Matthew 6: 1-18: Three Pious Practices

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In this section of the Sermon of the Mount (Mt 6: 1-18) Jesus instructs his disciples about their religious practices. Three pious practices are dealt with here, namely, almsgiving (Mt 6: 2-4), prayer (Mt 6: 5-15), and fasting (Mt 6: 16-18). At the beginning of the Sermon of the Mount Jesus had warned his disciples about the greater righteousness that is required of them. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you shall not enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5: 20). In the antitheses (Mt 5: 21-48) Jesus illustrated the implications of greater righteousness in different areas of human relationships. Here the greater righteousness of Jesus’ followers was concerned with their observance of the law as radicalized and interpreted by Jesus. In Mt 6: 1-18 too the point of Jesus’ teaching is the disciples’ righteousness in the matter of certain pious practices. Not only in their response to the law (as radicalized/internalized by Jesus) but in their practices of piety too the righteousness/justice of the disciples should exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees.
If Mt 5: 20 is a programmatic statement covering the entire Sermon of the Mount, Mt 6: 1 is a statement of principle for the section Mt 6: 2-18. Significantly, it is the same Greek word dikaiosyne which is used in Mt 5: 20 and Mt 6: 1, ad which is translated as ‘righteousness’ in Mt 5: 20 and as ‘piety’ in Mt 6: 1. The general principle in Mt 6: 1 warns Jesus’ followers not to parade or display their pious practices in order to be seen by people. This is followed by three units dealing with almsgiving (Mt 6: 2-4), prayer (Mt 6: 5-15), and fasting (Mt 6: 16-18). Being proper to Matthew’s gospel, these units (except the Our Father) must have been part of a special tradition of the Matthean Church. The structure of these units on almsgiving (Mt 6: 2-4), prayer (Mt 6: 5-6), and fasting (Mt 6: 16-18) is exactly the same. Each unit begins with a description of the behaviour of the hypocrites and there follows a reference to the reward they have already received. The third element in each unit is Jesus’ instruction on what his followers should do in the practice of piety and the final element is the promise of a reward from God. In this schematic arrangement of the three units the first element corresponds to the third and the second to the fourth.

 

Mt 6: 2-4 (Almsgiving) Mt 6: 5-6 (Prayer) Mt 6: 16-18 (Fasting)

A

Mt 6: 2

What the hypocrites do.

Mt 6: 5

What the hypocrites do.

Mt 6: 16

What the hypocrites do.

B

 

Their reward (Truly I say to you)

 

Their reward (Truly I say to you)

 

Their reward (Truly I say to you)

A’

Mt 6: 3-4

What the Disciples should do.

Mt 6: 6

What the Disciples should do.

Mt 6: 17-18

What the Disciples should do.

(But when you give alms…)

(But when you pray…)

(But when you fast…)

B’   Promise of reward.   Promise of reward.  

Promise of reward.

The schematic and perfectly matching pattern of the three units is broken by the Matthean expansion of the unit on prayer (Mt 6: 5-6). Here Matthew has inserted a separate catechesis on prayer. It contains a saying about prayer itself (Mt 6: 7-8), the Our Father (Mt 6: 9-13) and a saying about forgiveness (Mt 6: 14-15; Cf. Mk 11: 25).
Jesus does not criticize almsgiving, prayer, or fasting; in fact, he upholds the value of these pious practices and instructs his disciples about how they should perform these actions. His criticism is directed towards the hypocrites (originally a theatrical term, meaning “actors” on a stage) who make a public display of their charity (Mt 6: 2), of themselves in prayer (Mt 6: 5) and of their fasting (Mt 6: 16). In the manner of practising piety Jesus instructs his disciples to do the exact opposite of what the hypocrites (Scribes and Pharisees, Cf. Mt 23) do. The contrast between self-seeking and selflessness in giving alms is brought out by the obvious exaggerations of sounding a trumpet (Mt 6: 2) and the left hand that is ignorant (Mt 6: 3). Similarly, in Mt 6: 5-6 praying in the synagogues and street corners to be seen by people is contrasted with praying in one’s room unnoticed by others. Again, the public display of fast is contrasted with disguising of fast in Mt 6: 16-17. Thus, in works of piety too Jesus wants the righteousness of his disciples to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees.

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