It’s important to note that the record of Jesus’ teaching that Matthew relates to us in 6:1-18, is given in response to Pharisaical abuses (5:20,21,27,31,33,38,43). If the “hypocrites” of 6:2,5,16 aren’t exclusively Pharisees, it certainly would include them (see 23:13,15,23,25,27,29). So we shouldn’t approach the text as an open forum on the subjects of giving, fasting, and praying. What’s under discussion is a prescriptive treatment of giving, fasting, and praying—how to right what the Pharisees and teachers of the law had wronged.
Having said that, it is worth mentioning that imbedded in Jesus’ discussion is the idea that giving, fasting and praying are all important ways that we seek the kingdom of God in our lives. If they weren’t, Jesus probably wouldn’t have bothered to address these matters but since He does, they must be of importance. In reference to all three, Jesus says when rather than if (6:2,5,16). Clearly, He assumes His disciples will practice these things.
And while doing the right thing (giving, fasting, and praying) is important, it’s not the whole story, is it? The student who does well on the test in order to be boastful rather than to learn the subject matter has missed the point, haven’t they? Giving so we can get a tax break isn’t the same thing as giving to lessen someone else’s burden, is it? Doing our job to please our boss isn’t the same thing as doing it to please our Lord (although they don’t have to be incompatible). Jesus’ point is that we are to do the right thing for the right reason. And with that we’re back to His emphasis on being (You are the salt of the earth . . . the light of the world), which runs throughout chapters 5-7. Doing without being (as the Pharisees did), is hypocrisy.
But there’s something more here, something deeper and foundational that underlies Jesus’ instructions. When giving, praying, and fasting are God-directed, they are right because He is at the core of the kingdom! God Himself is the right reason! He is worthy of these things! The Pharisees dealt with appearances—appearing right before God, appearing righteous before others. Jesus deals in reality—the kingdom of God isn’t about how we appear before man, it is based on what we are before Him who is everything. So in all three instances Jesus speaks of our Father seeing and rewarding what is done for Him in secret.
We are urged to cultivate a “secret” relationship with our Father.
What does this mean? It means that God is to be our ultimate audience. While there are some aspects of our faith which will by necessity be public, other aspects of our faith will be seen only by our Father. The God who knows what we need before we speak it in prayer (v. 8), sees all we do in private and rewards it accordingly. (This is marvelous news, isn’t it?)
This builds identity and integrity in the disciple (which are good qualities for people who are to be salt and light). Our identity comes not from the shifting sands of the public domain but is forged in the furnace of our private time with God. This leads to an authenticity and integrity of faith. It means that our public faith/life is an outgrowth of our private faith/life (not vice versa). This is the best way for sinful human beings to assure that what they appear to be in public is what they really are. This was a notorious shortcoming of the Pharisees who were branded by Jesus as hypocrites because they sought the approval of men rather than God (John 12:42-43). Disciples must have more than a drive-through relationship with their Father. We must give God more than fast prayers!