Matthew continues with Jesus' sermon on the mount, examining the issue of personal piety - almsgiving, prayer and fasting.
v1. When Jesus calls on his disciples not to "make a show of your religion", NEB, he is telling them to "do what is right" (in the piety department), he is telling them not to seek the praise/reward of others rather than God.
v2-4. Almsgiving, as with the other two acts of piety, is a particularly Jewish religious practice. Note how Jesus makes the same points with all three acts of piety: i] don't do them to gain the praise of others; ii] ignore this warning and all we get is the praise of others; iii] piety is best performed in secret; iv] what is performed in secret receives God's reward. Special festivals were proclaimed by the sounding of trumpets and so this was a good time to make a show of generosity toward the poor. Jesus expects his disciples to give alms, but not "as the hypocrites." There are different degrees of hypocrisy. We can act to fool others, fool ourselves, or fool ourselves and others. With each we get the reward we deserve, sometimes even high praise, although not from God. The right motive for alms-giving is compassion; such stems from the heart and is for the recipient's benefit, irrespective of the onlookers. As for the reward, perfect righteousness is always rewarded, although only one person has ever acted with perfect selfless compassion.
v5-8. Prayer. Jesus makes the same four points as noted above. The focus of his criticism is again on hypocrisy - where the outward act of piety does not represent the true state of the inward self. Jesus is not arguing for a particular stance in prayer, nor a particular place. He simply exposes our corrupt motivations by identifying the tendency to pray more in public than in private. As for repetitious prayer, although Jesus uses the word "pagans", his focus is still on Israel. Such prayer is pagan-like, because pagan religion rests on incantation and repetition. Repetition is unnecessary for "as a father knows the needs of his family, yet teaches them to ask in confidence and trust, so does God treat his children", Hill. Of course, Jesus is not denouncing long prayers, or repetition as such, rather length or repetition as a divine arm-bending exercise.
v16-18. Fasting. Again, the four points are repeated. Fasting provides an excellent opportunity to gain a reputation for piety. The best way to eliminate this hypocrisy is to fast in secret. In Jewish piety it was used in association with confession, or some special prayer need, and was taken into the Christian faith by Jewish believers as an expression of self-discipline, 1Cor.9:24-27, Phil.3:19, 1Pet.4:3. Jesus obviously assumes his disciples will fast after his departure, Matt.9:14-17. Making a show of their piety, that's the problem. So, freshen up; use some oil to brighten the face.
There are many churches which recognize and use Lent as a time of self examination and discipline in the Christian life. It's not uncommon to meet a believer during Lent who has decided to give up some delicacy such as chocolate. From Ash Wednesday through to Easter, millions of believers refocus their lives on Christ.
Lent is always linked to fasting, not starving, but rather cutting back on rich foods. In this way we purge the body, quieten the mind and heighten spiritual awareness. It's an interesting idea - renouncing self so that we might be open to God through prayer and meditation. So, Lent is not about denial as such, it is not about self-denial, rather it is about focusing our lives again on Christ. Lent is all about reflective prayer and meditation on the Word. This is where fasting fits in - it is a practical aid, particularly in our over indulgent world. As for the example of fasting, we know that it was practiced by Jesus, Lk.4:1-2, Paul, Act.9:9, 10:30, 14:23, and by the leaders of the church, Act.13:2.
Lent is a "catholic" tradition and begins on Ash Wednesday with "The Giving of Ashes". The previous year's palm crosses are burnt and used to ash the forehead in the sign of a cross. This symbol focuses the purpose of Ash Wednesday - a day of confession of sins, of sorrow for all the wrong we have done. "Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return".
Of course, the danger is that in these outward symbols of Lent we end up doing exactly what Jesus warns us against. If we feel some outward pride in them then we are best to do what Jesus advises, wash and brighten up. Remember, the importance lies with the action of the heart.
Prayer is certainly an act of Christian piety, but what about fasting? Does it have a place in the Christian life today?