“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.
“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. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“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. 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.
“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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“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. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 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.
In the previous two sections on “radical discipleship”, Jesus has interpreted for us the meaning of the Law as God intended it to be: no anger, no divorce, no oaths, no revenge, no hatred, but the love of enemies and prayer for those who persecute us. That is the righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5:20). Today, Jesus will teach us about righteous conduct.
Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are the chief acts of biblical piety. The lovely book of Tobit - one of my favourite books in the Old Testament - exults almsgiving and prayer as a conduit of grace. The books of Esther presents fast and prayer as powerful recourse to God in the time of particular danger. In the Acts of the Apostles, a Roman Centurion named Cornelius “gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (Acts 10:2). His prayers and acts of charity “ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:5); God sent apostle Peter to his house with the Gospel of salvation.
Although almsgiving, prayer, and fasting can move Heaven to act on behalf of the earth, they can also be ineffective. It is all a matter of the heart, namely what motivates us. There is a righteous and hypocritical way of giving alms, prayer, and fasting. The first one is characterised by letting only our Father know about our good deeds. The second one is for the show, to ‘buy’ the admiration of others. The human heart is so corrupt that it can use good things for a wrong purpose. Yet, by fooling others, we only fool ourselves. God knows us from the inside out. “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me”, (Is 29:13). The guiding principle for all righteous deeds is this principle of faith: Our Father sees in secret (Matt 6:4,8,18).
The most elaborated part of this section focuses on prayer. Here, Jesus does not only send us to our rooms for private prayer but also tells us not to imitate the prayer pattern of the Gentiles. In order to fully appreciate this statement, we need to remind ourselves of the religious world that Matthew lived in, namely polytheism. In the first century of Christian era, the Jews were the only monotheistic people on the planet. The whole world around them worshiped different gods and goddesses. But, from the point of view of a pious Jew, those gods and goddesses were naught. “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no god” (Is 45:5). Apostle Paul put it in this way: “For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:5–6).
A prayer to a god who is naught is ineffective, even if it is long, ostentatious, and repetitious. It was demonstrated by prophet Elijah in his famous test at Mount Carmel. 450 prophets of Baal prayed to their god from morning till noon, “O Baal, answer us! But there was no voice, and no one answered” (1 Kings 18:26). Heaping empty phrases in prayer reveals our attitude towards our Father, the only true God. Do we really believe that He listens to our prayers? Jesus goes even further. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:8). What is the point of prayer, you ask? Do you talk with your parents only when you want something? Prayer is more than just asking. Prayer is a conversation, a way of getting into deep relationship with the most important ‘Person’ in our life. If we only pray because we want something then we have indeed become like the Gentiles.
In every major religion, fasting plays a role. Contemporary secular atheism and the new age movement encourage fasting for the sake of well-being and doctors and dieticians see in overeating the source of many diseases that plague our civilization: diabetes, heart problems, and even cancer. No doubt that secular fasting like the fasting of the hypocrites gets its own reward but it has very little in common with biblical fasting: God is not part of the equation. The hypocrites fast to gain the admiration of others, the secularists to get well. On the other hand, biblical fast is a sign of repentance and renewal. It comes in the company of prayer and confession of sins (see Daniel 9:3–19). It is a cry for mercy: “O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act” (Daniel 9:19). It is that kind of fasting that is heard and rewarded by our Father who sees in secret.