Jesus' Parables for Disciples
7. Giving, Prayer, and Fasting (Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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The poorest of the poor, like Ruth in the Bible, would glean in a field after the harvesters had finished in order to gather enough food for the day. Jean François Millet (1814-1875), "The Gleaners" (1857), 84x111 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Larger image.
1 "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him...."
16 "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18)
In chapter 6, Jesus turns toward true piety. To understand this, first we need to understand the deep sense of duty towards the poor that infused Judaism. The Law provided that one should not harvest a field completely, but let the corners go unharvested and leave behind enough stalks for the poor to glean after them (Leviticus 19:9; 23:22). Ruth and Naomi, for example, were widows able to survive by this means.
Moreover, kindness to the poor was considered a religious duty.
"He who despises his neighbor sins,
but blessed is he who is kind to the needy." (Proverbs 14:20-21)
"He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God." (Proverbs 14:31)
"He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,
and he will reward him for what he has done." (Proverbs 19:17)
The scriptures refer to God as the defender of the widow and the fatherless (Psalm 72:12-14). Those, then who know God will do as he does (Jeremiah 22:16). In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus talks about eternal judgment having to do with how the poor were treated (Matthew 25:42, 45). See Excursus 6 that follows for a more comprehensive listing of "Verses on How God Looks at the Poor."
According to Harvard scholar George Foot Moore, caring for the poor was considered an important duty. If one had it in his power, one should give enough to meet the poor person's actual need. Sometimes to help the poor man save face, the money might be given as a loan, thus Jesus' statement, "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (Matthew 5:42). A man's first obligation was to support the dependent members of his own family, then to relieve the necessities of his relatives and those in his town.
However, giving alms to the poor was not just personal and direct. By the end of the first century AD, many Jewish communities had organized a community chest to care for the poor. In each town two collectors were appointed to make their rounds of the townspeople each Friday to take up the weekly collection for the poor in money or in goods. Then three others were appointed to give out to the poor every Friday enough to provide for the coming week.1
As corrupt, misguided, and inefficient as our modern-day welfare systems may be, they are grounded on a righteous and godly foundation of caring for the poor. However a given community chooses to care for the poor, the duty to do so is from God. Whether this responsibility is carried on by churches, or charitable institutions, or by the government, or by a combination of these is not dictated by scripture so much as prudence. We all desire to provide for actual need without perpetuating the need for charity to continue forever after.
"So when you give to the needy..." Jesus says. Notice that he took for granted that we would give to the needy. What he was concerned about was the motive and attitude with which the alms were given. Without real love, there would be no reward.
I am concerned about a general attitude that many Christians have toward the poor.
First, I sense a superior attitude. We often assume that it's their own fault that people are poor. Of course, in some cases this is true. Laziness and irresponsibility, gambling, alcohol, and drugs have each taken a tremendous toll. But sometimes trauma in Vietnam, Iraq, or elsewhere has preceded a life of addiction and escape. Many, many of the poor are poor because of circumstances fully or partially beyond their control. Divorce has decimated families, those fragile units upon which our society depends. After divorce in America, the man typically increases his standard of living. But divorce often consigns to poverty the wife and children. Many of the poor come from broken families that have not instilled in them the discipline and training necessary to get and retain a job. Sickness and injury and mental illness bring many to poverty. Layoffs and shifting of labor to lower cost overseas workers cripple others.
Yet, somehow we feel superior. We must learn to see the poor as our brothers and our sisters. Jesus told us to consider the poor as himself. He said that how we care for the poor and suffering is how we care for him (Matthew 25:31-46). May God convict us of our superior attitudes. There may well be times in our lives when we ourselves have been or will be poor. Love and a sense of brotherhood with the poor are what Jesus calls us to.
Second, this superior attitude can lead to resentment. We justly resent the widespread abuse of the welfare system. There are many wrongs we need to right. Political conservatives sometimes struggle with the growth of what they consider "big government" and a "welfare state." No matter what our political bent, we must guard ourselves so that our political resentment does not extend to the poor themselves.
Third, our resentment may come from greed. None of us wants to pay so much in taxes. And if somehow welfare were localized and separated from our general taxes, we might be able to give more personally with a purer heart. But let's not allow greed to turn us away from our Christian obligation to care for the poor among us.
As Jesus begins to discuss expressions of piety in his day, he zeros in on the chief problem with spiritual life: its constant tendency to go to our head and turn into a hollow religiosity.
"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." (6:1)
The word translated "Be careful" (NIV), "beware" (NRSV), or "take heed" (KJV) is Greek prosechō, which means "to turn toward," specifically in this context, "to be in a state of alert, be concerned about, care for, take care."2 It serves to highlight the command which follows it.
The next phrase is, "To be seen by them." How much of our lives are lived to "be seen by them." We stretch to "keep up with the Joneses." We dress to impress and attract and entice. We speak to manipulate and ingratiate and seek our own advancement. We work very hard to create an impression to the outside world. But we are critical of the Pharisees who sometimes did the same thing.
When I heard Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, speak some time ago, I was impressed with his passion to "live for the audience of One." So much of our time is spent trying to advance ourselves or impress others. How about God?
James J. Tissot, "The Widow's Mite" (1896-1904), watercolor.
Jesus pointed out to his disciples the widow who gave two small copper coins, and gave more than the all the rich people combined (Mark 12:41-42). She gave all she had, but she gave for "the Audience of One" and he was indeed watching.
One day Jesus told a parable to underscore this point:
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:10-14)
The Pharisee prayed in his pride, but the tax collector prayed in his humility, and was heard by "The Audience of One."
As Christians, our lives are to be lived hour by hour, day by day for our Lord. When we give, we are to give out of love for the Lord. When we pray, out of devotion to him. When we fast, out of a passion to draw closer to him. That is surely the spirit of this passage.
"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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (6:3-4)
We aren't to give to impress others, but for "the audience of One." It matters to God that we don't burn out our spiritual devotion in impressing others. It matters very much to him. He wants us to live in devotion for him alone. He wants us to have a pure heart, a single heart.
How different is a religion that makes a show of piety. In Jesus' day some of the Pharisees would give alms with great show "to be honored by men." We know by reading the rabbinical writings of Judaism that this was not the heart of Pharisaism. It was an aberration. But hypocrisy exists in any day.
It can exist in our day, too. I am appalled at some of the fundraising methods used in the name of Christ with little consideration to Biblical teaching:
- Putting a person's name on a publicly displayed plaque if they give at a certain level.
- Getting people to publicly wave a certain denomination of bill that they plan to give.
- Trooping down to the front of the church to make an offering that can be seen by all.
I'm sure you could name other travesties of this kind. Anything that appeals to a person's temptation to exalt himself or herself is a poor motivation for Christian giving.
The root problem, really, is the need for love. Pride has a way of waving and gesturing: "Hey, look at me. I need your attention. I need your approval." Pride really comes from an internal weakness and insecurity, an unmet need for love.
As I look at my own weaknesses, this is one. What I am learning is that God wants to fill my need for love and acceptance with his own love, flooding me with love and acceptance at the very core of my being. Where I clamor to receive love from everyone else, I really need to get away with God -- in secret -- and commune with him, and so receive this assurance and love portion that I need.
Isn't it interesting that the cure for public pride is secret time with the Father? If we will give to him in secret, he will also give to us in secret an unbounded blessing, so that we are free to give to others without needing to receive praise or even thanks in exchange.
And as he cures the root, he also desires to cure the branch. He tells us to love God with all our heart, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Instead of looking within to satisfy our own selves, the cure is to look outward to God and others, and give to them in love.
Love, finally, is the answer. Receiving God's love fully and lavishly, and then reflecting and returning it to others -- that is the life lived in love.
Purely. Simply. Secretly.
That is how we are to do our "acts of righteousness."
Q1. (Matthew 6:1-18) How do the commands in this section relate to "performing for the audience of One"? What is the antidote for the chief sin that is addressed here? In what ways do churches and non-profit organizations use this sin to motivate people to give?
Q2. (Matthew 5:42 and 6:1-4) How does Jesus' teaching here and in 5:42 on giving to the needy influence you and your attitudes towards the poor? What will you do differently as a result? What keeps us from giving more to the poor? Is that a good enough reason?
Secret Prayer (6:5-6)
At the beginning of this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated the principle:
"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven" (6:1)
The first example of this was in the way we give to those in need. The second relates to how, where, and why we pray, and a third to how we are to fast.
"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full." (Matthew 6:5)
In Jesus' day some religious people, probably of the Pharisee party, took great pride in their devotion, and prayed in public so that people could see how spiritual they were, "to be seen by men."
Jesus isn't against public prayer. Jesus himself often prayed in public. But he argues that praying in public in order to be thought by others to be pious is offensive. The reward for such self-seeking prayers is merely the applause of men. Any reward from God is forfeit. Instead, Jesus tells his disciples,
"But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (6:6)
The King James Version translates the phrase as, "enter into thy closet," making children sometimes feel holy when they pray among their hanging clothing. The Greek word is tameion, which means, "storeroom," then generally, a room in the interior of a house, "inner room."3
The point here is secrecy. We are not just to retire into a private place, but also to close the door, so that we won't be tempted to impress anyone by our piety. Surely God can hear our prayers in crowded places and wide open fields, but to deal with religious pride that was so prevalent in his day (and in ours), Jesus stressed the privacy of prayer.
Someone said that character is doing the same thing whether anyone is watching or not. That is a good barometer for our prayer life, too.
As I have worked to develop disciples for Jesus, I have found one consistent element that either severely retards or greatly accelerates growth -- private devotions: prayer, meditation, Bible reading, and the like. Those who set aside time alone with God grow. Those who don't, stagnate.
So perhaps Jesus isn't just dealing with pride here. He is offering a practical suggestion about prayer in general. Pray in private for God's benefit as an act of discipleship.
Unlike Jesus' examples of giving alms (6:2-4) and fasting (6:16-18), Jesus amplifies his teaching on prayer. He says,
"And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think 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." (6:7-8)
This raises two questions. First, what kind of babbling is he referring to? The Greek word is polulogia, which means "speech of tedious length, much speaking, wordiness, long-windedness."4 The King James rendering "use not vain repetitions" is a bit misleading, since the Greek word implies neither "vain" nor "repetitious." In fact, Jesus himself repeated the same prayer three times in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:44).
Rather, Jesus is saying, don't think that eloquence or wordiness are necessary to communicate with God. So many times people are hesitant to offer a prayer in public because, they say, "I don't know the right words to use in prayer." I think that by example we (myself included) have taught people that prayer must be fluent and use the proper religious language. Many people feel that if they can't pray that way, they don't know how to pray at all.
Perhaps the best comparative example of prayer in the Bible was the Pharisee and the tax collector that was quoted above (Luke 18:10-14). The Pharisee prayed 33 words compared to the tax collector's seven. But God heard the shorter prayer because it was offered to Him sincerely rather than out of pride.
Q3. (Matthew 6:5-7) Why does Jesus tell us to pray in secret? Though public prayer in church gatherings is commanded in scripture (Acts 1:14; 2:42; 1 Timothy 2:1), in which circumstances might public prayer in a church service be contrary to the spirit of Jesus' instructions in these verses? How do flowery prayers hinder the development of disciples?
One phrase in Jesus' teaching is especially troubling:
"... For your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (6:8b).
It raises a very important question: Why should we pray at all? If God knows our need before we ask him, then he knows what we will say to him when we pray. So why bother? Why go to the trouble of formulating our prayer into words before God?
One popular answer is that we pray more for our own benefit than God's. Not only does it fit with a popular psychological view of the devotional life in our own day, it is undergirded with support from some of the great Protestant theologians. John Calvin said:
"Believers do not pray with the view of informing God about things unknown to him, or of exciting him to do his duty, or of urging him as though he were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray in order that they may arouse themselves to seek him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on his promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into his bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things."5
Luther put it more succinctly yet:
"By our praying ... we are instructing ourselves more than we are him."6
I'll agree that prayer is not instructing God. But I strongly believe that prayer is more than self-talk. Prayer is not primarily speaking to hear ourselves talk (no matter how beneficial that may be).
Prayer is communicating with God. It is not "thinking good thoughts" as some people put it when they say, "Hold a good thought for me," as if the positive power of good thoughts is the essence of prayer.
Prayer is communicating with God. It is speaking to him. It is formulating our thoughts to him. And, more important yet, it is engaging him in conversation. Jesus wants us to learn to communicate with God. And so he teaches his disciples a model prayer, The Lord's Prayer (6:9-15), which we'll consider in detail in the next chapter.
Q4. (Matthew 6:8) If God knows what you need before you ask him, why should you ask him at all? What sense does prayer really make? Are we mainly to talk for our own edification and encouragement? Why or why not?
16 "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew 6:16-18)
Jesus concludes his discussion of piety for God's eyes only with a section on fasting. We are not to make sure that people see us suffering and think of how pious we are. Rather, we are to face the world groomed so that our fasting will not be obvious. Fasting is to God, not to men.
Note that Jesus doesn't say, "If you fast..." but "When you fast...." Though he and his disciples didn't practice fasting as a discipline of their band (9:14-15), Jesus himself fasted in preparation for his ministry (4:2) and he implied that Christian disciples would fast following his time of earthly ministry (9:15).
Sermon on the Mount: The Jesus Manifesto is available in paperback and ebook formats
In all our deeds of righteousness and piety -- and we should expect to find these in the sincere believer -- we are to be careful to do these for the proper motive, for the Audience of One, not for the acclaim of others. Worship is for God, and for him alone.
Father, so often we do religious acts for others' benefit. Forgive us! Let our prayers and giving and worship be for you, and you alone. We seek to please you, our Father. That is our heart. In Jesus' name, and in conformity with his teachings, we pray. Amen.
- George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of Tannaim (1927-30; reprinted by Hendrickson, 1997), vol. 2, chapter 7.
- Prosechō, BDAG 879-880, 1.
- Tameion, BDAG 988, 2.
- Polulogia, BDAG 847.
- John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists (1558), quoted by Stott, Sermon, p. 145.
- Quoted by Stott, Sermon, p. 145.
In-depth Bible study books
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- Abraham, Faith of
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