My great-grandmother Whittaker died when I was 12 years old. She lived in a small two bedroom house built in the early 1900s in downtown Hillsboro, Oregon.
The grey-painted porch rose 3 steps and the milk box sat to the left of the front door. That big wooden door had a crystal glass window in it and on the wall behind the door was a row of coat pegs.
The house was heated by a gas stove in the living room, its blue flames warming the tin tea kettle she drank hot water from at every meal. The high ceilings, linoleum floors, drab walls, and musty odors are still clear in my memory.
When her home was built, coats and clothes which needed to be hung were kept in what we called a wardrobe and fancy people called an armoire. Grandma Whittaker had a wardrobe in each bedroom which always had that distinctive smell of mothballs.
The King James Version reads, When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and the Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly (Matthew 6:6).
Like in my great-grandmother’s house, homes in ancient Israel didn’t have closets. In fact, most homes had only one room in which a whole family slept, cooked, and ate. Closets were not generally built into the walls of American homes until the 1950s.
The word closet used in the KJV is actually secret place in the original Greek. In the ancient world it referred to a small hole carved into the stone or mud-brick wall for hiding valuables. In a one-room house, it was a person’s only privacy.
In Matthew 6:5-6, Jesus spoke of the religious hypocrites who stood on the street corners to pray. They loved to pray with loud voices in places where everyone could hear them. They had their reward (Matthew 6:5) from the people impressed by their prayers.
Jesus told His disciples, rather than pray to be seen or heard by men, pray to your Father who is in the secret place (Matthew 6:6). The Father isn’t sitting across a busy sidewalk who must be shouted at. Nor is He hiding in a tiny carved out hole in the wall. Jesus meant that prayer must not be for impressing people.
Jesus never went into a little war room and closed the door to pray. He prayed openly, but not to impress or appeal to crowds of people. He prayed for an audience of One, God the Father, the One alone who would hear and answer.