Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
We move today to a different theme, namely, the way in which we are to pay our worship to God.
Jesus’ teaching is based on the three basic acts of religion expected of a devout Jew – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In each case, Jesus warns his disciples not to indulge in any form of ostentation so as to attract the admiration of others.
He presents exaggerated images of how we should not do things in the way of ostentatious hypocrites. He speaks about people who blow trumpets in the streets to draw the attention of everyone when they give alms to the poor. He speaks about hypocrites who say their prayers in the most conspicuous places so that people will marvel at how holy they are. He speaks about people putting on gloomy and drawn looks so that everyone will know that they are fasting. In fact, Jews were only expected to fast on one day in the year, namely, on the Day of Atonement but the practice of regular fasting had become more common in Jesus’ time.
All this, Jesus says, is no worship of God but a kind of self-advertisement. Such people, he says, get their reward, namely, the admiration of the onlooker but it is not the reward that comes from acts of genuine worship.
When his disciples pray or fast or give alms they should do it in such a way that their actions will be directed entirely to God and not to themselves. We do remember earlier in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus said that people should be able to see the good works of his disciples but then the purpose was not that they would be praised but that people would be led to glorify God.
As a rider to this passage we should point out that Jesus’ recommendation that we pray in private where only God can see us is not to be interpreted as meaning that it is not necessary for us to take part in forms of community prayer, which Jesus himself would have done whenever he attended the synagogue or went to the Temple. It would be a gross misreading of this text to argue, as people sometimes are heard to do, that it is not necessary to attend Sunday Mass because “I can pray equally well in the privacy of my home”. To speak in such a way is to misunderstand completely the essentially communal nature of the Eucharistic celebration.