The adherents of most religions are expected to pray, observe fast days, and give alms to the poor. These are three requirements for every Muslim, as they were for devout Jews of Jesus' day.
Instead of viewing prayer, giving, and fasting or self-denial as performances to impress others, members of the Messianic kingdom are to do these looking to God alone.
6:1 There is a satisfaction or reward (6:2, 5, 16) in impressing others with our piety. The satisfaction or reward of a secret devotion to God is quite different. This is not to deny the value of group and public prayer, responsible regular giving, and self-denial working with others in a common cause. But even in such cases our heart can be tuned to God rather than looking for the approval of others.
6:2 An obvious hypocrisy was the practice of blowing a trumpet to call the poor to gather round to receive a wealthy man's very public largesse (for other hypocrisies see 23:16-32).
6:3 The left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing is another of Jesus' powerful metaphors (as in 5:29-30). It is almost as if we are to give without noticing what we are doing.
6:4 The words "your Father who sees in secret" is repeated three times (6:4, 6, 18) to emphasize the joy of God when we pray, give, and deny ourselves without concern for the approval of others.
6:5 The reference to long prayers "for the sake of appearance" (23:14 KJV) is perhaps a later addition and it is put in the NRSV margin. An example of hypocritical prayer is given in Luke's Gospel (Luke 18:10-14). The words "reward" and "secret" are repeated three times in this section (see the comment in 6:1 and 6:4).
6:6 This is not a rejection of public worship and liturgical prayers since Jesus himself attended the synagogues regularly (4:23; 9:35; 12:9; 13:54; see Acts 2:42, 46). Nor does it deny the value of a prayer meeting (as in Acts 12:5, 12). Going into one's room and shutting the door may also refer to setting aside a place of private devotion where we are not distracted by other things and people. We need this because Christian prayer is like a frank and very personal conversation with a loving God.
6:7-8 In the Messiah's kingdom there is no need for repetitions in prayer, as if God is asleep or needs to be reminded again and again. In fact God already knows our needs before we ask him. But expressing our heart concern in words helps us to clarify what we are asking, and also helps us to expect a response.
We might add that learning to recognize how God is responding to us takes time. In the case of a baby, the parents are talking to the child long before he or she can understand the words. But whereas human parents can only use sounds (or the signs of a sign language for the deaf), God can use every part of the nature around us. The Bible also gives us the vocabulary and language we need to communicate easily with God as our Parent (see 7:9-11), Friend and Lord, and Holy Spirit.
6:9 The Lord's Prayer can be used as part of a church liturgy, but Jesus introduces it with "Pray then in this way." That suggests pattern or outline of the main topics we need to pray about.
Prayer is usually addressed to God as Father. But as feminist theologians have pointed out, the word "Father" is a metaphor for loving parenting not a definition of gender. People who have suffered from the abuse or lack of a father could speak of God as Parent. And there are also some powerful feminine images of God in the Bible (Deuteronomy 32:11; Psalm 123:2; 131:2; Isaiah 42:14; 49:15; 66:13; Matthew 23:37; Luke 15:8-10; 1 Peter 2:2).
Whenever we think ourselves of children of God (see Matthew 5:9, 45; 7:11; 18:1-3; John 1:12) both the feminine and male aspects of our parent will be important (as in Genesis 1:27). That suggests that God would not find it strange to be referred to as Mother or as Father, as long as in both cases we avoid pushing the metaphor in a too literal sense. If we call God our Shepherd, we avoid thinking ourselves as woolly sheep being herded by a dog.
As we noted in Jesus' baptism (3:16-17), and will refer to again in the great commission (28:19), Matthew wants us to know that the oneness of God is Trinitarian. We might compare the oneness of a simple atom made up of a proton, neutron, and electron held together by atomic force. The Trinity is a family oneness of three eternal Persons held together by the far greater force of God's kind of love. There is a distinction of function, but we can communicate with all three Persons (for prayer to the Holy Spirit see Romans 8:26-27).
In the ancient world a name was often given to reflect some aspect of the person's character or function. And something is hallowed or made holy by being set aside from ordinary use for God's use. So here the hallowing includes God's loving wisdom being honored in our family, community, and nation.
6:10 The Son of God is appointed to reign as King of the kingdom of heaven (21:5; 24:30; 25:31; 26:63-64; 27:11). But the kingdom is also the Father's (see 1 Corinthians 15:24). As we pray for particular needs we can only focus on some small part of the general plan, but discerning the bigger picture of what God has in mind (the will of God) is needed to make our prayer effective.
6:11 Having begun with the broader picture, we can also focus on our own daily needs.
6:12 In prayer we inevitably become conscious of our sins, foolish mistakes, and failures. The Father is of course willing to forgive us, but like any caring parent God also wants us to forgive others who have failed us and wronged us (see the comment on 6:14-15).
6:13 The Epistle of James tells us that "No one, when tempted, should say, "I am tempted by God" (James 1:13). Why then do we need to pray that God will not lead us into temptation but rescue us from the evil one (or from evil). The fact is we often rush ahead into disastrous situations, which we could have avoided if we had asked God to show us a better way.
6:14-15 Learning to forgive others is an essential part of learning to love. That is why God is often very tough with us if we hold on to a grudge, or refuse to forgive someone who has wronged us (see the comment on tormentors or being tortured in 18:34). This is particularly important in marriage love, family love, love for brothers and sisters in a church, but also in all our social relationships.
6:16-18 The Pharisees had numerous set fasts, and they complained that Jesus' disciples did not join in these at that time (9:14). But Jesus foresaw a day when Christians would feel the need to fast. Fasting can be helpful when praying for clarity of mind in a difficult decision or new direction (as in Acts 13:3). But this should be done without parading the fact to impress others.
On occasion we may save time for other things by doing without a meal. Isaiah gives a powerful explanation of the true meaning of fasting as genuine concern for the needs of others (Isaiah 58:6-13).
After dealing with three kinds of religious practice, Matthew goes on to give us Jesus' teaching about single-mindedness (6:22-23). Each religion gives us a different way of looking at life (for some of the twenty-four main alternatives see God of Many Names chapter 2). And each way of looking at God, or what we view as ultimate reality, will govern the way we think about right and wrong. A genuine conversion is a change in the way we look at God, and others, and ourselves.
6:19-21 This is not to deny the need for a bank account or proper provision for one's later years. Our treasure is what we supremely value. And it is wise to consider how much of what we really care about will have any value in heaven.
6:22-23 Just as the eye in archery (5:29), this eye is also metaphorical. Our eye is the way we look at life. People say "look at it this way." We can see God as the Artist of our world and look to him as our loving Father. We can view others as children of God, and have an eye for what needs to be done in our part of the kingdom of heaven. We can easily recognize in others an anxious eye, a proud eye, a sad eye, a lustful eye, and we love the bright sparkling eyes of little children. In leadership we need people of vision.
6:24 Here we have the eye of service. If we serve money as our supreme value (mammon was the name of the god of money), it will be impossible to function as a servant of God (see Psalm 123:2; Matthew 24:45; 25:14-27; Philippians 2:20).
6:25-26 At first sight the advice not to worry sounds very impractical. Paul has strong words about those who do not want to work for a living (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12). But here Jesus' warning is about anxiety. Birds work hard at collecting food and building nests, but they do not waste time worrying about the next day.
6:27 There is no evidence that worry extends our life, in fact all the evidence points to anxiety and worry as dangerous poisons. We might add that God has made a world in which flowers grow and die, birds and fish and mammals get eaten by others, and humans are going to die sooner or later. Rather than worry about trying to extend our life, better look to God with thanksgiving and enjoy the life we are given to the full.
6:28-30 If God has planned for wild flowers to grow so beautifully without worry, surely we can look to him for our needs.
6:31-33 Instead of worrying, which does us no good and solves nothing, we begin by turning to God who knows what we need. Faith in God as parent enables us to trust for the future. Faith in the Son of God enables to see the work he has in mind for us in the kingdom. And faith in the Holy Spirit gives us the courage and wisdom to find the work and food that we need. That is always a cure for paralyzing anxiety.
6:34 Rather than worry about the problems tomorrow will bring, we can look to God (the eye of 6:22) for what we can do today.