Dr. Mark Scott wrote this treatment of the International Sunday School Lesson. Scott teaches preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri. He also serves as minister with Park Plaza Christian Church in Joplin. This lesson treatment is published in the January 2021 issue of Christian Standard + The Lookout. (Subscribe to our print edition.)
“For Mine Is the Kingdom?” by David Faust (Lesson Application)
Lesson Aim: Focus on building character, who you are even in private, more than you focus on your reputation, what others think of you.
There is a subtle danger of letting your righteousness surpass that of the religious elite (Matthew 5:20) and in striving to be perfect (5:48). The danger is religious hypocrisy, which is the worst kind of hypocrisy. True kingdom people will do their best to live out the real, greater, fulfilled righteousness that Jesus spoke about in the six antitheses (5:21-48). The danger comes when these true kingdom people practice their righteousness just to be seen by others. They become more interested in the praise of people than the nod of God. They become duplicitous in the public practices of their faith.
To ensure this does not happen, Jesus stated a huge principle (Matthew 6:1) and then illustrated it with three cardinal practices of the Jews of his day: giving, praying, and fasting (6:2-18). The practice of faith is always public and private. It cannot be otherwise. If the practice of faith is only public, then it is hypocritical. If the practice of faith is only private, then we miss the community aspect of it. Jesus cautioned against practicing righteousness to be seen (literally “do theatrics”) by people. God does not reward such pride.
When You Give
When (not if) you give (as in giving alms to the poor), do not announce it with fanfare. There is no evidence that people actually announced their giving with trumpets. But times of prayer and days of fasting were announced with trumpet blasts. Some thought that giving and fasting helped achieve answered prayers. Jesus may have meant it figuratively, such as, “Do not toot your own horn when you give.”
And it was not just “how” but also “where.” Synagogues and street corners are not the places to work on generous righteousness. Instead, giving should almost be done subconsciously (not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing) and in secret. Giving publicly is not wrong (2 Corinthians 8–9; Philippians 4:10-20), but giving to be praised is the wrong reward to seek.
When You Pray
When (not if) you pray, do not be like the hypocrites (play actors in the ancient world). Their prayers are quite “involved.” They pray in the prominent places (synagogues and street corners), and they pray with many words. The places of their prayers will get them noticed, and their verbosity will get them heard. If all they want is to be seen by others, they will receive that reward. If all they want is to babble like pagans (Gentiles did this to be accepted by the Jews), they will receive that reward.
Instead, Jesus taught the value of private prayer (even closet prayer). This was not a prohibition against public prayer (John 12:27-30), but an acknowledgement that since God knows what we need before we ask, we should use humble and respectful plain speech by letting our words be few (Ecclesiastes 5:2).
Speaking of few words, the model prayer is exemplary in succinctness—just 53 words in English. Its two halves (the Lord’s half and our half) and six petitions are nothing short of brilliant. (See David Timm’s Living the Lord’s Prayer.) Our(s)is a term of community. Father is a term of intimacy. In heaven is the abode or throne of God. What access we have! God’s half of the prayer features imperatives. “Let your name be hallowed” (made holy, distinct, and set apart). “Let your kingdom come” (the dynamic reign of God colliding with earth’s values and ways). “Let your will be done” (the parallelism with kingdom is obvious). We are praying that heaven and earth will be one (Revelation 21:1-4).
Our half of the prayer concerns our needs (not greeds) for the bread of the day, our plea for forgiveness, and our ability to resist temptation and the forces of the evil one. Of the six petitions, it’s interesting that the plea for forgiveness receives the excursus. The person who prays this prayer will always reciprocate forgiveness.
When You Fast
When (not if) you fast (abstaining from food for a time to heighten spiritual formation), do not aspire to look like it (that is, sort of washed-out and somber). Some want to advertise this spiritual discipline. If so, they have already received their reward. Instead, clean up so you appear as you normally would. Let the fasting be your and God’s little secret.
The only way to do these acts of righteousness well in public are to practice them much in private. Who are you, really, when no one else is looking?