The Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7 in Matthew, is the longest piece of Jesus’ teaching and is often quoted. It begins with the Beatitudes and ends with Jesus instructing us to build our houses on the rock, not foolishly on sand.
The first six verses of chapter 6 warn us not to be ostentatious in our religious practices. When we pray we are to go into a room and shut the door behind us, rather than to pray on the streets in order to be praised. Also when we give alms we are to do it in secret, not even letting our left hands know what our right hands are doing.
I grew up in a church where men in the congregation were often called upon to pray, but I am personally hesitant to pray in public. I worry too much about what others may think of my prayer and not enough about my sincere communication with God. I remember all too well an occasion, a number of years ago, when I was on a mission tour in South Carolina. We were there to paint a church, but we also conducted a survey for the local association. Before we went out to do our canvass, I was sitting in a meeting with our tour members and the people of the association. All at once I heard it, “Now Sister Beth will lead us in prayer?” Sister Beth? Oh No, What Will I Say?! Believe you me, I wasn’t thinking about what I wanted to say to God at that point; I was simply worrying about how I would sound to the people assembled in that room. I don’t remember what I said, except that I addressed God by every name I could think of while I tried to gather my thoughts.
Although I prefer to pray in private myself, I am often lifted up by the public prayers of others. Who is not touched by a beautiful prayer and whose heart does not sing when hearing their own thoughts simply or eloquently expressed to God?
Just as we are not to pray in order to be praised, we are not to give alms for praise or recognition either. God loves a cheerful giver, but in so far as our left hands not knowing what our right hands are doing – do we give freely? Do we ever put money in the plate or write a check without writing it down as a charitable contribution to be declared on our taxes?
It is reassuring for me to understand that God knows my heart as I pray and as I give. It doesn’t matter (at least it shouldn’t matter) what others may think.