In his comments here on prayer, Jesus gives two wrong motives for prayer. The first is that we should not use prayer to increase our reputation in the esteem of other people. In addition to referring to the practice of public prayer in the synagogue, it is possible that Jesus is alluding also to the fixed hours of daily prayer that took place in the temple. No doubt, people could not be in the temple on each occasion, but the Pharisees, if they were away from the temple, would engage in an ostentatious display of public prayer. At such times, there would be nothing wrong if the Pharisee had kept on walking along the road or continued with whatever he had been doing, but with a particular focus of mind and heart on prayer. What was wrong with the Pharisee’s response was the motive for his prayer whether in the synagogue or on the street corner – he wanted the praise of people. Why would he have such a wrong motive?
One possible reason would be his desired identity in the eyes of the public. After all, the people in general would expect the Pharisees to pray; in fact, they would be shocked if they saw a Pharisee who failed to pray at the stated times. Therefore, in order to maintain his place of public respect, he had to pretend to pray. As a hypocrite, he used the mask of prayer to protect his status.
Connected to this reason is another subtle but wrong motive for praying in this wrong manner. The Pharisee did not get his sense of security from a living relationship with God. Therefore, his religious outlook was marked by insecurity and every insecure person will try and find security in other ways, and one such place was the opinions of others. The Pharisee would feel secure when people commented on his devotion, therefore it was a comfortable mask to put on.
It is important to note that Jesus is not prohibiting public prayer, rather a wrong motive for it. For example, it is appropriate for a Christian to pray publicly with strangers in a crisis. Yet we know that there are situations when we can put on other masks in addition to the public performance engaged in by the Pharisees.
Some can pray to flaunt their use of language (they are more articulate, but forget that God hears with delight the groans of his people). Others can pray to show off their knowledge of Calvinistic theology (they have read more books, but forget that often Arminians and other Christians have received astonishing answers to their prayers from a sovereign God). Yet others can use their prayers to put down other believers or they can use their prayers to draw attention to their pet ideas, and both of these motives are connected to influencing others apart from God. And others can even use the practice of private prayer to impress others; they can do this by dropping little hints that they regularly engage in this very helpful (to them) discipline. I know I am playing the hypocrite when I am a spectator of my own prayer rather than a supplicant in my own prayer.
The second wrong of praying occurred when people prayed like the Gentiles, with repeated phrases and many words. Jesus is not forbidding long prayers; he himself would pray throughout the night. What is being forbidden here is the use of words to try and persuade God to hear us. The Gentiles assumed that the interest of their false gods had to be worked on, so they would repeat mindless phrases. One biblical example of what is meant here is the prayer contest between the prophets of Baal and Elijah. They chanted and repeated pointless prayers for a prolonged period, he utter a simple, short and straightforward prayer and he was heard. Prayer cannot be used as a means of manipulating God, that if I say the right words for the right period of time, I will definitely be heard. We are to pray meaningfully, not mechanically.