2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: Charity, Almsgiving and Fasting (Mt 6:1-18)
1 “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. 2So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win men’s admiration. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. 3But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; 4your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
5 “And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites : they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. 6But when you pray, go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
7 “In your prayers do not babble as the pagans do, for they think that by using many words they will make themselves heard. 8Do not be like them; your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9So you should pray like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
may your name be held holy,
10your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
11Give us today our daily bread.
12And forgive us our debts,
as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us.
13And do not put us to the test.
But save us from the evil one.
14Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours; 15but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either.
16 “When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
2. 1- Explanation
Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting are the pillars of human and spiritual balance supporting our daily life: relations with our brethren (almsgiving); relations with God (prayer); relations with our inner self (fasting). If there is a failure in any one of these relations, balance will be lost and our sanctity will be jeopardized
Jesus stresses the importance of genuine almsgiving or charity being in secret (Mt 6:1). As opposed to the hypocrisy of someone who boasts of his charitable deeds, Jesus advises that we should practice almsgiving “in secret”, not through purely internal religion, but through a life of faith where we are in a personal relationship with God the Father. Good deeds (Almsgiving – Prayer – Deprivation, etc.) take on their significance from this living relationship with the Father. From this we understand the meaning of reward: it is not an external assessment of the righteous deeds we have accomplished, but the natural reaction of the Father to His child, whom He knows completely.
The almsgiving which is called for is not a superficial giving of material goods or possessions, but rather an act of mercy towards all fellow human beings who are in need. The reason for the call to give alms follows on the merciful behaviour of God to all those who turn to Him. The image of “trumpeting” in the synagogues and on the streets is that of the theatrical behaviour of one who does not seek a true relationship with God, but who seeks instead praise and prestige from other people. The relationship with God is the starting point for the aim of true charity; in other words, God is supposed to perceive the action, not the man.
St Augustine spoke of the triad of Almsgiving – Prayer – Fasting: “Do you want your prayer to fly to God? Then make two wings for it, fasting and almsgiving.” God the Father knows His children’s every need and there is no need to babble as pagans do, resorting to meaningless magical rites and excessive cries and prattling, as if they could compel their deities to grant their demands. In this context, Jesus taught his disciples the “Our Father” prayer, to address the Father with the first person plural pronoun “we”, thus signifying that it is a true bond of communion between us, man, all men and women, and God. In the “Our Father”, we find two parts: the first three requests are concerned with the realization of the kingdom of God and the last four requests are concerned with what is materially and spiritually necessary to realize this kingdom.
Just as with almsgiving and prayer, Jesus also insists on fasting in secret. He gave no detailed method for fasting, but only stressed the need to fast “in secret”, leaving the Church to set its canon on fasting. Fasting is our means of triumph over our body and bad habits. Fasting is nothing more than a means of overcoming our body and our bad inclinations. It is our inner preparation to pass from a state of sin to a state of grace. Our decisions regarding food and drink must under no circumstances be a cause for strife between the brethren, because love must take precedence in our fast, as St Paul says: “And indeed if your attitude to food is upsetting your brother, then you are hardly being guided by charity. You are certainly not free to eat what you like if that means the downfall of someone for whom Christ died” (Rom 14: 15)
2. 2- Summary and Practice
In contrast to the religious digressions in the Jewish community of the time, Jesus taught how to act with uprightness and firmness, in line with the plan of salvation willed by the Father. Jesus condemned purely outward appearances and insisted on a life of genuine faith before God. He calls in this chapter of the Gospel for devout believers to do away with hypocrisy and love of outward appearance, in favour of a deeper and more intimate relationship with God.
In the Sermon on the Mount, after the Beatitudes, Jesus asks his Apostles if their righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law (Mt 5:20). His question is about the quality of righteousness, not the quantity. He addresses a serious question to every Christian: “Why do you pray? Why do you practise almsgiving and charity? What meaning does your prayer have if you don’t talk to your neighbour?” If your deeds are centred on self-satisfaction or on pleasing men, you are using almsgiving, prayer and fasting as a means to boost your own image and gain their praise, in a hypocritical manner. God denounces such behaviour. When you do these things in secret, today’s Gospel tells us that one will be rewarded. This is exactly the subject of our next lesson: there is no need to worry about the Kingdom of God, because God the Father takes care of His children, knows them and loves them.