Jesus is instructing his disciples about basic Christian living and in this section of the sermon he focuses on three areas of behaviour that were commonly accepted as religious activity: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. In each of these examples, Jesus tells his disciples how not to do them before he tells them how they should do them. With regard to fasting, praying and almsgiving he says that they are not to draw attention to themselves when they engage in these spiritual disciplines.
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has concentrated on inner features. He begins with the Beatitudes and each of them describes an attitude of the heart. Then he deals with heart obedience to God’s commandments, stressing that a limited outward conformity is of no value. Now he focuses on these three areas of charity, prayer and fasting, and says that they too belong to the inner life more than the outer life.
This emphasis on inner characteristics and assessments and attitudes reveals that when Jesus informed his disciples that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world he was not urging them to develop outward activities that would reveal who they are. Instead, he was teaching that his disciples are salt and light when they have inner qualities. For example, it is easy to imagine that the Pharisees imagined that they were having a good effect by their outward performances that were done in the public gaze. When people saw them, they would be inclined to imitate them. If they did, it was not evidence that the Pharisees had become salt and light; instead it was evidence that they had produced more hypocrites.
The danger of hypocrisy will be realised once we understand that it is easier to develop an outward religious lifestyle than it is to have an authentic inner spirituality. The example of the Pharisees, as well as the comprehensive devotion of followers of many religions and cults, makes it clear that one does not need grace in order to live a very religious life. Yet their wrong example obviously does not mean that true spirituality does not have outer activities. Giving to the poor, how we pray, and fasting each involve physical expressions. Yet it is clear that the inner must drive the outward expressions.
Firstly, with regard to each of these disciplines, Jesus stresses the importance of regularity. He says, ‘ When you give alms, when you pray, when you fast.’ His use of ‘when’ does not indicate an occasional practice. Instead it points to regular engagements in each of these disciplines. In other words, Jesus is teaching that structure and not haphazardness should mark the lives of his followers. There is nothing unspiritual about having regular times for spiritual disciplines, and there certainly is nothing spiritual about a chaotic approach to them.
Secondly, Jesus teaches that there has to be a consistent outlook in how we perform these disciplines. The one consistent feature in each of them is that we do not draw attention to ourselves.
Thirdly, since he gives more space to prayer than he does to charity and fasting, it suggests that prayer is more important than the other two disciplines. We can imagine a person who is unable to give alms because he has no money, yet such a person is still expected to pray. Or we can imagine a hungry person not engaging in fasting because he has nothing to give up; yet such a person is still expected to pray. Of course, we do not need to be in such extreme circumstances in order to see that prayer is more important; it is not possible to engage in charity and fasting all the time, but we can pray at all times. In fact, there should not be a situation in a believer’s life in which he cannot pray.