9 March 2011

Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

"Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven." (v. 1)


Jesus expected people to be involved in alms-giving, prayer and fasting. His concern was whether people's motives were truly spiritual or primarily self-centred. Was it genuine self-giving or was there an expectation of personal benefits that might accrue in terms of reputation or divine reward?

In Judaism alms-giving was (and is) a sacred duty. Tzedakah, translated as 'charitable giving', comes from the Hebrew for righteousness or fairness. Giving to the poor is an act of justice; not a cause for self-righteousness or self-publicity. True giving is a self-sacrificing commitment, which makes a difference to the giver as well as to the recipient. This makes the widow's penny (seeMark 12:41-44) more generous than larger amounts easily afforded by the wealthy.

Prayer was taken very seriously in Jewish life. There were set daily prayers, prayers for all occasions, and family and private prayer. Devout Jews had specific times for prayer. (For example, in Acts 3:1 Peter and John went up to the temple at the hour of prayer.) Jesus taught the disciples that prayer is based on a personal relationship with God. It is not a performance that seeks to impress others or God, who is concerned with sincerity not eloquence (Luke 18:9-14).

Fasting was expected on the Day of Atonement from dawn until dusk. Private fasts were also observed as acts of penance or signs of mourning or for spiritual preparation. Many Pharisees fasted twice a week. Moses fasted for 40 days and nights before receiving the commandments (Exodus 34:28) and Jesus fasted in the desert before he began his ministry (Matthew 4:1-2). Such fasting is real self-denial, putting spiritual concerns above physical needs. It symbolises our willingness to put God's will above our own desires.

Jesus pointed out that spiritual wealth is much more important than material riches. Love, hope, faith, and peace are fundamental to our well-being and happiness, while wealth, success, power and status are not. (What price would you put on the love of family and friends?) Faith isn't about trying to earn God's forgiveness, favour and blessing through religious practices or through beliefs. Faith is a relationship of love; and love does not seek reward - though altruistic self-giving naturally increases our spiritual wealth.

To Ponder

What do you find helps to increase your spiritual wealth? In what ways can you change your lifestyle during Lent to help with this?

If you consciously try to build up your credit in heaven, how does this compare with those non-Christians who show love to those in need without any expectation of reward?

Consider following the Christian Aid Count Your Blessingscalendar during Lent with its daily reflections on how small examples of self-denial can help overcome injustices in the world.

Bible notes author

Philip Sudworth

Philip has retired from a career in the education service. He is now kept busy by voluntary work with local children's charities.