Take heed that you do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise you have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
After indicating the righteousness which admits to the kingdom of heaven, our Lord proceeds to warn against a flaw that vitiates the goodness of many religious people, and to illustrate it in connection with three chief characteristics of the religious life of those days - alms-giving, prayer, and fasting.
I. ALMSGIVING has been recognized as one of the first duties by most religions. Under the Jewish Law the poor were well provided for. It was probably in connection with the receptacles for alms in the women's court of the temple that ostentatious liberality was most frequently indulged in. "Sounding a trumpet" is not to be taken literally, but is only a figure implying that when you do a charity you are not to make a noise about it, but do it so quietly that your own left hand may not know what your right hand is doing, not even letting it dwell much before your own mind, much less craving for acknowledgment from others. We are not beyond the danger of giving, either that we may not be outdone by others, or because our love of applause is stronger than our love of money, and we think it a good use of it if by giving it away we can purchase the good will of our acquaintances.
II. IN CONNECTION WITH PRAYER THERE WAS MUCH ROOM FOR OSTENTATION IN THE JEWISH RELIGION. AS the Mohammedan of the present day spreads his prayer-carpet wherever the hour of prayer overtakes him, so the Jew was called on three times a day to pray towards the temple. In every town the synagogues were open at the hour of prayer, and there were also places of prayer, chiefly on the banks of the rivers, that the necessary ablutions might be made on the spot. The Pharisee often allowed himself to be surprised by the hour of prayer in the public square. Ostentation implies insincerity, and insincerity begets vain repetition. Our Lord sets this down as a specially heathen trait, and it is one which abundantly characterizes their practice to this day. But his warning against long prayers and vain repetitions applies to all affectation of continuance in prayer merely because it is the custom and is expected; and to that which arises from indifference and from a want of some clear definite object of desire which we can ask for in plain, simple terms. For the correction of these faults our Lord gives us an example of simple brief prayer, and also adds the assurance that no elaborate explanations are required, because before we pray our heavenly Father knoweth the things we have need of. He does not shape his answer with only our petition for his guidance, but, knowing before we do what we have need of, he gives us that good gift which we only vaguely conceive. This may suggest the thought - Why pray at all? Does not even the earthly parent consider and seek his child's good without waiting to be asked? Is it otherwise with God? But we are commanded to pray, and this of itself is sufficient justification. Also it is natural - the great mass of men having prayed without command. This, if not a justification of the practice, shows we should see clearly before refusing to fall in with it. Moreover, it is by coming in practical contact with his father's ideas that a child learns to know his father and himself; and the father often keeps back a gift till the uttered request of the child shows he is ripe for it. So by measuring our desires at each step of our life with the will of God, we learn to know him and ourselves, and through the things of this life are brought into true relation with things eternal. The form of prayer which our Lord here gives, he gives chiefly as a model To argue from it that he meant us to use forms of prayer is inconsequent. They have their uses - in private to suggest and stimulate; in public to provide for uniformity and seemliness of worship. But when they are used to the extinction or discouragement of unwritten prayer they do harm in private and in public. The practice of private prayer here inculcated is one of the most difficult duties we have to attempt in life. It is often at this point the battle is lost or won. None of the deeper elements of character can grow without much prayer and converse with God. There are some virtues which can be produced by strength of will, but those which spring from the deeper root of reverence, penitence, tender and solemn feeling, can only grow in the retired and peaceful atmosphere of God's presence. Prayer is the door opened for God into the whole life of man, and to shut him out here is to shut him out wholly. Our Lord himself could not sustain his life without prayer; it is vain, therefore, for us to expect to do so. But, though all this is recognized, private prayer decays. If we can use in the world only that power for good which we receive from God, and if prayer is the gauge of this power, it will register an almost infinitesimal strength. We grudge to our intercourse with God either the time or the consideration we give to any communication that concerns our business or our friendship. And this means that duties that are seen of men we do, but such as are only seen of our Father, who "seeth in secret," we neglect. It means that we are practically atheists, and do not believe there is a Father who sees in secret. The general scope of the passage is a warning against hypocrisy. The hypocrite who is so intentionally is rare. The hypocrisy which is common is that which is unconscious, and in which the hypocrite is himself deceived. He seeks the praise of men more than the praise of God; but he is not himself aware of it. This makes it a fault most difficult to eradicate. But to such men there can be no religion; human judgment is the highest they seek to be approved by. It is their supreme. Even in the religious world men are liable to put the expectations of their co-religionists above the judgment of God. They fear to rebel lest they be considered as falling away from religion. Such persons, as our Lord says, have their reward. They earn the reputation of sanctity by sacrificing the real possession of it. Is it another reward that awaits you? Are you conscious that God, who sees in secret, has laid up in his remembrance many true prayers, many holy desires, many earnest searchings of heart that he has seen in you? Nothing but learning to live in his presence will deliver us from falseness and self-deceit and from courting the favour of men. - D.
Parallel VersesKJV: Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.