The commands of Jesus move on to three forms of righteousness - not only what they are, but how to perform them and how not to perform them!
The underlying command is:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people I order to be seen by them, for then you will have not reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 6:1).
No reward? This sounds serious, and in this case Jesus is not setting an impossible standard. We’d best listen carefully. First, with regard to giving to the poor:
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do … that they may be praised by others…But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:2-4).
Now the left hand and the right hand are connected through the brain, so this may be a bit of an exaggeration to make a point, too. The point to be made is acting out a quiet unity with God rather than an ostentatious display of arrogance.
This distinction helps prepare us for the second of the three forms of righteousness:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray … that they may be seen by others…But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:5-6).
I have found that the best way to focus on the wisdom of this passage is to remember the Trinity – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is easy to grasp the Father who is in heaven and the Son who gave his life for us. But the Holy Spirit is God, too, and he does not reside in heaven. He resides in us, in our hearts, given as a gift from the Father and the Son.
So I believe the best way to pray is exactly what Jesus teaches here – quietly, privately, passionately, honestly – in the same place in our hearts as where the Spirit resides!
It took me an entire lifetime to realize how powerful prayer in “secret” can be.
But now, hold on – there is a crème-filled center to this Oreo cookie of practicing righteousness as commanded by Jesus:
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words … for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:7-8).
The crème center is when Jesus then teaches us how to pray in brief and yet in sincerity. How? Here is where the Lord’s Prayer is introduced (Mt 6:9-13). (Space is limited, so I will not recite it here.)
But note carefully that today we do not pray exactly the same way he commanded. Somewhere down through history we added, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”
However, the command is summarized in verse 14: either forgive and be forgiven, or if not, be not forgiven!
The third behavior that goes with giving to the poor and praying, is fasting:
“…that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:18)
The commands of Jesus are for everyone who believes in him as Lord and Savior. Each one defines a new dimension of perfect unity with him.
He who sees us in secret rewards us in secret – or not at all.