Matthew6v1to18: GIVING, PRAYING and FASTING

Introduction. Read Matthew6v1to18.

Jesus teaches that God will not reward deeds, however noble, that are done to impress others. In our day and age sport and the arts attracts sponsors. The sponsor subsidises a sporting event or music festival in order to get its name known. Jesus said: "They have received their reward in full." v2.

(1) Giving to the needy.

Jesus makes three simple observations about giving:

(a) Do not give to the needy to win the approval of men.

A friend of mine in the Midlands sent me this description of what happened at a New Wine meeting he attended: There were around 2000 present on this particular morning. The worship had been extraordinary. Before he began teaching the speaker asked, "Does anyone have 10?" Immediately someone came and gave him 10. The question changed "Does anyone need 10?" A poor young man came to the front and was given the 10. Amazingly this cycle was repeated a number of times. On one occasion a lady said she only needed 6.50 but the speaker said he had no change. Then the amount increased to 20. People came, giving and receiving. It was a marvellous illustration to members of the body of Christ of how to help one another financially. A spirit of generosity came upon the room and people started queuing to give.

It seems to me that it is very difficult to give in the way people were encouraged to do so in this meeting without trying to win the approval of others. The giving is by no means anonymous! Indeed, it is done to maintain the excitement of the moment. It is a small price to pay for being part of an exciting occasion and feeling rather special. The participants had their reward!

Generous sponsorship might well meet with public approval. It brings benefits after all - like higher prize money for the winners of a sporting contest. But God is not impressed.

(b) Giving should be done secretly.

Giving should be so unobtrusive that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. This is a wonderfully vivid illustration on Jesus' part.

There is plenty of scope for secret giving. When I receive an appeal for money from a national charity my response is very impersonal. I send a cheque which is not usually even acknowledged. There is no reward. I think there is much to be said for putting a weekly church offering in the bag. Then no one knows what you are giving. It might be to the financial advantage of the church if you Gift Aid your offering - but it is out of line with Jesus' teaching on the left and the right hand.

I never charge for taking a service. My labour is free. Nobody - but for God and myself - is aware of the hours of preparation I put in and for which I am never paid.

Jesus makes a promise to the secret giver: "Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." v4.

(c) How God rewards the secret giver.

The reward is to see your money, and the money of others, achieve something worthwhile. In the Old Testament many gave anonymously to the building of the Tabernacle and later the Temple. Their reward was to see these marvellous structures built and used for the worship of God.

It is sensible for charities to send to their donors evidence that the money has been well used. That is the only reward the largely anonymous donors require. I give to a charity that operates on children with a cleft palate. My reward is to know that each year one child's life is radically changed for the better.

Everyone who donates to the Hospice Movement knows that their gifts make a significant difference to men and women during the last days of their lives.

A word of caution

I commenced this section by being critical of what I deemed to be ostentatious giving. However, I have been reminded of a woman who brought a jar of very precious ointment, broke it, and poured the contents over the head of Jesus. Nothing could have been more ostentatious than that! The disciples were not impressed and criticised her for wasting money! Jesus, however, defended Mary. She wasn't thinking about impressing anyone. Her love for Jesus made her uninhibited. There is no law against uninhibited giving motivated by love. Perhaps the carefree giving and receiving at the New Wine meeting fell into this category. It does not pay to be too judgemental.

(2) Prayer.

Jesus makes four points about prayer:

(a) Do not pray to make a favourable impression on others.

We should never pray aloud in a meeting to win a reputation for piety. When we pray publicly we need to lose ourselves - to be all taken up with what we are saying. Sometimes when I pray in the course of conducting a service I get so carried away that I end up facing the wall rather than facing the congregation.

People do tell me that they enjoy my prayers more than my sermons! This is a snare. If I start to think about impressing people with my prayers then they will, without doubt, become ineffective.

My old friend Peter Chaffey attended our prayer meeting at Brockley for many, many years. He was always wonderfully eloquent in prayer. It was very sad to witness his decline brought about by Alzheimer's disease. First of all his singing went. Peter was such a glorious singer in his youth. Then his preaching deteriorated and he had to give up. The last thing to go was his praying. I shall always remember the moving and quite thrilling prayers he made before his voice was silenced. He was not trying to impress anyone. He was praying to his heavenly Father from the heart and all of us were aware of it and moved by it.

(b) The benefit of praying in secret.

I find it easier to pray in public than to pray in private. When I pray in public I benefit from the prayers of others. They might provide a stimulus to pray. I also find that as I pray in public I do so with increasing fervour and passion. The fact that I am praying in the presence of others is an incentive to give of my best in prayer. Some might say: "Well John that shows you are praying to the gallery and not to God." But this overlooks the fact that collective worship, for example, tends to be more edifying than private worship. The New Testament encourages Christians to meet together for this reason.

I also find that my private prayers tend to be repetitive, banal and even sleepy. This being the case what are the advantages of private prayer? Well, I can talk to God about things I am unable to broach in public prayer. When I pray in public I might ask for the forgiveness of my sins but in private I confess particular sins I would prefer not to mention in public. I can also discuss with God a whole range of problems that I could not air in public. For example, I might be planning to write to one of our itinerant preachers asking him to keep the services he conducts to an hour in length. It is best to pray privately to God for help in composing such a letter. It is a sensitive matter and not something everyone needs to know about. During my time as a teacher I prayed regularly not to be led into temptation and to be delivered from evil. If I found a particular pupil especially attractive it was best to talk privately to God about this rather than make it public.

(c) Our prayers to God should be like ordinary, simple conversations.

It is not necessary to engage in long, elaborate, repetitive, unintelligible prayers to impress God. Jesus said that this was typical of the pagans who thought they would be heard because of their many words. On Mount Carmel the prophets of Baal called on the name of their god from sunrise to sunset in the hope he would answer with fire and consume the sacrificial bull. No fire fell! All Elijah did was offer one simple prayer to God and the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and also licked up the water in the trench. 1Kings18v38.

Jesus has left us with a simple, meaningful, concise, model prayer - what we call the Lord's Prayer. It is a wonderful prayer and we can use it to structure our own petitions. Each phrase of the Lord's Prayer can act as heading for a series of subsidiary prayers. So under, 'Give us this day our daily bread', you can talk to God about your essential needs for the day.

I fear there are many times we begin our daily prayer time with our own needs and forget how the Lord's Prayer starts. It commences with a consideration of God's interests - his honour - his will.

If this passage was the only thing Jesus said about prayer we might think it wrong to keep making the same request. After all, Jesus did say, ""Your Father knows what you need before you ask him." v8. However, Jesus taught on several occasions that it was right to persevere in prayer. See Mt7v7to12, Lk11v5to13 and Lk18v1to8. See exposition on Luke18v1to8.

(d) What does God know we need before we ask him?

We should always remember when we come to prayer, that God knows better than we know ourselves, just how much we need to be forgiven. Every day we commit sins, whether of commission or omission, for which we need forgiveness. As debtors to mercy alone we need to make daily prayer an opportunity to forgive those who sin against us.

(3) Fasting.

Fasting is not a practice evangelical Christians are much given to. Indeed, they are much more into feasting than fasting. Eating together is much preferred to starving together.

There are undoubtedly some advantages to fasting. In his commentary on Matthew William Barclay outlines five good reasons for fasting:

  • It may be good for your health if you need to lose weight.

  • It is a test of self-discipline. We easily become self-indulgent. We feel entitled to three square meals a day!

  • It preserves us from becoming slaves to habit. There are some folk who always have an evening main meal - which precludes them attending the Prayer Meeting!!

  • It maintains the ability to do without things. People find it very difficult to do without alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate ..... .

  • It makes us more appreciative of what it is easy to take for granted. A few days fasting makes the next meal a joyous occasion! In my case, a glass of port after abstention for a week, is a real pleasure.

I cannot pretend that I take fasting very seriously but I accept that it may be a good thing to give up what we habitually enjoy. I can remember attending starvation lunches once a week when I studied at University College London. You had a piece of cheese and a bread roll to eat and gave what you would have paid for a proper meal in the refectory to charity. I didn't enjoy going - not so much for the Spartan meal - but for the absence of my friends. In retrospect I am amazed I made NO friends at the various Christian societies I went to. I had no trouble making friends of my fellow Geography undergraduates.

I can recall missing dinner to attend church when I was on a Geology field trip to South Wales. The Professor of Geology, an arch-sceptic, thought I was mad. They didn't save me so much as a biscuit.

Perhaps my greatest act of self-sacrifice was to give up cricket for four years between the age of 42 and 46 to look after my father. I loved cricket but I am glad I loved my father, God's faithful servant, even more. Cricket was not my master.

Jesus was not against fasting. God decreed that the Israelites deny themselves on the Day of Atonement. This was taken to mean fasting although the Scripture does not actually specify this. The Pharisees went much further and fasted twice a week. They wanted to know why Jesus and his disciples didn't fast more often. Perhaps they were unaware of the 40 days and nights Jesus fasted in the wilderness where he was tempted by the Devil. It was something Jesus needed to do in order to overcome Satan. In the same sort of way I needed to give up cricket to care for my father.

Many of the Pharisees made a big deal out of fasting. They fasted to gain a reputation for holiness. They made sure people knew that they were fasting by smearing their face with ashes. Their piety was ostentatious. Jesus said, "They have their reward."

There are three things to beware of:

(a) Making abstemiousness the focus of our holiness. Abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, make up, buying raffle tickets and the like is not evidence of true holiness. I knew a business man in Harwich who took a pride in drinking orange juice at meetings with fellow business men. He considered that he was admired for making a stand against alcohol. But this man made abstinance from alcohol and tobacco a condition of membership of the church he led. When I happened to say in a sermon that I thought there were worse sins than smoking the occasional cigar I was never asked to preach again. Would Jesus himself be barred for drinking wine?

(b) Using our children to advertise our piety. One of the things I remember with distaste is not being allowed to play out of doors on a Sunday. The Strict and Particular Baptist Pastor couldn't allow his children such freedom. People would talk! They DID talk about us playing hide and seek in the graveyard from which we were eventually banned.

I am opposed to home schooling children. I believe the children of Christians need to fend for themselves in the world.

(c) Allowing fetishes to take the place of true holiness. The Pharisees thought grey and dusty faces were evidence of godliness. Some even considered that wearing outsized phylactories - boxes containing a fragment of Scripture - was a sign of dedication to the Law.

I am a bit suspicious of those who carry huge Bibles - usually the Authorised Version - to church. It smacks of ostentation. It certainly does not show special reverence to God to address him as 'Thee' and 'Thou' in public prayer.

I am not much taken, in denominations other than my own, with bowing to the altar and crossing oneself.