Seek Ye First

Giving, Praying and Fasting

~We all like to be noticed. To have someone recognize your efforts feels good. As the Sermon on the Mount continues, Jesus turns his attention to three acts of devotion common among faithful God followers—giving, praying and fasting. He warned that, if we’re not careful, those things we do religiously can easily become more about gaining the attention of our fellow man than about honoring God. For Matthew’s audience, these devotions spoke to their identity and practice. He was speaking their language. He employed some big buts to put things into proper perspective.

Be careful, Jesus warns, not to do your acts of devotion to be seen. Don’t announce your giving to the needy to be honored by others. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

Likewise, when you pray do not be like the hypocrites. They pray, in the manner that they do, in order to be seen. But when you pray, Jesus instructs his followers, go into your room and close the door.  It was common in Jesus’ day for the most pious appearing folks to make a spectacle of their prayer life. They would run on with elaborate and eloquent prayers—babbling many words, as Jesus described it.

There was a man at the church I attended as a teenager who, it seemed, seized every opportunity to lead the congregation in prayer. The problem was that he wasn’t leading, because neither I nor anyone else in the room could understand a word he said. He sounded to me as if he had swallowed a King James dictionary and was throwing up a theological treatise with every word. “O God, Thou of omnipotence reigneth! We beseech Thee: Reign o’er us, O God!” People were confused: ‘What did he say? Looks like rain? Oh my! Is the umbrella in the car?’ Now, I don’t mean to judge the man’s authenticity by his loquacity—there’s a word for you—but rather to suggest that words, when they can’t be understood by the masses (whether in or out of Mass), are of the kind of Jesus’ warning. Don’t be like them, he says. Your Father knows what you need. When you pray, just speak in your own voice and with your own vocabulary.

And with fasting, don’t make a spectacle of it like those who do what they do to show men their acts of devotion. But when you fast, he said, do it in a way that it isn’t obvious to other men, but only to your Father.

So that it isn’t obvious to others. At the very first church I served, I met a man named Carl. Well into his eighties, I was shocked one day to find him down on his hands and knees in the church sanctuary. He was crawling around with a can of carpet cleaner and a scrub brush, attacking coffee stains. The church secretary told me that he stopped by several times a month to perform needed tasks like this—but that he didn’t want anyone to know about it. He’d sneak in and out, desiring to go unnoticed. Another day, I found him lying on his back under a couple of church pews. I asked, “Carl, what are you doing down there?” Without looking up, he said, “This seat creaks whenever people sit in it. I’m just tightening it up a bit. No big deal.” When the Lord laid something on Carl’s heart to attend to, he did it. He did it in such a way as to avoid the fanfare.

This section of Jesus’ teaching is about perspective. He used the word hypocrite in each of the three examples, giving, praying and fasting. The word hypocrite literally meant one who wears a mask—or, in other words, an actor playing a role. In each example he also used phrases like to be seen, to be honored, or to show—each demonstrating that the intended audience for these religious acts was, much more, those on the horizontal plane. It was a performance more so than piety; religious motion instead of heart-felt devotion. Jesus’ point: It shouldn’t be that way.