“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

I’ve thought of this passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel several times as I’ve endeavored to set good examples for my children, particularly with respect to prayer. The passage has given me pause — should I pray in front of my children? It seemed like the answer to “should I” is “yes, I should,” but why would it be appropriate — indeed, a good thing — to pray in front of my children? Should I not go into my room and lock my door and pray in secret, as Jesus goes on to say later in the passage?

Like so much in our life, our motivations play a crucial role in what we choose to do. Jesus tells us to beware of practicing piety before others in order to be seen by them. The main motivation here is not to communicate with the Father, but to be on display. This changed the way in which I prayed in view of my children. I realized I was not earnestly praying in a place where they could happen to see me, but rather I was putting on a show, play-acting at praying in order to show them what to do. I was more communicating with them than with the Father. The irony finally dawned on me that in trying to demonstrate good prayer practice, I was demonstrating bad prayer practice.  

And yet, if I were to retreat into my room and lock the door to pray, I am sure that if I looked into my heart of hearts I would have to admit that my main motivation was not always prayer, but to lock my kids out and have a few quiet moments to myself. Motivation is a funny thing. What could you learn from a closer look at your motivations in your own prayer life?

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

1 Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2 ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.*

5 ‘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.6But 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.*

16 ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.*