At first glance, the issue may seem pretty cut and dry. Jesus said don’t pray publicly, but to go in your room and shut the door and do it there. So keep your prayers private. But is that really what he said? Is that really what this passage means? I don’t think that’s exactly what it means. Jesus command to do our praying privately cannot be a complete prohibition on public prayer. How can we know that? Well, it’s simple. There are too many examples of public prayer in the Bible. There are numerous examples of Jesus’ praying publicly. One of them comes in John 11, a passage I’m currently studying as my Sunday School class works its way through John’s Gospel. Just before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he prayed the following:
That’s an obvious public prayer. And Jesus did it. I could cite numerous other public prayers throughout the Bible, including Jesus on prayer on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) So it’s obvious that there is no blanket prohibition of these kinds of prayers. What to make of them then? Should we pray in public, or shouldn’t we? Is Tim Tebow being “salt and light,” or is he being “like the hypocrites?” I honestly don’t think there is any way of knowing.
Let me explain. This passage in Matthew 6, in Jesus Sermon on the Mount, is not really a prohibition on public prayer. It’s a prohibition against hypocritical prayer. Notice the progression of what Jesus says. 1 – Don’t pray like the hypocrites. 2 – They love to pray on street corners, where they can be seen by others. So the question is not so much about where the hypocrites prayed, but what their motivation for that kind of praying was. They prayed on street corners because they loved to be seen by others. They loved what other people thought about them when they publicly prayed. They did it so people would think highly of them. And Jesus called them hypocrites. Why did he call them that? Because their public prayers were not a reflection of what their heart was really like. He called them “whitewashed tombs,” another time. Clean on the outside, rotten on the inside. Their public personas did not reflect their private realities. That’s the heart of hypocrisy, and that’s why their prayers were so disgusting to Jesus.
So what’s the takeaway here? I think it’s this: in comparison to your private prayer time, your public prayers ought to be limited and careful. You should check your motivations before you pray publicly. If you have prayed publicly very often, then you probably understand the temptation to pray as an exhibition for the people around you, rather than pray as an act of worship to God. So public prayer can be wrong, but it can also be “salt and light.” How do you know the difference? Maybe this: if you are tempted to pray in public because you want everyone to see how pious you are, then maybe you should avoid doing it altogether, to avoid breaking Jesus’ commands. But if you’re tempted not to pray in public, because you are afraid of what other people would think, then maybe you should do it, to practice being salt and light.
So what about Tebow? Which one is he doing? Is he praying like the Pharisees, or he being salt and light? It all goes back to his motivations for doing so. And I don’t know his motivations. Neither do you. Probably, it’s like all of us. We are a mix of motivations. Sometimes they are pure, and sometimes they are less than pure. Thankfully, because of the very Jesus who sets the rules, we are also given grace when our motivations aren’t exactly what they ought to be. I get that grace. So I’m going to give it to Tim Tebow.