The most famous teachings from Jesus on prayer come from the Sermon on the Mount and include the Lord’s prayer itself, a model for what our prayer life could look like. The context is a contrast between what righteous deeds look like in the kingdom of God and what they look like when done by our own strength to impress other people (Matt 6:1). Three examples of the point are given: giving to the poor (Matt 6:2-4), prayer (Matt 6:5-15) and fasting (Matt 6:16-18).
In this section, Jesus addresses three fundamental questions about prayer – who it is for, how it is done and what to pray.
Who Prayer Is For (v5-6) – The contrast is between those who like to pray where they know other people will be watching (such as synagogues and street corners) and Jesus’ disciples who are told to go into their room and pray with the door closed. The point isn’t really about a specific place. It isn’t that God will only answer prayers prayed in your room, or even that he will only listen when nobody else is around. The point is what is in our heart and what we want to see happen through our prayers. If we pray wanting to impress other people (maybe by using special extra-holy words, putting on a showy ‘prayer voice’ or only ever praying when others can hear) then we might get what we are after but it won’t achieve much. If, on the other hand, the goal of our prayer is to speak to our heavenly father then he will hear and will reward us with his presence.
How to Pray (v7-8) – Here the prayer that uses a lot of words without saying much is contrasted with the simple prayer of the Christian. We shouldn’t think that the length of prayer makes it more likely that God will pay attention, nor that certain forms of words make it more likely the God will answer than others. The point is not to find a ‘mantra’ that will manipulate God into doing we want, but to engage in a real relationship with our heavenly Father. Short prayers and long prayers are both fine when they come out of that place of real relationship with God.
What to Pray (v9-13) – Jesus lays out an example of the kind of prayer his disciples should pray. This wasn’t meant to be a prayer simply to recite but rather to instruct us what kind of things to pray about. It can be helpful to let each line of this prayer spark off our own prayers around the theme. The prayer begins with worship (v.9), prayers for the growth of God’s kingdom, which applies to big global issues as well as his kingdom coming in smaller more personal ways in our own lives (v.10), prayer for provision (v.11), confession and repentance, as well as forgiving those who have wronged us (v.12) and prayer for protection (v.13). It should also be noted that this is a corporate prayer (‘our father’ rather than ‘my father’) so we should not just pray these things for ourselves but also for one another.