But when you pray …
The first thing to notice as this big but appears in Matthew chapter six is that Jesus takes the fact that you will pray as a given. He doesn’t begin if you pray, but rather when you pray. It’s as if prayer will be as normal to the believer in Christ as breathing is to the living. I have asthma. Trust me, there is a world of difference between ‘if you breathe’ and ‘when you breathe.’
The contrast that Jesus is making with the use of the word but is between those who pray standing in the synagogues and on street corners with those who go into their rooms and close the door. By using the word hypocrites to describe them, it is very clear that this is not about the location, but the heart of the one praying. It isn’t that they pray in the synagogue–that would be acceptable enough. Not the street corner–in fact, traversing some intersections are probably great occasions for prayer. It’s the manner in which they pray in the synagogue and on the corner. The phrase to be seen by men tells us all we need to know. It is more important to the hypocrite that their prayers be observed–and appreciated–on the horizontal plane than on the vertical.
Don’t be like that, Jesus said. When you pray, it isn’t a performance.
Jesus continued his lesson: And when you pray, do not keep babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard for their many words.
There was a man at the church I attended as a teenager who, it seemed, seized every opportunity to lead the congregation in prayer. The problem was that he wasn’t leading, because neither I nor anyone else in the room could understand a word he said. He sounded as if he had swallowed a King James dictionary and was throwing up a theological treatise with every sentence. “O God, Thou of omnipotence reigneth; We beseech Thee: Reign o’er us, O God!” What did he say? Rain? Is the umbrella in the car? Now, I don’t mean to judge the man’s authenticity by his loquacity, but rather to suggest that words, when they can’t be understood by the masses (whether in or out of Mass), are of the kind of Jesus’ warning. Don’t be like them, he says. Your Father knows what you need. When you pray, just speak in your own voice and with your own vocabulary.
This big but where prayer is concerned addresses our hearts as we pray. Are our prayers oriented in a vertical direction or the horizontal? Are our words chosen in honesty and openness or formed to make a religious show?