“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever 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.
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“Pray then in this way:
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 do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
This is a long passage today, so you may need to read it a couple of times to take it all in. It is about the three inner points of personal spirituality, what we used to call acts of piety. It is also about the great rewards that flow from them.
The three of them belong together forming a single reality, a three legged stool, an equilateral triangle, a pyramid, a pure, strong and stable Trinitarian structure.
So firstly, a word of explanation about each of them and then a thought on how they work together.
‘Almsgiving’ is very difficult for us today, because we are used to ‘almsgetting’. Most of us have been brought up on a constant life-style of ‘must-have’, ‘I want’, ‘this is mine’. Here Jesus is talking about ‘must-give’, ‘they need’, ‘this is their right’. Over the years, as I have followed Jesus, my own personal giving has grown from a rather pathetic ‘how little can I get away with’ to a more realistic ‘how much should I give’, and together with my wife (who is a much more generous person than me), it is becoming a ‘how exciting to give to God’s work and world’. We give to our church; to individuals we know who are in need; and to various charities that help the poor.
Daily personal times of prayer are an essential for anyone who wants to develop a healthy and joyful relationship with God. Here Jesus advises us to ‘shut the door’ on the world and turn off the radio so that we can be alone, deeply focused and ourselves with God. For some daily prayer is about long lists and requests. For others it is simply chatting, listening, and being aware of God. Most combine prayer with a bit of Bible reading and thinking of others who are in need. Regular personal time spent with God is like food and drink, sunshine and energy, refreshment and renewal to our inner personhood. The sooner you start developing it as part of your life-style, the better you will be. Prayer is like a telephone, it has a speaking bit and a listening bit. Some of us only ever use the speaking bit so we only have half a relationship and half a conversation.
What are the appetites in your life? Mine are all about food and drink, football and telly, sex, music and art. Fasting is not about denying any of these but about bringing them under control, going without something for a while so that we can fill that space with a growing love for and obedience to God. So don’t just miss lunch twice a week, but fill your lunch break with a bit of Bible and prayer.
As I write this I am actually rather proud of myself (and yes I know it should be a secret but here goes). Some time ago my football team, Bradford City, were playing Aston Villa in the semi-final of the League Cup. We had never been in this semi-final before and we probably will never be there again in my life-time. And, as with all of our games, I had a ticket. But there was also a meeting that I had been invited to. Not a very important, world-changing meeting by any means and I suspect that if I hadn’t been there my presence would not have been missed. However, I think God wanted to be more important to me than Bradford City, so I gave my ticket away. I had a ‘footie-fast’. Crazy, I know! (P.S. we won the match 3-1, I sort of both regret and am pleased that I was at the God-gathering.)
These three spiritual disciplines are like the three primary colours, out of which you can create a whole rainbow, they are like a three lane motorway sweeping us forward and giving access to the presence of God. Of course there are problems with all three of these inner pathways or disciplines. In my case I am too busy to pray, too hard pressed to give and too stuck on fish and chips to fast. This in a nutshell is my three-fold roadblock rather than my three lane motorway into a deep life-long relationship with God.
It is about developing a spiritual rather than a worldly appetite. How was Jesus able to be the man he was? How could he do the things he did and know the things he knew? And how could he keep on being Jesus day after day?
He could be and do and know because he had such a deep and real inner life in God. In sharing the secrets of almsgiving, of prayer and of fasting he was sharing his inner way of living. For a good fire you need three things, heat, fuel and oxygen. Maybe these three acts or pathways of piety were the three key elements in his inner fire. About each of them he says, do them privately (rather than for show) and your father will reward you.
May I follow your teaching and example.
Help me to give something away today,
Help me to pray for someone today,
Help me to go without one thing today,
And help me to do it all again in a few days’ time.