After focusing on how citizens of the kingdom are to live by a higher standard, Jesus now transitions to three aspects of our religious lives—giving to the needy, praying, and fasting—and tells His disciples how they should go about practicing these things in their lives.
Throughout these topics, one major point is repeated over and over again: we should not perform religious acts in order to be seen by others and thought of as good and spiritual people; we should do them out of our service and devotion for God.
The giving of alms (giving money to those who are in need) was commanded in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 15.11) and was a central part of Jewish religious life. It was also a common practice in Greco-Roman culture. However, in the Greco-Roman culture that was highly influential in Jesus’ day, wealthy people gave to the poor more to enhance their own image and reputation than out of concern for those to whom they gave (1).
But that is not how citizens of God’s kingdom should give. Jesus says that hypocrites help others only when others can see them do so and talk about how good they are, and gives a humorous example of someone sounding a trumpet for attention before they do a good deed. Instead, Jesus says that when we give, we are not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. Obviously this is not to be taken literally, but again, Jesus uses hyperbole to get His audience to think hard: we need to be really careful about our motives for helping others. If we only help so others will think well of us, that is the only reward we can expect.
We shouldn’t press what Jesus says about doing things in secret too literally. There is a difference between letting our lights shine (cf. Matthew 5.16) and doing things specifically so that we can get the praise of other people. It all comes back to motive.
Next, Jesus applies the same theme of not doing things just to be seen by others to the practice of prayer. When we pray, we are not to pray in showy ways in public places to be seen by others. Instead, we are to go into our rooms, shut the door, and pray to our Father who is in secret.
Again, this all comes down to the motives of our hearts. We are not to pray in public so that others will see us and praise us for what we have done. That doesn’t mean it is wrong to pray in worship or to pray in restaurants, but it does mean that we should be very careful about our motives when we do those things: are you praying out of your devotion to God, or so that others will be impressed by the eloquence of your words or the piety of your practice?
Further, when we pray, we shouldn’t think that God will in some way hear our prayers better if we make them really long and repeat certain phrases. There are certain religions and Christian groups that memorize specific prayer formulas, and this is similar to what Jesus is talking about: these become “empty phrases” when we say them without thoughtfully putting any meaning behind them.
If you have gone to church for very long, you have probably heard people praying things like “Guide, guard, and direct us”, “Help the speaker to have a ready recollection”, or “Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and our bodies to your service.” The problem with these phrases is not that they are somehow wrong, but rather that when they are just repeated mindlessly, they have little meaning and it is a waste of time.
Jesus then goes on to give an example of a prayer for His disciples. It is unlikely that He meant for this to be a specific prayer that would be repeated for centuries. Indeed, the mindless mechanical repetition of the Lord’s Prayer is exactly the kind of thing that Jesus is speaking against.
Jesus addresses His prayer to God the Father, and prays that three things would be “on earth as it is in heaven”:
- Hallowed be Your name: God’s name is to be magnified and lifted up, as He is the all-powerful Creator of all things.
- Your kingdom come: Some people argue that the kingdom is the same as the church, and that since the church was established on the Day of Pentecost following Jesus’ resurrection, it is no longer appropriate for us to pray this part of the Lord’s Prayer. However, although the kingdom and the church are closely related, the two are not identical (2). The kingdom refers to the reign or rule of God, while the church consists of the people of God, or those who submit to His rule. When we look around in our world, we see that many people who do not submit to God’s rule, and thus, it is still appropriate that we pray that God’s kingdom be established to the same extent on earth as it has been established in heaven (where all submit to God’s rule).
- Your will be done: This idea is related to the last one, as it is when God’s kingdom is fully established and his reign and authority is accepted by all people everywhere that his will will be accomplished on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus then goes on to pray for three specific needs: daily bread, forgiveness from our “debts”, and deliverance from evil. These balanced requests reveal our reliance on God’s provision for our physical needs, his forgiveness for our sins, and his protection for the future.
Finally, Jesus turns His attention to the practice of fasting. Fasting has fallen out of fashion in modern Christianity, but it’s worth pointing out that Jesus starts off his discussion of fasting with the word “when” rather than “if”—as with giving and praying, Jesus simply took it for granted that his disciples would do these things.
In Scripture, people fast for a variety of reasons (repentance, seeking God’s guidance, as part of prayer, as a spiritual discipline) and those needs still exist today, so it is still appropriate for God’s people to fast at certain times, in an effort to remind us of our absolute dependence on God.
But when we do fast, Jesus’ previous instructions about giving and praying still apply: we shouldn’t fast to earn the approval of others, so when we fast, we should do so “secretly” by going about our normal routines rather than drawing attention to the fact that we are fasting.
Again, this section of the SOTM is very counter cultural: we live in a society that has trained us to believe that what others think of us matters and that gaining fame and notoriety is of vital importance in life. Instead, Jesus rejects that way of thinking and calls for members of His alternative community to live lives of “secret” devotion, worried only about what our Heavenly Father thinks of us.
- Jerry Taylor, “May I Have Your Attention Please,” in Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines, ed. David Fleer and Dave Bland (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), 141.
- See Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1996), 18-36 for an excellent overview of the relation between the kingdom and the church.