SECRET DEVOTION Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

A meditation with the Anglican Chaplaincy Community of Paphos, Cyprus on February 25, 1998

by Robert Brow  (

Our Ash Wednesday Gospel reminds us of three duties which are required in most religions. Three of the five pillars of Islam, for example, require almsgiving to the poor, prayers five times a day, and fasting during Ramadan.

What Jesus stressed was that such religious observances must not be to make a show of one's piety. "Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others" (6:2). He was referring to the practice of announcing one's arrival to gather the poor and give out money to impress one's religious friends.

Similarly "whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others" (6:5). "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting" (6:16).

In each case what is wrong is that "they have received their reward" (6:2, 5, 16). The reward is that others have seen their religious exercise and approved them as specially holy people.

Jesus' solution is to make sure you are doing this for God and nobody else. "Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (6:3) which is metaphorical for not even noticing what you have done for others. "Go into your room and shut the door"(6:6) which does not exclude talking to God as one is out walking or driving, or even in a crowd, but the point is that the prayer is not laid on for others to see. "And when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others" (6:18), which is not a call for the use of cosmetics but rather to make sure no one else is impressed by your self-denial.

Finally there is the threefold refrain. "Your Father who sees in secret will reward you: (6:4, 6, 19). But the reward is paradoxical. There is no promise of financial success. God is love, and anyone who loves will get hurt. We hurt our children, and they hurt us, we hurt and are hurt in any love relationship, and loving enemies is even more costly. As you know, anyone who serves in a Christian community like this is likely to suffer unkind words, jealousy, gossip, and much else. It almost looks as if the reward of love for God is a cross. Prayer is not a guarantee of an easy road.

It is only later that the fullness of the reward comes into view. "Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2). And Paul explained more fully. "I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus the Messiah, my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain the Messiah and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in the Messiah, the righteousness from God that comes by faith" (Philippians 3:8-9).

That suggests a vision for our spiritual spring cleaning as we begin preparing for Good Friday and the joy of the resurrection on Easter Day. We could go over our financial giving and view it as a way of pleasing the Father and nobody else. We can rearrange our prayer from merely praying for this and that need to asking the Father what he would like us to pray for. And when we deny ourselves by doing without something for the sake of the Kingdom we see it not as a duty but an expression of our devotion to God the Father, in the name of Jesus, and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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