And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever 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.
I was recently reminded by the theologian James Alison that what we normally think of when we read Jesus’ advice is quite different from what Jesus would have had in mind. When we are told that we should “go into our room and shut the door” to pray, we almost certainly imagine our bedrooms. But the houses in Jesus’ world didn’t have bedrooms. The average house of his time would, in fact, have had only one enclosed interior room. It would have been in the center of the house, and would have had no windows. In fact, it would have been the equivalent of the pantry! Its location would have provided a space with as little temperature variation as possible in their climate for storing food. And if one went inside it to pray, with the door closed, it would have been a completely dark and quiet place. Just enough room for a person to encounter God out of sight of anyone else.
James Alison suggests that the reason Jesus gives this advice about prayer is to encourage us to open ourselves to God as authentically as possible. Jesus’ criticism of those who pray so that “they may be seen by others” is about what motivates them: they are praying not in a way that makes them vulnerable to God’s grace, they are not bringing their authentic self before God. Rather, they are praying in order to receive public approval. And of such people Jesus says, “they have received their reward.” They desired to be seen and approved of by others, and that is precisely the reward they got.
But prayer is not about seeking approval from others. It is about opening ourselves to God. And when we withdraw to a place where there is no possibility of being seen by others, we are withdrawing from our desire to be approved of by others. We are potentially in a place where we are able to let our guard down, and “be real” in the presence of God.
Interestingly, in the very next passage, Jesus gives some advice to us about praying while we are in that secret, private place:
When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.
If the danger of praying in public is that we are primarily interested in being seen by others so as to be approved of by them, the danger of praying in private is that we will delude ourselves into thinking that we somehow need to impress God, and so “heap up empty phrases” as if to convince God that we really do know how to pray. Just as our desire for public approval can get in the way of our authenticity, so the heaping up of words in our prayer can get in the way of our authenticity. The words themselves can become like a wall between us and God. The intention of all those words may be motivated by a desire to get God’s approval. The truth, however, is that we already have God’s approval because we are loved – and have been loved since the moment we came into being.
So, in the end, all this teaching about prayer is really about being authentic and vulnerable in the presence of God. Whatever gets in the way of that needs to be let go, so that we can encounter God as the people we truly are, and thus be open to the transforming power of God’s love.