In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assumes new covenant believers will maintain the old covenant practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. It is not if we will give to the needy but when (Matt. 6:2). Fasting is spoken of similarly
(v. 16). Finally, Jesus describes prayer as a routine part of Christian piety in today’s passage (v. 5). What Matthew Henry says about Matthew 6:5–8 could well be said about giving to the needy as well as fasting: “You may as soon find a living man who does not breathe, as a living Christian who does not pray.”
Our Lord’s directions for prayer, like the other two aforementioned acts of piety, are chiefly concerned to steer us away from hypocrisy. Hypokrites, the Greek word behind the English hypocrite, refers originally to an actor; thus, Christ is warning us against pretending to be someone other than who we are when we give, pray, and fast. In Jesus’ day, men might pray aloud in the synagogue and speak with lofty phrases and false solemnity. At different points in the day, people might hear the trumpet signaling them to stop, face Jerusalem, and pray. Many who love the praise of men make sure they are in public at these times and show their spirituality to the whole world (v. 5).
Jesus’ solution to this problem is a robust personal prayer life (v. 6). The early church well understood that He does not forbid public prayers (Acts 4:23–31), only those designed to impress other people. We do not pray to sound pious, make a point, or further an agenda. Prayer is a time for praying, not preaching.
Furthermore, Christ cautions us not to “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do” (Matt. 6:7), a reference to the attempts of pagans to manipulate the gods through lengthy, but meaningless words. Again, the issue is really one of intent and not length as we are told elsewhere to persevere in prayer (Luke 18:1–8). God has no need to be reminded of our needs (Matt. 6:8). Therefore, simple, direct, and sincere prayers to Him suffice. This does not mean we may only share our concerns with Him one time and one time only; rather, we may not lift up our needs with the intent of “forcing” our Creator to act because of the number of words we use or the particular formula we are following.
We pray “not to inform God or instruct him but to beseech him closely, to be made intimate with him, by continuance in supplication; to be humbled; to be reminded of our sins” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 19.4). Private prayer helps conform us to Christ. How much time do you spend praying in private? If you pray in public more than you do in private, you might be more concerned with how others see you than with how God sees you.