“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. … When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others 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, 16-18
In the Jewish religion of Jesus’ day and continuing on into our own time, there were three great pillars of the religious life, works that really defined the righteous person: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Jesus would never have disputed the importance of these three activities, but what troubled him was that they were so often done from the wrong motives.
From our meditation on these passages from Matthew 6, it is clear that when these things are done with the sole intention of bringing glory to the doer, they really lose the most important part of their value. A person may give alms, not really to help the person to whom he or she gives, but simply to demonstrate his or her own generosity. A person may pray in such a way that his or her prayer is not really addressed to God, but to his or her listeners. Thus one’s praying may simply be an attempt to demonstrate one’s exceptional piety. A person may fast, not really to humble one’s self in the sight of God, but simply to show the world what a splendidly self-disciplined character he or she is. So a person may practice good works simply to win praise from his or her colleagues, to increase his or her own prestige, and to show the world how good one is. But the contention of true religion is that unless our practice helps or blesses others, it is in vain.
As we consider what Jesus was saying about this subject in the Sermon on the Mount, it is worth comparing what Isaiah said in chapter 58, verses 4b through 9a:
“You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today if you want to make your voice heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I choose, a day of self-affliction, of bending one’s head like a reed and of lying down in mourning clothing and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Isn’t THIS the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family? THEN your light will break out like the dawn, and you will be healed quickly. Your own righteousness will walk before you and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and God will say, ‘I’m here.’”
The context for Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 and Isaiah’s concern in Isaiah 58 has to do with what true worship is. It categorically repudiates the shallowness of any religious observance that is regarded as fulfilling God’s desire while leaving the daily life and hurts of the community completely unaffected.
The Judaism addressed by both Isaiah and Jesus was obsessed with forms not unlike a people some thousands of years later, not all of whom are a thousand miles from Riverside. When it is time for us to do charity, pray, or fast, it would pay to ask ourselves about our motives. These acts will have value in God’s sight only when they make a positive difference in the lives of others.