This text follows the Beautitudes as a part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first public teaching in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus begins this section by warning us not to practice our piety so others will be impressed, not to fill our prayers with empty words. In saying, When you pray Jesus assumes that prayer is already part of the life of one who is connected to God. Calling upon us to pray with meaning, as Jesus tells us how to pray, even giving us an example.
The Greek word δικαιοσύνη—dikaiosyne which the New Revised Standard translates as piety, more accurately means righteousness, a key motif that runs like a powerful electrical current through the entire Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s readers were primarily Jewish Christians, so he has framed Jesus’ words as a call to righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Righteousness is not a mechanical obedience to rules or resting on the laurels of our religious heritage. Righteousness is an inward faithfulness and obedience to the spirit of the law of God, love of God and love of neighbor. Righteousness is not the privilege of the spiritual elite but a quality of all Christians, linking purity within to a passion for justice toward others. Matthew’s vision of ethical living applies to both our private lives and the life of the church.
We have come to call Jesus’ example of prayer The Lord’s Prayer. It begins, as life itself does, with a focus on God. After reverencing God and connecting with him, the prayer shifts to the essentials of human life. Asking for daily bread recalls God’s saving actions in the wilderness by sending manna from heaven to the wandering Israelites. By remembering that God saved them by providing what they needed daily, it helps us to remember that God will also feed us.
But it also moves beyond simply asking for what we need today. There is an eschatological dimension to The Lord’s Prayer, that is, it points us ahead to the fullness of God’s reign. In the kingdom of heaven, we will no longer need to ask because in the presence of God we have everything we need for eternity. In our practice of prayer, we come into the presence of God on earth if our prayers come from our hearts and not just out of fulfilling institutional religious demands. In that way, we can receive that which God gives to us, for only God can make us righteous.
Forgiveness is the heart of the prayer, at the center of that which Jesus teaches us. Reconciliation is the point of Jesus’ entire ministry, and it is the heart of our relationship to God. No other word can be found to describe the saving work of God and the focus of our Christian faith and practice. Matthew uses the word ἀψιημι—aphiemi, translated as forgiveness, 49 times. It is a complex word in Greek, signifying the leaving behind one thing for something else is gained. In the context of Christian theology, it is about leaving a life of sin behind to receive the grace and mercy of God.
Fasting is another religious practice the church has taken over from Judaism. In saying, when you fast, Jesus assumes that people are already doing it. As in prayer, fasting is done to prepare one heart’s for receiving aphiemi from God, not to impress other people with our sacrificial acts. Jesus also addresses giving and the human relationship to earthly treasure. He cautions us that in seeking material treasure we will be distracted from being in God’s presence. Our attention follows our treasure, so we must be attentive to what we store up.
These teachings have entered popular culture, a recent example of which comes from the book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book of the series. I am a big Harry Potter fan, and I like it that JK Rowling, the author, is a Scottish Presbyterian. Harry and his friend Hermione find their way to Godric’s Hollow, the village of Harry’s birth, and the place where his parents were murdered protecting him from the evil wizard Voldemort. In the village graveyard, they come across the family plot of the Dumbledores, of whom Albus, the head master of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was a member before he also was murdered. There is an inscription on one of the stones which read, Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. It is reflective of the central struggle in Harry’s heart, to love and be loved, or to seek and hoard personal power. You cannot seek and have both. And on the stone of Harry’s parents, they find the inscription, The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. Rowling is brilliant in weaving these powerful Christian teachings into her secular stories. And they are powerful parables of the struggle which all human beings face.
Prayer, fasting and giving are all ancient practices of piety, designed to bring us into the presence of our creator. They are meant to clear the clutter from our hearts and minds so that we can draw our attention to God. Worrying about how other people perceive us, or even worrying about whether we are doing these things in the proper order, with the right words, in the right context, are all distractions. When we allow ourselves to be distracted in such ways, we are hoarding earthly treasure that all are required to leave behind when we die. Jesus is calling us to a rare kind of focus on God, in all that we do, and to whom we give all glory.