13 February 2013Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
"And your father who sees in secret will reward you." (v. 4, 6, 18)
For the devout Jew in biblical times, there were three central works of religious life: almsgiving (charity giving), prayer and fasting. In today's passage Jesus offers criticism and advice on each, suggesting it is as much how you do things as what you do.
Jews treated almsgiving as sacred - they used the same word 'tzedakah' for both righteousness and almsgiving. So if a person desired to be good, then they should practise giving to those in need. But the teaching of the rabbis said that whoever gives alms in secret is greater than Moses. Jesus' words (verses 2-4), then, are consistent with others of the time.
When you give to others, how do you give? There can be a variety of motives - duty, sense of moral superiority, desire to show how generous you are. Perhaps it is worth misquoting 1 John 4:19 - instead of "We love because [God] first loved us", 'We give because [God] first gave to us'. Our giving should be a response of love, love for others as a response to the love of God. No one else need know - not even the giver - "and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (v. 4).
Concerning prayer, Jesus offers a different pattern to those "in the synagogues and at the street corners". Rather than the grand formalised prayers which are only said to be heard by others (and which can be a fault in any tradition), he suggests a relationship of private prayer - of intimacy and conversation "in your room" (v. 6). It is more important that God hears and responds for "your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (v. 6).
Fasting has always been part of religious life, although much less so in recent Christian tradition. On the subject John Wesley wrote "the man that never fasts is no more in the way to heaven, than the man that never prays". But again it depends on how you fast and the motivation behind it. Fasting itself is a means to an end, whether it is be in solidarity and empathy with the hungry of the world, or to recognise in a physical way that our body's need for food is comparable to our need for God. It is not to go about saying how hungry we are (though the quiet rumbling of the stomach is forgivable). Philip Meadows offers some useful reflections on the practical and devotional aspects of fasting on the Methodist Church's website.
- Jesus offers three elements of Christian life and discipleship - how might you incorporate these into a way of living through Lent?