Matthew, chapters five through seven cover a discourse by Jesus commonly known as The Sermon on the Mount. This passage of scripture, which begins with “The Beatitudes” and concludes with the contrast of the outcome of identical houses built on different foundations – caused Jesus’ hearers to be “astonished at His doctrine” and impressed at the authoritative manner of His teaching. Jesus’ radical teaching in this message was never intended to be a “How To” formula to earn salvation. Rather, the principles found in this sermon are Kingdom Principles. These are the attitudes, practices, and motivations that should be the fruit produced by a life of the true follower of Christ.
The middle chapter of this message starts out like this. "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.” (ESV)
This teaching was in stark contrast to the common practices of the day by those Jews who were deemed to be deeply religious. In verses 1-18 Jesus deals with the right (and wrong) ways to give offerings … to pray … and to fast. He starts out the thought by reminding His hearers that much of the reward we receive from our Heavenly Father is based on the motives and methods we as His children employ in our spiritual activities.
He first deals with our charitable giving. Jesus says, "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.” (v.2) Jesus says that our giving in His name is such a private act that one should never draw public attention to it. In fact, He indicates that if it were physically possible this act should be so private that we would “… not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,“ (v.3)
He then moves to the subject of the spiritual discipline of prayer. "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.” (v.5) Now, this is not a blanket condemnation of public prayer in worship services, etc, but again, it involves our attitude and actions in practicing the wonderful God given gift of prayer.
The Master warns us that our prayer life is not for public impressiveness or an exhibition of oratorical skills. It’s not about generalities and meaningless phrases, but rather as a private communication with the One who already knows all about us and all about our needs. Consider verses 7-8. "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.” He then goes on in verses 9-15 to teach us the nature of what our honest communication with God should involve. He speaks of our relationship to the Father…as well as our reverence of Him… our obedience to Him… our dependence upon Him. He also speaks about forgiveness and deliverance which can only come through Him.
After teaching us the manner in which to pray, Jesus moves on to another spiritual discipline that is always linked with prayer – Fasting.
Again He stresses the private nature of the purpose of fasting. In Jesus’ day, the “religious folks” often made a big deal and public display regarding fasting. Jesus deals sharply and simply with the subject. "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.” (v.16) Jesus refers to those who would make a public spectacle out of the very private practice of fasting, are simply “play actors”. In verses 17-18 He tells us the right way to behave during a time of serious fasting and self denial. “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.” Like giving and prayer, our fasting is something that is not to be done for human recognition, but is intended to be a very private thing between us and God.
I think it is striking that in pointing out the wrong motives, attitudes and practices of these spiritual disciplines, Jesus plainly says that the only reward given will be the temporary praise of men. Yet when we follow His example and teaching, the promise is that the God who hears and sees that which we do for Him in secret will one day reward us openly for our Christlike actions.
Speaking for myself, I would much rather have the reward of my Father in Heaven than any temporal recognition in this perishing earth. How about you?