A reflection on Matthew 6:1-18 for Sunday, January 22, 2023 at Mosaic Baptist Church, Gungahlin.
‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever 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.
‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Matthew 6:1-18 (NRSVA)
Immediately following the Beatitudes – those provocative sayings that open the famous Sermon on the Mount – Jesus tells two short parables.
One of these insists that those Jesus is addressing are ‘…the light of the world’. Clearly those who embrace the Kingdom of Heaven are to be visible to those around them. Jesus sums this story up with the memorable: ‘…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’.
A visible community.
Over the next two Sundays we will be looking, however, at part of this same sermon that repeatedly insists that there is are aspects of our involvement in the Kingdom of Heaven that extend from ‘secret’ or hidden places.
Perhaps to our surprise the three practices addressed in the passage above look distinctly religious. Here Jesus addresses the public display of giving, prayer, and fasting. These, taken as a group, look particularly pious, religious, and devout. They are just the kind of things the religious leaders in Jesus’ context – and many others – gave their time to. All too often these deeds were done very publicly.
Jesus, however, does not want human affirmation to be the religious motive for those who follow after him. His opening line makes this clear: ‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.’
Jesus initially points to the giving of alms accompanied by the blast of trumpets in the busyness of the public ‘streets’. Perhaps the trumpet is an exaggeration, but the point is clear: some hypocritically give to be ‘praised by others.’ Alarmingly, Jesus specifies that this is the type of thing that was happening in the ‘synagogues’ of the time.
Public giving for the shallow ‘reward’ of the praise of self.
Of course, Jesus is not simply rebuking here. He goes on to offer an alternative: ‘Do not let your left hand know what your right…is doing’. He also offers a reason for this: ‘…that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’
The ‘synagogues’ and ‘street corners’ feature once again as Jesus turns to another distinctly religious practice: Prayer. Again Jesus highlights the same motive: ‘…that they may be seen by others.’ Again we have the designation ‘hypocrite’ (literally ‘pretender’ or ‘actor’) and the insistence that this is the extent of any ‘reward’.
We are already seeing patterns here!
And once again, we see Jesus offer an alternative: A retreat to a ‘secret, closed off ‘inner room’ where the ‘Father who sees in secret’ will once again offer the reward of heaven. Given that the majority of homes in this time were one room dwellings and unlikely to have permanent, separate spaces constructed of internal walls and doors, there is every possibility that Jesus ‘inner room’ points to a quiet, even wordless, prayer of the heart.
Jesus goes on to teach his followers what has become know as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. It is characteristically simple and memorable. This is in direct contrast to the practice of the gentile world whose abundant wordiness betrays a belief that prayer is a means of changing the mind of the gods.
In stark contrast, Jesus claims that ‘…your Father knows what you need before you ask…’ We might be tempted to see this as reason not to pray at all. It is, however, offered here as an invitation to pray in quiet and simple trust. Perhaps it also points to an aspect of prayer we all too easily overlook: Prayer changes us – not God.
Is it any wonder this prayer amounts to an invitation to simple praise, a humble trust in the coming kingdom, a request for the meeting of our needs, forgiveness and the capacity to forgive, and a plea for faith through every trial?
It may be that Jesus’ commentary on ‘forgiveness’ that follows this teaching points precisely to the above purpose of prayer: to be changed into the likeness of the ‘Father’.
Jesus comments on fasting follow a now established pattern. Others will fast for visibility and the reward of public recognition. Followers of Jesus are to conceal their fasting in an act of faith in the God who ‘…sees in secret…’ Once again, Jesus urges his followers to seek this one’s reward.
It is all too easy to read these passages and project our preconceived notions of ‘heaven’ as a future reality onto Jesus’ repeated use of the term ‘reward’. There is another possibility, however. What if the ‘reward’ is, in contrast to the praise of people, the changed, rested, and peaceful heart of one who truly lives for the audience of one? What if this is a reality offered now, not projected off into a future beyond this life?
As we read through the New Testament it would be very easy to come up with examples of the early church not interpreting the above passage legalistically. Paul openly asks for and collects alms to meet the needs of the Jewish community; there are numerous examples of public and published prayer; and, we know that Paul and others undertake sometimes long periods of fasting. We know that even Jesus himself payed the temple tax, prayed publicly, and went for forty days without eating.
Rather than pointing to such examples as inconsistent with Jesus’ most famous sermon, perhaps it is best to understand such religious practice as primarily hidden and occasionally boiling over into something observed by others. There is certainly a temptation to look at Jesus’ teaching here as a new law rather than a call to freedom from law. Perhaps what we see here is a call to wisdom and liberty in the Spirit rather than a newly-defined legalism.
And yet, there seems to be something so precious in Jesus warning his earliest disciples of the danger of a pious or religious life. Here is a call to know your audience well – and the fruit of practicing piety before God or people.
Perhaps, as we have seen, Jesus wisely insisted early in this sermon that ‘A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.’ Surely it is only in trusting this reality that we could ever embrace the quiet and hidden life of giving generously, praying fervently, and fasting faithfully.
Even things done in secret shine.
Do you think Jesus warning about practicing piety before others is primarily a warning for the one who practices these things or about the danger of misrepresenting the Kingdom of Heaven to others? In what ways do these concerns overlap?
How do you respond to the reality that the early church and even Jesus did not take this teaching entirely literally? What does this tell you about the Spirit of wisdom (rather than legalism) that pervaded the early church?