Long ago, in a land far away, there lived five sisters. The Master Gardener, who loved them all very much, gave each sister a gift – a small plot of land to plant a garden. With excitement and hope, they prepared the soil and planted seeds, giving them lots of water and sunshine until they sprouted into healthy plants. As time went on, the five sisters tended to their gardens in their own different ways.
Months later, the Master Gardener invited each sister, one at a time, to come and share with him how her garden fared. The fourth sister marched right up with her head held high and a satisfied smile on her face.
“How does your garden fare, my child?”
“Oh, you have to come see it!” she exclaimed.“I threw away the seeds you gave me because I knew they wouldn’t produce the biggest, most colorful blooms. The flowers I chose are amazing! The prettiest in the village. Every day I stand outside so I can see the villagers walk by my garden and marvel at how beautiful it is.”
“My beloved daughter,” the Master Gardener replied. “While it is true I gave you the garden to do with as you pleased, it seems as if your only goal is praise and admiration. Your garden can be used for so much more. To grow food for the poor. To provide a quiet place where you might sit and pray. You have turned it into nothing more than a showpiece.”
The fourth sister was humbled by the words of the Master Gardener, and she realized he was right. It had become too important to her to have the biggest, most beautiful garden. From that day on she replaced some of the more ostentatious blooms with beans, peppers, and tomatoes, which she shared with all who were hungry. And in the early morning, when no one else was around, she spent time reflecting and praying in her garden. Over time, it came to mean so much more to her than the dazzling display she used to show off to the village.
If we take an honest look at ourselves, I’m sure there are times we’ve been guilty of behaving like this fourth sister. Putting on a show of our faith. Praying to impress. We may not even realize we’re doing it. It’s perfectly human to want people to think well of us, but it shouldn’t take the place of an honest and intimate relationship with our loving Father.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6).
A common misinterpretation of this Gospel passage is that Jesus is condemning public prayer. But we know this is not the case. When Jesus takes the seven loaves and fishes, he breaks the bread and very publicly gives thanks to God before sharing the food. This is what we do every Sunday when we gather to worship. Praying in community is not what Jesus calls into question here. Instead, Jesus challenges us to examine our motives.
Ask yourself these questions: Am I praying to put on a show, to garner praise from others, to compete? Is it more important for me to be seen as pious and spiritual than to really be present to God while I am praying? Am I making my prayer life all about me instead of all about God?
Years ago I belonged to a prayer group that gathered together once a week to pray for our children. I often received praise for the prayers I offered, compliments on a particular turn of phrase or the words I chose. I liked the feeling so much that the weekly sessions became like a performance for me. I was determined to impress each week with the prayers I offered. In my efforts to earn praise and compliments, I began to lose sight of why I was praying in the first place. It was a humbling lesson to learn.
Prayer life isn’t about appearance. It should go much deeper than that. Prayer is conversation with God—the words we speak to our loving Father directly from our heart. We don’t need an audience or a stamp of approval from our peers to achieve this kind of close relationship with God. Let your garden of faith become a time of quiet stillness. A time of praying and listening.