Chapter 6: The Sermon on the Mount
Charity – Prayer – Fasting
The first Sermon on the Mount is important for any disciple determined to follow the Lord. After his baptism, Jesus went on a 40-day fast, prayed, and healed the sick (Mt 4). After accomplishing these great miracles, Jesus teaches the Apostles and disciples to do the same and sets an example for all Christians throughout the ages.
What does Jesus teach about almsgiving, prayer and fasting? Have you already practised them in your life? What is new about today’s teaching? Let’s see together how important prayer is, what kinds of prayer there are, and how to pray.
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.
3- Theological and Spiritual Teaching: Christian Prayer
What makes Christian prayer different from prayer in other religions? When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, he told them to say: “Our Father…”. Christian prayer brings us at once into the very presence of Almighty God, with no trembling fear or a feeling merely of duty. Prayers are said with the utter trust of children talking to their Father. Jesus prayed to the Father in this way, and his mission was that we should also become adopted children of God. This is why he does not want us to offer the prayer of slaves, but the prayer of adopted children calling on their father!
Christian prayer is not isolated from others who pray. If you are praying in your private room, in secret, in words springing from the depths of your heart and are expressing your innermost concerns, Jesus will hear your prayer, and carry them to God the Father, along with those of the entire Church, and will intercede for us all.
Christian prayer is not separate from our daily life. The Father wants us to speak to Him sincerely, not merely reciting words while our hearts are turned away from Him. Jesus, himself, carries our prayers to the Father, making up for any weakness tarnishing our prayer because of our sins. How good it is to know that my prayer is merged with that of Jesus and the entire Church! Our prayers are the extension of the Holy Mass, stemming from the Eucharist and taking from it all its power.
Is praying a daily duty? God does not compel us to pray, but we should desire to nurture our relationship with Him. We ought to devote time for prayer to Him on a daily basis, and sometimes several times a day. Let us stand in His mighty presence, giving breath to whatever dwells deep within our heart. Let us pray for many purposes and keep silent to listen to what He tells us. Christian praying is an open conversation – talking and listening. Says one Saint: I look at God and love Him as I pray. I sit silently and look at Him with my whole heart, or maybe look at a Holy Icon or the Cross, and let His love seep in.
There are many well-known Christian prayers which may be recited or chanted in hymns, alone or in community, such as the Our Father, the Hail Mary, Hymns, Psalms etc.
4- Reading and Meditation: Reading from St John Chrysostom (“Golden Mouthed”) (354-407)
Prayer is the Light of the Soul
There is nothing more worthwhile than to pray to God and to converse with him, for prayer unites us with God as his companions. As our bodily eyes are illuminated by seeing the light, so in contemplating God our soul is illuminated by him. Of course, the prayer I have in mind is no matter of routine, it is deliberate and earnest. It is not tied down to a fixed timetable; rather it is a state which endures by night and day.
Our soul should be directed in God, not merely when we suddenly think of prayer, but even when we are concerned with something else. If we are looking after the poor, if we are busy in some other way, or if we are doing any type of good work, we should season our actions with the desire and the remembrance of God. Through this salt of the love of God we can all become a sweet dish for the Lord. If we are generous in giving time to prayer, we will experience its benefits throughout our life.
Prayer is the light of the soul, giving us true knowledge of God. It is a link mediating between God and man. By prayer the soul is borne up to heaven and in a marvellous way embraces the Lord. This meeting is like that of an infant crying on its mother, and seeking the best of milk. The soul longs for its own needs and what it receives is better than anything to be seen in the world. Prayer is a precious way of communicating with God, it gladdens the soul and gives repose to its affections. You should not think of prayer as being a matter of words. It is a desire for God, an indescribable devotion, not of human origin, but the gift of God’s grace. As St Paul says: we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. Anyone who receives from the Lord the gift of this type of prayer possesses a richness that is not to be taken from him, a heavenly food filling up the soul. Once he has tasted this food, he is set alight by an eternal desire for the Lord, the fiercest of fires lighting up his soul.
To set about this prayer, paint the house of your soul with modesty and lowliness and make it splendid with the light of justice. Adorn it with the beaten gold of good works and, for walls and stones, embellish it assiduously with faith and generosity. Above all, place prayer on top of this house as its roof so that the complete building may be ready for the Lord. Thus he will be received in a splendid royal house and by grace his image will already be settled in your soul.8