Verses 1-8 are the Lord’s admonitions to us not to try to parade our righteousness before others, and likewise not to pray with an empty heart. When we do good works, such as helping those who are in need, to attract the attention, admiration, or approval of others, it taints the very act we are doing by putting the focus on ourselves. All good instead should be to the glory of God, living by His commandments and doing good because of the reign of the Lord in our hearts and lives. The “empty phrases” of verse 7 are translated as “vain repetitions” in some versions, causing some to be critical of those praying fervently with over-used and repetitious phrases. But such is not what Jesus was speaking about (just think of his own heart-felt prayers at Gethsemane in Mark 14:39), but many so-called pious pagans of the day would beseech their “gods” with endless empty chatter. Prayer to the Lord cannot be centered from the heart if the mind is not to be used in earnest.
Most people know verses 9-13 as the “Lord’s prayer.” But that designation is ours and is unfortunate in some ways, as there is a tendency to use it in the very way that Jesus warned against in the previous verses! It is an example and a model for our own prayers from our hearts – it was meant to teach us how to pray – with reverence and honor to the Lord, before presenting our petitions. The “kingdom” was to come in the power of the God’s son which would be fulfilled through the crucifixion and resurrection (Mark 9:1 and Romans 1:4).
The references to fasting in verses 16-18 are not a command for us to fast, though there is nothing wrong with doing so. The only time that the Old Testament Law required fasting was for the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31), but many other days had been added by the people themselves, especially after the events of the destruction of Jerusalem and Babylonian captivity. And by now, the Pharisees had made it a weekly activity. The problem came in the fact that people were purposely making themselves look more haggard than they were, so as to draw attention to themselves for their piety.
Verses 19-21 speak to the heart as well. If we place the most value on the things of this world, we do so at the expense of our spiritual well-being. The treasures we store in heaven are our own salvation and is all that will truly last. The “eye” of verses 22-23 is similar to the heart in Jewish literature. If the eye is healthy, the light that fills the heart comes from devotion to the Lord.
Verses 25-34 do not meant God’s people have no need to work for anything (see 2 Thessalonians 3:10). But if we put our service to the Lord above all else, that means that we will of necessity be doing all that we should be doing that is right for ourselves as well. If God takes care of the lowliest of His creation, why should we be worried for our own care? If we had to spend an inordinate amount of time on that kind of worry, we would have less time to devote to what is important – our salvation and that of others. Again, it is what we value most that determines where our heart lays.
some images © V. Gilbert & Arlisle F. Beers
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