Recently, in response to criticism of Denver Bronco Quarterback Tim Tebow's outspoken belief in God, I authored a blog entry entitled Bill Maher's Twitter and the Fear of God in which I supported Tebow's practice of kneeling on the field in thankful prayer to God. One of my favorite commenters, Alejandro, wrote: "As a former Christian, I have to point out Matthew 6:6, which seems missing in the discussion."
Being one who doesn't like to leave an issue unanswered, I did want to comment on why I don't believe that Tebowing violates Matthew 6:6.
Matthew 6:6 is part of a broader story. Here's the entire account with Matthew 6:6 in bold:
Giving to the Needy
1. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4. so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
The Lord's Prayer
5. “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6. But when 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. 7. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9. Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
10. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
11. Give us this day our daily bread,
12. and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
14. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15. but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
16. “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18. that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
These three scenarios all share the same structure: some people do X, you should do Y. Are the three scenarios saying that you should always do Y? I don't think so, and let me explain why.
First, note the introduction (verse 1). It makes the point that these scenarios are pointing out that we should not be displaying our righteousness before others "in order to be seen by them...." The three scenarios each echo this theme. The person who is denouced for giving to the needy is the person who gives not because he cares for the poor, but because he wants the praise of others. In the third scenario, the person who is fasting disfigures his face so that others will see that he is fasting. In other words, he intentionally makes himself look as if he is suffering or the purpose of letting everyone know how holy he is.
In both cases, Jesus is saying that we should not be like these people who are doing these acts not out of humility or out of love for others, but for the purpose of impressing their friends or showing off his claimed holiness. Jesus is saying, "don't be like these people." And to show how not to be like those people, Jesus tells them to do things privately rather than publicly. He tells the disciples that rather than give to the needy publicly to draw attention to ourselves, we should give privately so that it is not about us. If we are going to fast -- an act which is to set aside earthly needs to focus on God -- we should not be doing so for the purpose of feeding our earthly desire for recognition. We should fast privately and not be using our fasting to focus attention on us.
The scenario in the middle on prayer is the same. Jesus distinguishes the person who goes into the marketplace and prays openly. But it isn't just praying openly that is the problem, it is praying openly to bring attention to yourself. Rather than do that, Jesus says to pray privately.
So, is this a directive that we should never engage in public prayer? No, it is a directive that rather than be a hypocrite we should pray privately. It is not a prohibition on public prayer.
So, do you think that Tebow is praying on the field to bring attention to himself? I don't. Tebow was raised by missionaries and (to all accounts) is bowing before God on the field because he is honestly and truly thankful and humble. Of course, I could be wrong, but the directive in Matthew 6:6 is related to what God thinks about prayers -- not other people. God is the one who will judge the motive behind the prayer. If Tebow's on-field prayer is to elevate Tebow -- intended to make others say "wow, how holy that Tebow is" -- then Tebo's prayers will not be accepted by God because he has, obviously, already received attention. But if they are truly prayers to God then it ultimately doesn't matter from God's point of view if some people think that Tebow is self-promoting; God knows whether the prayers are genuine or show.