Jesus begins his sermon on the mount with a series of beatitudes. He tells his disciples that, among other things, they are blessed when they are poor in spirit, when they are meek, and when they are merciful. “You are blessed,” says Jesus, “when you hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, for you will be filled.”
Later in the sermon, Jesus tells his disciples how people who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice live out their faith. He offers them three teachings about important disciplines – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Jesus’ disciples already know about these disciplines and, as good Jews, they would have practiced them as part of their faith. We know this because of how Jesus talks about them. He says, “Whenever you give alms… whenever you pray… whenever you fast….” Jesus conveys an expectation here. He does not say, “If you give, if you pray, if you fast….” His disciples do these things.
Jesus wants to make sure that his disciples are doing these things in the right way and for the right reason. Therefore, he begins this section with a warning: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Jesus knows that there are people who do good things because they love the recognition they receive from others. Their motives are either completely selfish, or a mixture of selfish motivation and a desire to do good, but their motives are not pure. In the context of Jesus’ teaching, we might recognize some of these people. They might be the people who give away money by presenting oversized cardboard checks so they can get their picture in the paper or their name on a building. They might be the people who go on television to offer up prayers that seem to highlight their own accomplishments over and above God’s accomplishments. They might be the people who willingly give up something, but then go around and tell everyone about the sacrifice they have made in order to get sympathy from those around them. Any one of these people may have genuine piety, but they mix their piety with their selfish desires for attention and veneration. “Don’t be like the hypocrites,” Jesus says. Jesus is not using a derogatory term, here. Hypocrite is a theatrical term referring to stage actors who literally played a part, and performed with exaggerated gestures and tremulous voices. Jesus tells his disciples those people already have their reward – applause and adoration from others. This is different from the reward God offers – God’s blessing.
This does not mean that we must do all our righteous acts in secret. Jesus is not telling his disciples to be holy ninjas, stealthily doing good things that will be nullified if they are caught in the act. What he is teaching them is that their motives are important. It matters why they do the things they do. If they perform righteous deeds so that they can get some notice or attention from others, even if that is just a little bit of their motivation, then they have their reward. Jesus wants his disciples to practice righteousness because, and only because, those actions will lift up their Savior, not themselves. Christ calls his disciples to do good works to glorify God. In all we say, and in everything we do, we should be a finger that points back to God.
The righteous acts that Jesus teaches his disciples about are as important today as they were two thousand years ago. We continue to give alms, we continue to pray, and we continue to sacrifice. This is not an exhaustive list. We could add helping with the winter shelter or with family promise to this list. We could add serving on a church committee or teaching Sunday school to this list. We could add any number of activities to this list. Yet whatever act of righteousness we endeavor to perform, it inevitably involves at least one of these three: giving, prayer, or sacrifice. These three remain important because they each acknowledge our dependence on God rather than ourselves. Both the giving of alms and fasting are ways of demonstrating our trust in God to give us what we need and sustain us. Giving up our possessions and giving up our sustenance are actions of surrender. Praying also demonstrates our dependence on God. In prayer, we humble ourselves before God. We praise God. We ask for God’s provision. We seek God’s forgiveness, and ask for help in not repeating our mistakes. We commit ourselves to God’s will rather than cling to our own desires.
People who hunger and thirst for righteousness give to the poor, spend time in prayer, and deny themselves indulgent consumption. They do it to glorify God. They do it to receive God’s blessing. They do it to acknowledge their dependence on God.
Our dependence on God is a central focus of the season of Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday. God formed us from the dust and breathed life into us. Our very breath comes from God – so does our money, our time, our food. During Lent, we recommit ourselves to these disciplines to demonstrate to God, and God alone, that we trust Jesus and desire to be people of righteousness. We turn towards God and away from the sinful distractions that drive us to act out of selfish desire for earthly attention and accolades. We give more away to receive God’s blessing, not for a tax break or our name on a plaque. We spend more time in prayer to grow closer to God, not because we want people to see how pious we are. We fast and go without to become more like Jesus, not because we want to look thinner or fit into our clothes again. The pure motives of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will enable them to be blessed and filled.