And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Jesus’ words in this chapter continue to fall under the caveat registered in 5.20, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Verse 1 is commentary on that caveat: righteousness practised for the sake of impressing and receiving glory from others neither impresses nor earns any reward from our Father in heaven.
Jesus’ Exemplary Teaching
While the previous chapter gives us insight into true moral righteousness, these verses teach us about true worship. Again, Jesus’ teaching is not exhaustive but exemplary. He offers just three examples, concerning almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Each concludes the same way (4, 6, 18). The principles he lays down here are applicable to all acts or forms of worship, in every age.
The Outward Expression of Righteousness
Jesus affirms that almsgiving done with right motives is the outward expression of a righteous heart and something which pleases God. Moreover God will reward the one who gives alms secretly. What spoils almsgiving is when it is done in order to impress and gain praise from other people. Then it is not a righteous act – an act of worship of God and compassion toward a fellow Israelite – but a self-serving one. God will not be mocked.
Pray in Private
In addressing the subject of prayer, Jesus makes the same point: a public show intended to impress others is repugnant to God. No better is attempting to impress others with the length or eloquence of your prayers. Such approaches to prayer miss the fundamental point that prayer is an intimate personal conversation with our heavenly Father. The way of praying which Jesus teaches (9-13) is founded on this Father-child relationship. It echoes Old Testament passages about God’s desperate love for his wayward people (e.g. Jer 31.9,20; Hos 11.1-9). The petitions in turn surrender this world to him, our will to his, and acknowledge our dependence upon him.
An Act of Worship
The emphasis on the need to forgive others if we want to be forgiven places forgiveness alongside almsgiving and prayer as an act of worship. Done rightly it will be rewarded. When it comes to fasting (16-18) Jesus’ instruction is not only don’t draw attention to yourself but make every effort to hide what you’re doing lest others find out and give you unwanted praise.
To paraphrase the whole section, Jesus challenges the worshipper to ask, “Who am I wanting to impress?” It is the desire of the heart that is critical, not the outward show.
Is there anything you do to impress others rather than God?
Lord God, I thank you that you want to have an intimate personal relationship with me as my heavenly Father. I pray that in all my acts of worship I may seek to please and glorify you alone. In the name of your own dear Son I pray. Amen.
Michael Hewat is currently serving as the Senior Minister at West Hamilton Community Church, New Zealand
Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash