There is a wonderful wholeness as well as a compelling organization to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and we come to appreciate it more and more as we move carefully through Christ’s teaching.
In the first eighteen verses of Matthew chapter six, Jesus describes the incredibly high standard of righteousness required of those who would be His disciples: (1) explaining that it must be superior to that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, (2) describing it in six representative areas, and (3) insisting that His disciples pursue perfection, since God is perfect. But now He moves to those outward “acts of righteousness” (v.1), which we would call the actual practice of religion (orthopraxy), and He warns of a great danger: hypocrisy. In order to be His disciples, to be citizens of His kingdom, those who are His must practice their religion from the heart and not for the notice, approbation, and reward of men. In this section of the Sermon, Jesus develops what He had already taught about our need for a transformed heart.
Righteousness in verse 1 has to do with the practice of religion and not mere good works. We might say piety, but piety usually refers to what we call a pious attitude. Devotions is a possibility, but we usually limit devotions to such matters as Bible reading and prayer. Religion might work if what we mean is, “Do not make public displays of your religion in order to attract other people’s attention.”
What Jesus has in mind are the three chief acts of Jewish piety that He discusses in verses 1–18: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. These form a unit of their own, and Jesus follows the same outline in discussing them: (1) a warning not to seek man’s praise, (2) an assurance that those who do will get only an earthly reward, (3) a command to perform such acts privately, and (4) a promise that God, who sees in secret, will reward the disciple openly.
Jesus’ first example of religious practice is giving to the poor (vv.1–4). The law declared, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” The rabbis said, “Greater is he who gives alms than he who offers sacrifices” and “He who gives in secret is greater than Moses.” Jesus agreed that this is a religious duty, for He is not telling us to give alms in these verses; He is assuming we will do it.
What Jesus is concerned about is how the giving will be done. Will it be done to win approval from other men and women? Most giving is for that reason. Jesus calls it announcing one’s gifts “with trumpets,” meaning, as we might say, that such people are “blowing their own horn.”
People call attention to their giving because they want to be praised by other people. And they will be! Jesus says. They will get their reward on earth, but only on earth. The piety Jesus seeks is one that drives people to give because of the need of the receiving person and not for the praise of other people. How do we avoid hypocrisy? By keeping our giving quiet, Jesus teaches. D. A. Carson says, “The way to avoid hypocrisy is not to cease giving but to do so with such secrecy that we scarcely know what we have given.”
The second of Jesus’ examples of religious piety and the one He deals with at greatest length is prayer. He teaches about prayer generally, gives an example of what true prayer should be, and then elaborates on one of the items He teaches us to pray for. This is treated in roughly the same manner as charitable giving. He assumes His disciples will pray, but He is concerned about how prayer is done. Jesus warns us not to seek man’s praise, assures us that those who do will get only an earthly answer, commands us to perform such acts privately, and promises that God, who hears in secret, will reward us openly.
Jesus speaks of two wrong types of prayer. First, ostentatious prayer is prayer uttered in the most visible places with the goal of being heard and seen by other people. We have an example of this in Christ’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee “stood up and prayed about himself.” He had his reward; he was noticed by the people standing by. They must have said, “Look at that Pharisee! How pious he is!” Yet Jesus said that it was the tax collector who was justified. He did not call attention to himself but rather “stood at a distance,” praying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He had his reward in heaven.
The second kind of badly conceived prayer is repetitious prayer, which Jesus identifies as characteristic of Gentiles or pagans. The prayers of the priests of Baal in the days of Elijah are an example. They called on Baal “from morning till noon,” calling louder and louder and even “slashed themselves with swords and spears.” But Baal did not hear them.
Jesus is not condemning long prayers in these verses since He Himself spent long nights and many hours in prayer. What He is condemning is “vain repetition.” It is a warning against vain words in praying. Sadly, many religious prayers are like this. We should remember that the slang term “pitter-patter” in English comes from the Latin words that begin the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father” (Pater Noster) and are an observation on how meaningless the empty repetition of even these famous words has sometimes seemed to unbelievers. Augustine was on the right track when he properly distinguished between “much speaking in prayer and much praying.”