IN PERFORMING GOOD WORKS, Christ’s followers must act for God alone and in hope of being rewarded by Him in heaven. They must not publicize their virtuous acts; charity motivated by a desire to impress one’s fellows will receive no more than this base human reward. This teaching was in absolute opposition to the formalism which had infected the religious thought of the Jewish people. The three principal works of Jewish piety had always been alms, prayer, and fasting, but all of these were tending to degenerate into merely formal observances.
The ancients had emphasized the motive of the giver in acts of charity: “By mercy and truth is iniquity redeemed,” said the Book of Proverbs (16:6); but now almsgiving had become a perfunctory affair in which the donor publicly paraded his virtue. Prayer, too, had ceased to be important except as a public observance.
In the time of Isaiah such worship had been explicitly condemned: “this people … with their lips glorify Me, but their heart is far from Me” (Isaiah 29:13); this merely external worship had now become commonplace. Fasting, in itself an external discipline, had been a medium for false piety from early times. “Why have we fasted,” said Isaiah, “and Thou hast not regarded: have we humbled our souls and Thou hast not taken notice? … Do not fast as you have done until this day, to make your cry heard on high. Is this such a fast as I have chosen: for a man to afflict his soul for a day? Is this it, to wind his head about like a circle, and to spread sackcloth and ashes? Wilt thou call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord?” (Isaiah 58:3-5). In our Lord’s time the meaningless fasting against which Isaiah inveighed was observed almost ritually. The doctors of the Law had multiplied the fasts of earlier days and had consecrated the traditional accompaniments of the fast: wearing a garment of haircloth and daubing the face with ashes in order to give it a mournful appearance.
Specifically denouncing these prevailing abuses of the great works of piety, Jesus said:
“Take heed not to practice your good before men, in order to be seen by them; otherwise you shall have no reward with your Father in heaven. Therefore, when thou givest alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and streets, in order that they may be honored by men. Amen I say to you, they have had their reward. But when they givest alms, do not let thy left hand know what thy right hand is doing, so that thy alms may be given in secret; and thy Father, who sees in secret, will reward thee.”
“Again, when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites, who love to pray standing in the synagogues and at the street corners, in order that they may be seen by men. Amen I say to you, they have had their reward. But when thou prayest, go into thy room, and closing thy door, pray to thy Father in secret; and thy Father, who sees in secret, will reward thee.”
“But in praying, do not multiply words, as the Gentiles do; for they think that by saying a great deal, they will be heard. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. In this manner therefore shall you pray:
‘Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done
on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.’
For if you forgive men their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you your offenses. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offenses.”
When we fast, we should do so without show or pious affectation. We should fast, as we pray and give alms, to please God, and not to gain credit with men.
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, who disfigure their faces in order to appear to men as fasting. Amen I say to you, they have had their reward. But thou, when thou dost fast, anoint thy head and wash thy face, so that thou mayest not be seen by men to fast, but by thy Father, who is in secret; and thy Father, who sees in secret, will reward thee.”
Everything is to be done for God alone. All earthly possessions are achievements that are perishable. He only can give us enduring reward.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where rust and moth consume, and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither rust nor moth consumes, nor thieves break in and steal. For where thy treasure is, there thy heart also will be.”
The purity of our intentions in pursuing virtue is to our spiritual life what the eye is in our body. Without it, we are left groping vainly, in utter darkness. With it, our whole being is filled with light.
“The lamp of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be sound, thy whole body will be full of light. But if thy eye be evil, thy whole body will be full of darkness. Therefore, if the light that is in thee is darkness, how great is the darkness itself!”
Wholehearted confidence in God excludes devotion to any other end, especially the pursuit of material things, such as money (mammon).
“No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will stand by the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
“Therefore I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, what you shall eat; nor yet for your body, what you shall put on. Is not the life a greater thing than the food, and the body than the clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they do not sow, or reap, or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you of much more value than they? But which of you by being anxious about it can add to his stature a single cubit? Therefore if you are not able to do even a very little thing, why are you anxious concerning the rest.”
“And as for clothing, why are you anxious? See how the lilies of the field grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more you, O you of little faith!
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shan we eat?’ or, ‘What shan we drink?’ or, ‘What are we to put on?’ (for after an these things the Gentiles seek); for your Father knows that you need an these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His justice, and an these things shan be given you besides. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow; for tomorrow win have anxieties of its own. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
We must avoid rash judgment of our neighbors. God alone knows our hearts; it is for Him to give final justice to all.
“Do not judge, and you shan not be judged; do not condemn, and you shan not be condemned. Forgive, and you shall be forgiven; give, and it shall be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shan they pour into your lap. For with what measure you measure, it shall be measured to you.”
And He told them a parable:
“Can a blind man guide a blind man? Will not both fall into a pit? No disciple is above his teacher; but when perfected, everyone will be like his teacher. But why dost thou see the speck in thy brother’s eye, and yet dost not consider the beam in thy own eye? And how canst thou say to thy brother, ‘Brother, let me cast out the speck from thy eye,’ while thou thyself dost not see the beam in thy own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam from thy own eye, and then thou wilt see clearly to cast out the speck from thy brother’s eye.”
Those who are charged with sanctifying His kingdom must be discreet in preaching to unbelievers, lest the holy things be profaned and their ministers outraged.
“Do not give to dogs what is holy, neither throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet and turn and tear you.”
Persistence and a filial confidence that God will hear us are essential to the success of our prayers.
“And I say to you, ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; and he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks it shall be opened. But if one of you asks his father for a loaf, will he hand him a stone? or for a fish, will he for a fish hand him a serpent? or if he asks for an egg, will he hand him a scorpion? Therefore, if you, evil as you are, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Good Spirit to those who ask Him!”
Concluding this part of His discourse, He gave us what we call the Golden Rule, in which are condensed the moral precepts of the whole Scripture.
“Therefore all things whatever you would that men should do to you, even so do you also to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Meditation: Good works sometimes lead to praise. In the Sermon on the Mount Christ calls those who do good just to be praised for it “hypocrites.” The intention of the doer is what counts. Being praised for good works cannot make them wrong, but doing them just for praise makes one a hypocrite. To follow the teaching of Christ here, I must examine my motives. Does the anticipated praise of men influence me?
Information from The Life of Christ “Our Lord’s Life with Lesson in His Own Words for Our Life Today” The Catholic Press, Inc. 1959. 55-60. © 1954 edited by Reverend John P. O’Connell, MASTD and Jex Martin, following mainly A Chronological Harmony of the Gospels by Stephen J Hartdegen OFM NIHIL OBSTAT John A McMahon; IMPRIMATUR Samuel Cardinal Stritch, Archbishop of Chicago August 1, 1953. Print. Drawing by Albert H Winkler.