Do you “say grace”? Ask the blessing? Give thanks for your food before you eat? Do you do it when you go out to eat in restaurants? What is your reason for doing so? Do you feel pressured by the people with whom you are dining? Do you feel like you are denying Christ if you do not pray before you eat in a public place? Even if the server is waiting to set down your plate while your bowed head is in the way? In Matthew 6:5, Jesus warns His disciples not to be like the hypocrites who like to make a big show of their prayers.
In Matthew 6:6, He tells them that they should pray in a private place. The King James Version uses the term closet, and there are still people who talk about praying in their prayer closet. The word in the original language referred to a room that was separated or partitioned off from the living quarters. The people who were listening to Jesus would have probably thought storeroom. Some people today make themselves a prayer closet that is set aside for that purpose only, which may actually defeat the purpose of Jesus’ instruction if others know where it is and when you are in it. The point is to pray when it is just you and God involved in the conversation. Christ went to a mountain, (Mark 6:46) to the wilderness, (Luke 5:16) as well as to a quiet place in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36) when He wanted to speak to His Father. The reason He recommends this solitude is so that you won’t be distracted by others, you won’t be trying to impress others, and you won’t be inhibited about talking to God frankly and honestly. If you take the time to talk to God as your Father, rather than as a performance for other church folk, or unchurched folk, your prayers will be more sincere.
That is not to say that God is against public prayer. Other passages in the New Testament clearly show that it was accepted practice in the gatherings of Christ’s followers. (Acts 2:42, Acts 12:12, Acts 13:3, Acts 14:23, Acts 20:36) Christ Himself gave thanks for food in front of thousands of people. (John 6:11) What concerned Jesus in Matthew 6:5-6 was the condition of His disciples’ hearts. He didn’t want them to be influenced by the religious leaders whose actions may seem pious, but whose motives were less pure. Because they were the teachers of the law, the ones who were supposed to have the answers, people were apt to trust them and follow them, but their hearts were focused on the wrong things. That can just as easily happen today. I used to teach in a Christian school where the rules and dress code were strict. The students spent so much time pushing the rules to the very limit, that they completely missed the point of them. So much time was spent focusing on the external that the internal was neglected. God wants us to spend time with Him alone, so that we can know Him and learn to depend on Him, and so that we can become holy from the inside out.