Lesson Focus: As followers of Jesus, why we seek to obey God is as important as what we do.
Give to the Needy: Matthew 6:1-4.
 "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.  "Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. [ESV]
[1-4] Christian righteousness is righteousness unlimited. It must be allowed to penetrate beyond our actions and words to our heart, mind and motives, and to master us even in those hidden, secret places. Jesus moves from a Christian’s moral righteousness to his righteous deeds: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. According to Jesus, righteousness has two dimensions: the moral and the religious deeds. Thus there is no need to choose between piety and morality, religious devotion in church and active service in the world, loving God and loving our neighbor, since Jesus taught that authentic Christian righteousness includes both. The essential difference in religion as in morality is that authentic Christian righteousness is not an external manifestation only, but one of the secret things of the heart. There is much teaching in the Old Testament on compassion for the poor. Jesus obviously expected His disciples to be generous givers. Generosity is not enough, however. Our Lord is concerned throughout this Sermon with motivation, with the hidden thoughts of the heart. There are three possibilities. Either we are seeking the praise of men, or we preserve our anonymity but are quietly congratulating ourselves, or we are desirous of the approval of our divine Father alone. A ravenous hunger for the praise of men was the besetting sin of the Pharisees. Hypocrisy is the word which Jesus used to characterize their actions. The religious hypocrite deliberately sets out to deceive people. He takes some religious practice which is a real activity and he turns it into what it was never meant to be, namely a piece of make-believe, a theatrical display before an audience. And it is all done for applause. Of such people who seek the praise of men, Jesus says with emphasis: they have received their reward. The hypocrites who seek applause will get it, but that is all they will get. Nothing further is due to them, nothing but judgment on the last day. Having forbidden His followers to give to the needy in the ostentatious manner of the Pharisees, Jesus now tells us the Christian way, which is the way of secrecy. Not only are we not to tell other people about our Christian giving; there is a sense in which we are not even to tell ourselves. We are not to be self-conscious in our giving, for our self-consciousness will readily deteriorate into self-righteousness. So subtle is the sinfulness of the heart that it is possible to take deliberate steps to keep our giving secret from men while simultaneously dwelling on it in our own minds in a spirit of self-congratulation. The new life in Christ is one of uncalculating generosity. Of course it is not possible to obey this command of Jesus in precise literalness. If we keep accounts and plan our giving, as conscientious Christians should, we are bound to know how much we give away. Nevertheless, as soon as the giving of a gift is decided and done, it will be in keeping with this teaching of Jesus that we forget it. We are not to keep recalling it in order to gloat over it, or to preen ourselves on how generous, disciplined or conscientious our giving may have been. Christian giving is to be marked by self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness, not by self-congratulation. What we should seek when giving to the needy is neither the praise of men, nor a ground for self-commendation, but rather the approval of God.
Pray in This Way: Matthew 6:5-13.
 "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 others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  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.  "And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  Pray then like this: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread,  and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [ESV]
[5-8] In His second example of the religious kind of righteousness Jesus depicts two men at prayer. Again the basic difference is between hypocrisy and reality. He contrasts the reason for their praying, and its reward. The hypocrite love themselves and the opportunity which public praying gives them to parade themselves. Of course there is nothing wrong with standing to pray or praying in public if it is done with the motive to honor God and not to bring notice to ourselves. How, then, should Christians pray? Jesus said that we are to close the door against disturbance and distraction but also to shut out the prying eyes of men and to shut ourselves in with God. Only then can we obey the Lord’s command to pray to your Father who is in secret. Just as nothing destroys prayer like side-glances at human spectators, so nothing enriches it like a sense of the presence of God. For He sees not the outward appearance only but the heart, not the one who is praying only but the motive for which he prays. The essence of Christian prayer is to see God. We seek Him in order to acknowledge Him as the person He is, God the Creator, God the Lord, God the Judge, God our heavenly Father through Jesus Christ our Savior. We desire to meet Him in the secret place in order to bow down before Him in humble worship, love and trust. Our Lord’s emphasis on the need for secrecy should not be driven to extremes. To interpret it with rigid literalism would be guilty of the very pharisaism against which He is warning us. If all our praying were to be kept secret, we would have to give up church-going, family prayers and prayer meetings. His reference here is to private prayer. Rather than becoming absorbed in the mechanics of secrecy, we need to remember that the purpose of Jesus’ emphasis on secret prayer is to purify our motives in praying. As we are to give out of a genuine love for people, so we are to pray out of a genuine love for God. We must never use either of these exercises as a pious cloak for self-love. Hypocrisy is not the only sin to avoid in prayer; vain repetition or meaningless, mechanical utterance is another. Hypocrisy is a misuse of the purpose of prayer (diverting it from the glory of God to the glory of self); verbosity is a misuse of the very nature of prayer (degrading it from a real and personal approach to God into a mere recitation of words). We see again that the method of Jesus is to paint a vivid contrast between two alternatives, in order to indicate His way the more plainly. Jesus is always calling His followers to something higher than the attainments of those around them, whether religious people or secular people. He emphasizes that Christian righteousness is greater (because inward), Christian love broader (because inclusive of enemies) and Christian prayer deeper (because sincere and thoughtful) than anything to be found in the non-Christian community. In verse 7 Jesus is not condemning perseverance in prayer, rather He is condemning verbosity, especially in those who speak without thinking. Empty phrases describes any and every prayer which is all words and no meaning. To sum up, what Jesus forbids His people is any kind of prayer with the mouth when the mind is not engaged. We are not to be like the Gentiles who thought that God would better hear their prayers if they used an abundance of words. Christians do not believe in that kind of God; but rather a Father who knows what you need before you ask. God is neither ignorant, so that we need to instruct Him, nor hesitant, so that we need to persuade Him. He is our Father – a Father who loves His children and knows all about their needs. If that be so, then what is the point of praying? Believers do not pray with the view of informing God about things unknown to Him, or of exciting Him to do His duty, or of urging Him as though He were reluctant. On the contrary, they pray in order that they may arouse themselves to seek Him, that they may exercise their faith in meditating on His promises, that they may relieve themselves from their anxieties by pouring them into His bosom; in a word, that they may declare that from Him alone they hope and expect, both for themselves and for others, all good things.
[9-13] If the praying of Pharisees was hypocritical and that of pagans mechanical, then the praying of Christians must be real – sincere as opposed to hypocritical, thoughtful as opposed to mechanical. Jesus intends our minds and hearts to be involved in what we are saying. Then prayer is seen in its true light – not as a meaningless repetition of words, nor as a means to our own glorification, but as a true communion with our heavenly Father. This prayer was given by Jesus as a model of what genuine Christian prayer is like. The essential difference between pharisaic, pagan and Christian praying lies in the kind of God we pray to. Other gods may like mechanical incantations; but not the living and true God revealed by Jesus Christ. Jesus told us to address him as Our Father in heaven. This implies first that He is personal. Secondly, He is loving. He fulfills the ideal of fatherhood in His loving care for His children. Thirdly, He is powerful. He is not only good but great. In heaven denotes not the place of His abode so much as the authority and power at His command as the creator and ruler of all things. Thus He combines fatherly love with heavenly power, and what His love directs His power is able to perform. It is always wise, before we pray, to spend time deliberately recalling who He is. Only then shall we come to our loving Father in heaven with appropriate humility, devotion and confidence. Further, when we have taken time and trouble to orientate ourselves towards God and recollect what manner of God He is, our personal, loving, powerful Father, then the content of our prayers will be radically affected in two ways. First, God’s concerns will be given priority (your name, your kingdom, your will). Secondly, our own needs, though demoted to second place, will yet be comprehensively committed to Him (give us, forgive us, deliver us). The first three petitions in the Lord’s Prayer express our concern for God’s glory in relation to His name, rule and will. Since He is the personal God of love and power fully revealed by Jesus Christ, Creator of all, who cares about the creatures He has made and the children He has redeemed, then does it become possible (indeed, essential) to give His concerns priority and to become preoccupied with His name, His kingdom and His will. We pray that God’s name be hallowed, treated as holy, because we ardently desire that due honor may be given to it, that is to Him whose name it is, in our own lives, in the church and in the world. The kingdom of God is His royal rule. Again, as He is already holy so He is already King, reigning in absolute sovereignty over both nature and history. Yet when Jesus came He announced a new and special break-in of the kingly rule of God, with all the blessings of salvation and the demands of submission which the divine rule implies. To pray that His kingdom may come is to pray both that it may grow, as through the church’s witness people submit to Jesus, and that soon it will be consummated when Jesus returns in glory to take His power and reign. The will of God is good, acceptable and perfect [Rom. 12:2], for it is the will of our Father in heaven who is infinite in knowledge, love and power. It is, therefore, folly to resist it, and wisdom to discern, desire and do it. As His name is already holy and He is already King, so already His will is being done in heaven. What Jesus bids us pray is that life on earth may come to approximate more nearly to life in heaven. The expression on earth as it is in heaven seems to apply equally to the hallowing of God’s name, the spreading of His kingdom and the doing of His will. To pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer with sincerity has revolutionary implications, for it expresses the priorities of a Christian. We are constantly under pressure to conform to the self-centeredness of secular culture. When that happens we become concerned about our own little name, about our own little empire, and about our own little will. But in the Christian counter-culture our top priority concern is not our name, kingdom and will, but God’s. Whether we can pray these petitions with integrity is a searching test of the reality and depth of our Christian profession. In the second half of the Lord’s Prayer the possessive adjective changes from ‘your’ to ‘our’, as we turn from God’s affairs to our own. Having expressed our burning concern for His glory, we now express our humble dependence on His grace. Since God is our Father in heaven and loves us with a father’s love, He is concerned for the total welfare of His children and wants us to bring our needs trustingly to Him, our need of food and of forgiveness and of deliverance from evil.
Fast in Secret: Matthew 6:16-18.
 "And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,  that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. [ESV]
[16-18] When indicates that people will fast, but leaves the times open. No particular significance is attached to fasting here, as though the fast were for a specific object; it is simply a normal religious, disciplinary activity, one of three pious practices held in special esteem among the Jews (with almsgiving and prayer). But Jesus says that whenever it takes place certain precautions should be observed, for fasting readily gives an opening for those who like to make a show of their piety. The hypocrites made it plain to those who saw them that they were engaged in a serious and onerous religious duty. They were more interested in appearing to fast than in the actual fasting itself. Such people, Jesus says, have received in full all the reward they are going to get. They aimed at making an impression rather than at religious excellence. They succeeded in their aim and should not expect any further recompense than the applause they had attained. But puts the follower of Jesus in contrast. Jesus implies that those who follow Him will fast from time to time, but He says nothing about frequency, occasion, or method. He is concerned only with the motive behind the fasting and indeed primarily with the requirement that fasting be done secretly, as a matter between the religious person and God. The purpose of anointing your head and washing your face is that those fasting should not make a display of their disciplinary activity. The hypocrites fasted in order to make an impression on others. It was their practice to cover their heads with sackcloth or perhaps to smear their faces with ashes in order to look pale and melancholy. Jesus prescribes the exact opposite. Fasting is a matter between the individual and the Father. The thought of being in secret is repeated from verses 4 and 6. With fasting, as with almsgiving and prayer, it is important that the activity be done in secret. As with those activities the Father will reward the person who fasts rightly, but the emphasis is not on the reward; it is on keeping one’s religious activities God-honoring and not making them a means of self-glorification.
Questions for Discussion:
1. What are the two dimensions of Christian righteousness? What is the essential difference between authentic Christian righteousness and other forms of righteousness?
2. Jesus teaches that Christian giving is to be marked by self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness, not by self-congratulation. What we should seek when giving to the needy is neither the praise of men, nor a ground for self-commendation, but rather the approval of God. Do these statements characterize your giving?
3. According to Jesus, what is the essence of Christian prayer? What is the essential difference between pharisaic, pagan and Christian praying? What should we spend time doing before we pray?
4. Analyze the model prayer that Jesus gives us in Matthew 6:9-13. Why does Jesus start with God’s concerns rather than our needs? What are the first three petitions in the Lord’s Prayer concerned with? Why are these important? What three basic human needs does Jesus then instruct us to pray for? Seek to make the priorities of the Lord’s Prayer the priorities of your prayers.
5. Why should we fast? What should be our motive for fasting? What reward will the Father give those who fast in the proper manner and with the correct motivation?
The Gospel according to Matthew, Leon Morris, Pillar, Eerdmans.
Christian Counter-Culture, John Stott, Inter Varsity Press.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, D.A. Carson, Global Christian Publishers.