A Survey of Matt. 6:1-18

It seems Jesus in this sermon chose to teach about the practices of alms-giving, praying, and fasting –not because they were being neglected, but because they were being abused. They were not un­used but mis-used. The Jewish religious leaders of His day empha­sized and practiced them. But Jesus said God was not impressed. (How does He feel today, about me?)

Perhaps a devoutly religious Jew in the first century wanted to make amends for “some command I may have broken.” Or wished to build up a supply of “extra merit” with God. How could he reach such goals? Their Jewish traditions and rabbis recommended those three activities: charity to the poor, and prayer, and fasting.

Those practices were not required in the 10 Commandments–the most important summary of their duties. But they were like doing overtime on the job, or writing an optional extra-credit assignment at school. They could bail you out of trouble with the Lord.

What do you think of that? Do you know anyone who fits that mold today? On the one hand those were wrong motives for per­forming duties. Legalistic self-righteousness-trying to earn brownie-points with God–was not what the Lord sought. It is a dan­gerous threat. Yet, on the other hand, all three of those duties were good and important. Hmmm, something to ponder: important, but dangerous!


Jesus begins with a Warning

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of other people, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (6: 1.)

He warns them against “theatrical righteousness,” merely acting out a part as in a play. “Watch out! Don’t do your righteousness in front of other people to be noticed by them.” That expression, “To be noticed by” comes from a Greek word, the-a ‘-then-ai, to be a theater to others, to play a role in a public drama.

He continues, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites [actors, pretenders, phonies] do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Fa­ther, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. . . .

Giving to the Poor-­

In chapter 5 He told us what to do: be concerned and generous to the truly needy. Now he speaks of why we do it. Our motives can “make or break” our deeds. In some synagogues the most gen­erous donors were summoned to the front of the gathering to sit by the rabbi. (James 2:2-4 refers to that custom). Perhaps in some mega-synagogues trumpets were actually blown to honor such do­nors on those occasions. “Tah-dahhh: Let’s now honor our Donor of the Month!”

No, NO! Such self-promoting cancels the virtue of giving. Yet let’s do help the poor. There are many opportunities to do that.


“When you fast [note that He said when, not if], do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their re­ward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men 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.”

So Jesus says, Practice fasting, but do not show off or brag about it or rely on it for merit before God. (Luke 18: 12 gives an ex­ample of that last point.) Since in our day there is less practicing of and preaching about Fasting than about prayer and giving, let’s exam­ine it some more. John the Baptizer’s disciples once asked Jesus, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “The time will come when they… will fast.”

Fasting AND Prayer

And they did. Note Acts 13:1-3. “While [the church leaders at Antioch] were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” Again in the very next chap­ter we read, “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.”

Thus in receiving God’s call of missionaries, and in sending them out, God worked in response to their prayer and fasting. Also in appointing workers and leaders for the young churches–ditto. Church history through the ages shows the same. The great evangeli­cal awakenings through the ages often were preceded by fervent prayer with fasting. When political, military or spiritual crises arose in England during John Wesley’s time, he would challenge his fol­lowers to fast and pray. During many emergencies on the mission field, Hudson Taylor called the China Inland Mission to days of fast­ing and praying.

For decades in the mid-1900s a Church of Christ editor, Jimmy Lovell, urged his readers, “Miss a meal a month for missions!” He thus not only promoted prayer but raised much money for missionar­ies-the money which would have been spent on that meal! Many times when Southeastern Christian College or Portland Christian School faced crises, some of the Lord’s people would go to their knees instead of their table. In fact a number of concerned supporters practice (d) fasting on Thursday noon even when there were no cri­ses! Is there no need for this in these present days of darkness? At Portland Church we encourage our members to fast and pray on the first Tuesday of each month (or some other time if need be). We don’t meet together, or set which meal or how many meals to miss. We don’t even know who or how many participate in this. But 1 believe that the church would have closed its doors years ago were it not for the Lord’s faithful working in response to the prayers of His people.

Questions may arise. “Should I fast if I have poor health?” I suggest you ask your doctor if you have a serious condition. Or if it’s just iffy, give fasting a try; if it does cause a problem, quit. God understands, and He wants us to care for our bodies. “I need to eat something before taking my medicine every few hours.” Some peo­ple in that case take just 2-3 crackers instead of a full meal, and still spend extra time at God’s throne.

J. Oswald Sanders, former missionary leader, wrote, “Not all Christians find fasting an aid to prayer. Some godly people I know have found it more of a hindrance than a help.” He then adds these points: Okay; the main thing is not missing a meal but spending some extra time in prayer-which can be carved out from other ac­tivities instead. Non-fasters do not break any New Testament com­mand, just some important advice which most people can follow and benefit from. Sanders’ conclusion: “The fact remains that prayer with fasting has been the habit of the greatest saints in all ages.” Un­less there are important reasons, don’t rob yourself of the rich bless­ings related to this spiritual discipline.

This article is a reprint from the April, 2007, Word and Work Magazine

-Alex Wilson is  Editor of “Word and Work”