Every time I read Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), it speaks to me in a new way. This latest time around was no different. But while I usually just latch on to a part of the Sermon that challenges me to correct something in my life, this time I noticed some connections within Jesus’ message that I hadn’t picked up on before.
Maybe it has something to do with my recent journey into the Anglican tradition, but on this occasion I had a newfound appreciation for Jesus’ instructions on sincere almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (Matthew 6:1-18). These religious practices are an important and regular part of classic Christian piety, but within Anglicanism they are especially prominent — in the daily prayers of the Common Prayer book, in seasonal fasts in the church calendar, and in ministries of alms and benevolence.
And when I spent more time pondering the way in which Jesus’ ideas flow together throughout the whole sermon, I realized that his point about these three practices — almsgiving, prayer, and fasting – is really quite central to the message. It ties together Jesus’ teaching on true righteousness, which precedes this section, with his teaching on storing up treasure in heaven rather than on earth, which follows.
True Piety and Treasure in Heaven
In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus instructs his disciples not to store up treasure on earth, which cannot last, but instead to store up treasure in heaven. He doesn’t really specify how exactly we’re supposed to store up treasure in heaven.
But he doesn’t need to, because he already has.
In fact — and this is what I didn’t put together before — he tells us precisely how in 6:1-18: “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” (6:3-4, NRSV). “And whenever you pray…go into your room and pray to your Father who is in secret and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (6:6). “And whenever 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” (6:17-18).
These three practices — almsgiving, prayer, and fasting — when done in sincerity and not just for show, are the means of storing up treasure for ourselves in heaven and turning our focus away from earthly wealth and security.
Earlier in the sermon, Jesus briefly mentions the concept of heavenly reward when he proclaims, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…” (Matt 5:11-12). And later he will go on to tell of how we should not worry about material needs but instead strive after God’s kingdom and his righteousness (6:25-34).
There is a consistent logic to all of this instruction, and it hinges on exactly what is taught in the instruction about pious practices: Those who are most concerned with pleasing their heavenly Father from the heart are those who will be able to fulfill all the rest of the commands in the sermon, for they are the kind of people who are not concerned with their own reputation, comfort, or earthly security. They live only to please God. And that is why they are blessed, and will be richly rewarded in heaven.
As the famous Westminster Chapel preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once wrote while reflecting on this passage, “one of the essential and most obvious things about a Christian is that he is a man who lives always realizing he is in the presence of God. The world does not live in this way; that is the big difference between the Christian and the non-Christian. The Christian is a man whose every action should be performed in the light of this intimate relationship to God. . . . The Christian sits loosely to this world and its affairs. Why? Because he belongs to another kingdom and another way” (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Eerdmans: 1976, 20).
Being and Doing
The Sermon on the Mount presents us with quite a lofty picture of what a disciple of Christ should look like. It’s awfully daunting to ask just how we ourselves can truly be poor in spirit, meek, pure in heart, loving our enemies, more righteous than the Pharisees, perfect as God is perfect (Matt 5:48)! It’s easy to say we should be these things, but it’s incredibly challenging to become this kind of person.
That’s why it’s so important to notice that Jesus doesn’t simply give us abstract moral aspirations; he gives us concrete practices. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. These three elements are a recipe for building a fruitful disciple of Jesus.
Practices of personal piety done from a sincere heart and a close walk with God form the foundation upon which to build the life of discipleship — a life that spills over into all the other forms of righteous obedience our Lord expects of his people.
Those who give alms without making a show of it, and who pray daily in the manner Jesus taught us to, and who fast often, rejecting the world’s craze for comfort and material prosperity — these are the kinds of people who will fulfill the rest of the sermon by loving their enemies, going the extra mile, not judging others, and avoiding false prophets. Those who are devoted to a life of prayer and deep, Christ-centered spirituality will be the ones who are poor in spirit, meek, and willing to endure persecution for Christ’s sake.
In other words, it’s impossible to separate doing the good deeds expected of the Christian life from being the kind of person who is God-focused, kingdom-minded, and devoted to a life of disciplined, personal piety. The more centered our inner life is on God, the more ordered our outward life will be in service for his kingdom — and that outward service will in turn fuel and motivate the inner growth in a dynamic loop. The two are inseparably linked, and what God has joined together, let not man separate.
“Blessed are those who hear these words of mine and do them”
It has often been said, but is always worth pointing out, that Jesus says, “When you give/pray/fast,” not “If” you do so! These are practices expected of all Christians. But they are a wise investment, with eternal dividends.
Consider what treasure you are storing up. Are you giving earnestly and sacrificially to support your church and those in need around you? Are you carving out time for prayer daily? And when was the last time you fasted, giving up physical comforts to turn your gaze more fully on the Lord and his priorities?
Keep in mind that our Lord does not enjoin these practices upon us to be burdensome, or because we need to somehow earn his favor by doing more or trying hard. Far from it.
No, he gives us these practices because they are the only way to live a life that is truly human, truly fulfilling, truly capable of making us into the kind of disciples who can be called blessed, and perfect, and untroubled by the things that trouble those who don’t know the delight of intimacy with God.
For “your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”