smoking gun. Jesus prayed publicly, so we can too. As a result, his condemnation of the practice must have been hyperbolic; he must have meant that we shouldn’t pray in order to seem holy or to be praised for it, not that we shouldn’t pray in public at all.
Taking Jesus’ Teaching to Heart
All that being said, we need to be careful here. It’s not enough just to say that Jesus allowed public prayer and then leave it at that. No, when he gave this teaching, he wasn’t simply telling us what not to do; he was also telling us what we should do. In addition to condemning ostentatious prayer, he also told us to pray by ourselves, as he often did (for example, Matthew 14:23; 26:36, 39). Consequently, we should always remember that while we can pray in public, we also need to take frequent breaks from our busy lives to spend some time alone with God.