Matthew 6:1-15: Practicing Righteousness
January 14, 2021
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Having focused on how we are to behave in terms of human relations, Jesus now turns to the matter of “practicing our righteousness” (6:1), which in this context means the practice of “religion” in relationship to God. He tackles two matters head on—both of which are often disputed and have serious consequences if misunderstood—that of money and prayer.
In either case, whether of giving or prayer, Jesus’ chief concern is that we not do what the “hypocrites” do (6:2, 5). The hypocrites, literally actors, are not those who simply are going through the motions without meaning what they are doing at all; they are not entirely faking it. The temptation of this “hypocrisy,” so characteristic of the Pharisee, is far more insidious and difficult to avoid, or diagnose. The point is that with both prayer and giving, their chief concern is not whether what is happening is pleasing to God, but whether what is happening is pleasing to other people. The focus is off: giving so that people can see and applaud you (6:1); praying so that people can see and applaud you (6:5).
Giving, Jesus teaches, is to be done in secret (6:4). This does not mean that we should never submit tax returns and the like, but that our giving should not be “before other people” (6:1). We give so that God rewards us; we do not give so that we are known as significant givers. Those who give to get known for being generous will have received their reward already—the reward of what people think of them. Whereas those who give “in secret” are looking for a reward from God and will receive such a reward. Our giving then is to be so that our left hand does not know what our right hand is doing (6:3), a characteristically vivid metaphor to indicate that even we ourselves are not to be particularly conscious of what we are doing. We are not to pat ourselves on the back and feel good about our giving. Even our left hand does not know much about it. We are giving for God.
Similarly, with prayer we are not to stand on the street corners and pray in impressive tones to be known as particularly spiritual (6:5). It seems amazing that people did this, but so they did. Still more amazing is that people still do the same. “Oh, what a lovely prayer,” they say—and one fears that the one praying has received his reward. Jesus’ command to pray in secret is not forbidding all and any kind of praying in public. If he were forbidding it, then his disciples very soon forgot (Acts 4), and he himself does not obey that command, for he models the “Lord’s Prayer” in a moment (6:9-13), and the prayer in John 17 is long, recorded, and so presumably was prayed so that other people could hear what Jesus was praying.
The point Jesus is making is that public praying must only ever be the tip of the iceberg of private praying. That way our praying is unlikely to be lengthy—reciting the work of redemption from creation to the second coming for the general delight of our hearers when we pray in church at great length and with appropriate polysyllabic theological jargon. No, we are not to be like the pagans who think they will be heard for their many words. At root, wrong prayer has a wrong idea of God: prayer is not like a slot machine. It is not a handle you crank where the more you crank the handle, the more goodies you get out. Prayer is a relationship. You are talking to your Father (in heaven).
So, then, Jesus models this prayer in the famous “Lord’s Prayer” (6:9-13). Note that we are not commanded, at least in Matthew, to always recite this prayer verbatim. We are to pray “like this” (6:9). There is nothing wrong with reciting the Lord’s Prayer, but here in Matthew the Lord’s Prayer functions as a model prayer: we are to pray, in our own words, “like this.”
The content of the Lord’s Prayer is so profound that a series of devotions on their own would not suffice to expound it in affective way. Suffice it to say that the prayer begins with adoration, moves to practical supplication, and includes real confession. The practical element (“give us this day our daily bread,” 6:11), and the emphasis on forgiveness (6:12) is striking. If we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven (6:15). A forgiven person is someone who forgives, and therefore if we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven.
Spend time then today secretly praying—that your heavenly Father might hear you—for your needs for today, and to forgive others as you have been forgiven.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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