The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary & meditation 
“When you pray, fast, and give alms”

Scripture: Matthew 6:1-18

1 "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in  heaven. 2 "Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received  their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward  you.
7 "And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 10 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.11 Give us this day our daily bread; 12 And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors; 13 And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. 14 For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

16 "And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I  say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Meditation: Why did Jesus single out prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for his disciples?  The Jews considered these three as the cardinal works of the religious life.  These were seen as the key signs of a pious person, the three great pillars on which the good life was based.  Jesus pointed to the heart of the matter.  Why do you pray, fast, and give alms? To draw attention to yourself so that others may notice and think highly of you?  Or to give glory to God?  The Lord warns his disciples of self-seeking glory -- the preoccupation with looking good and seeking praise from others. True piety is something more than feeling good or looking holy. True piety is loving devotion to God. It is an attitude of awe, reverence, worship and obedience. It is a gift and working of the Holy Spirit that enables us to devote our lives to God with a holy desire to please him in all things (Isaiah 11:1-2).

Do you pray with joy and confidence? The Jews were noted for their devotion to prayer.  Formal prayer was prescribed for three set times a day.  And the rabbis had a prayer for every occasion.  Jesus warns his disciples against formalism, making prayer something mechanical and devoid of meaning, with little thought for God.  When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he gave them the disciple’s prayer, what we call the Our Father or Lord’s Prayer.  This prayer dares to call God “our Father” and boldly asks for the things we need to live as his sons and daughters. It is through the gift of the Holy Spirit that we can know God personally and call him “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). We can approach God our Father with confidence and boldness because Jesus Christ has opened the way to heaven for us through his death and resurrection.  When we ask God for help, he fortunately does not give us what we deserve.  Instead, he responds with grace and mercy.  He is kind and forgiving towards us and he expects us to treat our neighbor the same.  Do you treat others as they deserve, or do you treat them as the Lord would with grace and mercy?  Jesus’ prayer includes an injunction that we must ask God to forgive us in proportion as we forgive those who have wronged us.  Ask the Lord to fill you with the fire of his love and mercy.

What is the sure reward which Jesus points out to his disciples?  It is communion with God our Father.  In him alone we find the fulness of life and happiness, and truth and love. Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote the following prayer in his Confessions: When I am completely united to you, there will be no more sorrows or trials; entirely full of you, my life will be complete. The Lord rewards those who seek him earnestly with humble and repentant hearts. He renews us each day and he gives us new hearts of love and compassion that we may serve him and our neighbor with glad and generous hearts.  Do you want to grow in your love for God and for your neighbor?  Seek him expectantly in prayer, with fasting, and in generous giving to those in need.

“Lord, give me a lively faith, a firm hope, a fervent charity, and a great love for you.  Take from me all lukewarmness in the meditation of your word, and dullness in prayer. Give me fervor and delight in thinking of you and your grace, and fill me with compassion for others, especially those in need, that I may respond with generosity”


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(c) 2002 Don Schwager