1"Be careful not to do your `acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2"So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."
Jesus has just completed a section in His Sermon on the Mount where He spoke to His disciples on how they should obey the Law of God in its full intent and meaning (see Matt. 5:17-48). Here, He begins a section on how His disciples should (and should not) perform their acts of righteousness. For, yes, sinners that we are, we can even manage to perform acts of righteousness in the wrong way. Jesus' teaching on this subject "is very needful, as there is always the danger of selfishness in virtuous action, and no work is so praiseworthy as not to incur from it many faults and stains." Jesus teaches: "Be careful not to do your `acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven" (vs. 1). The essence of Jesus' criticism of the way many acts of righteousness are performed is that they are done "to be seen by [others]". They are done (improperly) with a view to receive praise from others, rather than (properly) to benefit others and to glorify God. Jesus will go on to give examples of how the following three "acts of righteousness" are often performed in an improper manner: giving to the needy (6:2-4); praying (6:5-7); and fasting (6:16-18).
First, concerning giving to the needy, Jesus teaches: "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men" (vs. 2). Note first that Jesus says "when you give to the needy...", not "if you give to the needy." As Christians, we are expected to give to those who are in need. John tells us: "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth" (I John 3:17-18).
So, when we give, Jesus tells us, "do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do... to be honored by men" (vs. 2). A true test of your motives when giving to others is whether you feel you must tell others that you gave. If so, you are giving, not to glorify God by helping others, but to glorify yourself. Jesus further clarifies: "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" (vs. 3-4). Sadly, many churches violate this principle of giving in secret by publishing the tithes and gifts of their members in the church bulletin. Or again, some churches will encourage gifts for, say, the building of a new church, by promising to engrave the names of the givers on the pews, or on the bricks, or windows, etc. Such incentives to giving are sinful actions by the churches who use them, because they are encouraging their members to violate the clear teaching of our Lord Jesus to give in secret. To publish in any way the names and amounts of givers to a church or charity is to encourage the givers "to be honored by men". In doing this, these churches cheat the givers out of the heavenly rewards for their giving, for Jesus tells us that those who give to be honored by men "have received their reward in full" (vs. 2).
However, concerning those who give in secret Jesus states: "Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (vs. 4). You see, the manner in which you give reflects the strength of your faith. If, in giving, you must "trumpet" your giving, you betray that you lack faith that God sees your gift, and will honor you for your giving. But you can be assured, by the clear promise of the Son of God, that if you give in secret, then "your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."
Likewise, Jesus teaches concerning prayer: "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full" (vs. 5). It may be surprising that there is a wrong way to pray. But Jesus teaches us that it is wrong if we "love to pray... to be seen by men". Jesus here stresses the importance of the personal nature of prayer. Prayer is speaking personally to God. And so, genuine prayer, even if it is in a public place, should be personal. Prayer should be "undertaken with a single eye on God, not with a side glance at people who could be impressed."
The "hypocrite" has no personal prayer time. He goes out of his way to put himself in a public place--"standing in the synagogues" or "on the street corners"--when he prays. Jesus tells us that His disciples must have personal prayer time: "But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen" (vs. 6). The total absence of personal prayer time in one's life is evidence of a lack of faith. It shows that one regards prayer as valueless in itself, regards prayer as only having value when other people are there to hear it. If you truly believe that God hears you, you will pray to Him often. Moreover, you will set aside a time and a place to pray with full concentration, as Jesus suggests: You will "go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father."
Jesus takes this opportunity to point out another common error in praying: "And when you pray, do not keep babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words" (vs. 7). Prayer is not a ritual. Rather, it is personal conversation between you and God. It is not the length of the prayer that makes it effective, but the sincerity of heart, the depth of faith. "Christians' prayers are measured by weight, not by length." Don't bore God with many words, but no heart!
Now, Jesus is not teaching us that all long prayers are improper. He Himself would often pray all night (see Luke 6:12). Nor is Jesus teaching us that we should never repeat the same requests in our prayers. He Himself repeated the same requests three times in Gethsemane (see Matt. 26:39-44). Rather, He is speaking against "babbling", thinking that the many words, in and of themselves, will cause the prayer to be answered.
In fact, Jesus points out that God does not even need our words: "Do not be like [the pagans], for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him" (vs. 8). Jesus here is reminding us that, when we pray, we are speaking to the True and Living God, the Omniscient and All-Powerful God. Since He knows everything, He certainly knows what we need. Thus, Jesus is teaching us here that the words themselves in the prayer are the least important aspect. It is the deepened relationship with God that comes through speaking with God that is the most important aspect of prayer. When we pray, we wrongly tend to focus on the petitions to God. We should try to get away from focussing on what we need from God when we pray, and focus rather on knowing God and His heart. "The faithful do not pray to tell God what He does not know, or urge Him to His duties, or hurry Him on when He delays, but rather to alert themselves to seek Him, to exercise their faith by meditating upon His promises, unburdening their cares by lifting themselves into His bosom, and finally to testify that from Him alone, all good for themselves and for others is hoped and asked."