Jesus said ‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
‘So 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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
‘And 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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your 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 have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
‘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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Religion is not the same as belief – the root meaning of “religion” is the following of rules. Jesus points out that religion is all very well, and the practical outworking might be good things like alms-giving, but if it springs from the wrong motive, God’s not impressed.
Charitable giving, prayer, or fasting done for the approval of onlookers is not bad as such, but it’s doing nothing to touch the soul of the doer.
Of course, our motives are never completely pure – I’ve certainly caught myself being pleased at what a good Christian I am because I’m giving to charity without anyone knowing – but we can trust God to disentangle all that.
And God’s “reward” for secret prayer, secret alms-giving, and secret fasting? Holiness, which, of course, doesn’t stay secret for long!
(This glass is from Fenstanton parish church – the Magi’s story from a few days ago)