Friday, January 13
Hebrews 7:1-10: One of the most obvious features of the Bible—and most noticeable to its new readers—is the presence of what are called the “begats.” We are told, for instance, that Adam begat Cain and Abel, that Joshua begat Eleazar, that Hezron begat Pheres, and so forth.
These “begats” are not just occasional parts of Holy Scripture. Not only are they sometimes lumped into lost lists, but they likewise appear to provide continuity to the Bible’s narrative structure.
Thus, the uninitiated reader, informed that the Holy Scriptures are very interesting and important, comes to Genesis 5, for instance, rather early in his pursuit of God’s Word. Here he finds his first list of begats. Unaware that this is only the first of many such parts, he plods on and manages to finish chapter 5. Interest in the story picks up for the next four chapters, which deal with Noah and the Flood, but then he arrives at Genesis 10, which is simply one, long, solid list of begats. It is arguable that many a newcomer to the Bible completely breaks down at this point, never getting past chapter 10.
It seems that many such readers, faced with this dilemma, decide to jump ahead to the New Testament, perhaps with the resolve to come back to the Old Testament at a later date. The person who takes this step, however, suddenly finds himself with the first chapter of Matthew, which commences with a list of 42 more begats. Many early efforts to read Holy Scripture simply die and are buried at that point, and the Bible is closed forever.
Fortunately, this pattern among new Bible-readers is not universal, and some brave souls do manage to survive the begats of Genesis 10. For such as these, it must come as something of a relief to arrive at Genesis 14 and discover a character who is not on a list of begats.
His name is Melchizedek, and he appears as though out of nowhere: “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18). We are not told where Melchizedek came from, nor does he ever again appear in the biblical narrative; there is not a word about his death or his descendents. He shows himself just this brief moment, but in this brief moment he is described as greater than Abraham: “Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils.” In the person of Abraham, even the Old Testament priesthood of Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek.
Thus, Melchizedek “without father, without mother, without begats, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually.”
Melchizedek’s kingship and priesthood stand outside the begats. The very brevity of his appearance in the biblical story—which forms but an instant in the narrative, and not an element of sequence—becomes a symbol of eternity, inasmuch as eternity is an unending “now,” an instant without sequence. Our experience of eternity in this world is always an instant—a “now”—not a sequence. Thus, the “now-ness” of Melchizedek’s kingship and priesthood represents the eternal “today” of the sonship of Christ: “ You are My Son, / Today I have begotten You” (Psalm 2:7; Hebrews 5:5).
Saturday, January 14
Matthew 4:12-17: This text from Matthew, found only in Matthew in fact, stands at the beginning of our Lord’s ministry. It is a transitional text, a sort of preamble, as it were, to the Lord’s public ministry. It follows immediately on His baptism and temptation in the wilderness, and it comes immediately before His choosing of the first disciples. There are three points to be made with respect to this text:
First, this passage sees the ministry of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. Indeed, a full half of today’s Gospel reading is taken up with a quotation from the Book of Isaiah, and this quotation is preceded by the words, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet.”
I regard it as important to look closely at this word “fulfilled” with respect to prophecy: plerothe. That is to say, in Jesus Christ the Old Testament has achieved the fullness of its meaning. No other meaning can be legitimately derived from it except through the interpretive lens of Christ.
I make a point of this interpretive principle because a great deal of American religion ignores it completely. It has become a commonplace in American religion to read biblical prophecy according to norms other than those of its fulfillment in Christ.
Let us be clear on this principle. It will save us from the error of reading biblical prophecy as though it were a set of regulations about contemporary politics, especially geopolitics, and most particularly the politics of the Holy Land. To read the Bible this way is to impose on the Sacred Text a meaning that it does not have. To assert the Bible’s “fulfillment” in Christ is to deny the legitimacy of biblical meanings apart from Christ. It is to make the Bible say what the Bible does not say.
Second, this is a story about Christ as the “light” to the Gentiles, which ties it to the account of our Lord’s Baptism, of which the hymn proclaims, “When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship to the Trinity was made manifest; for the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son; and the Spirit in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of His word. Wherefore, O Christ, who didst reveal Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee.” This Gospel continues the theme of light to the Gentiles: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.”
This is the first in the set of bookends, as it were, that enclose the Gospel of Matthew. He begins with those Gentile Magi coming to worship Emmanuel, which means God with us, and he ends the Gospel with the Lord’s mission to disciplelize all the nations and His assurance to be with us always even to the end of the world. In other words this continues the theme of Christmas itself.
And what is the way to enlightenment by Christ? Ongoing repentance: metanoeíte. It does not mean, “repent.” It means “keep on repenting.” Repentance is not something to be done once. It is to be done all the time. Our conversion is a repeated process, finally become a habit of soul. This is how we Gentiles are to receive the light of Christ.
Third, this is a story about Galilee, and it prepares for Jesus’ Galilean mission. In the Gospel of Matthew the public life of Jesus both begins and ends in Galilee. When Jesus gives the Great Commission to the Eleven at the end of Matthew, this takes place on a mountain in Galilee. This emphasis on Galilee is one of Matthew’s most significant traits.
What does Galilee mean for Matthew? Well, today he calls it the “Galilee of the Gentiles”: “He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “ The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.”
Galilee was that part of the Holy Land where Jews and Gentiles dwelt together, and this trait is what made it an image and type of the Church. The Church is the place where Jews and Gentiles worship together; it is the place where the dividing wall has been broken down. The Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Israel, the fullness of the People of God.
Sunday, January 15
Matthew 4:18-24: There are many things to consider, if we reflect on what it means to “follow” Christ, but today we want to regard especially what following Christ says about Christ Himself.
First, Christ is our Leader (cf. Hebrews 12:1-2), God’s Son has passed through the full human experience, and He is the one person in history who has done it right. He alone has lived completely as God intended human beings to live. He has modeled human life and death in His own life and death.
The author of Hebrews uses the present participle to indicate what is meant by “looking unto Jesus.” In Greek the present participle refers to sustained and continued action, not a single and isolated action. Aphorontes, says Hebrews, which means continually looking at Jesus, not glancing at Him once in a while, from time to time. It does not mean looking at Him only on Sundays, or only when we pray. His “leadership” means fixing our eyes on Him at all times, not for a moment losing sight of Him.
In this respect Christ is the fulfillment of the Law. Just as the saints of the Old Testament were to have the Torah constantly in their minds and always before their eyes, we are to have constantly in our minds and always before our eyes the One who is the fulfillment of the Torah.
Christ is to become our fixation, not our “fix.” I think we all know what is commonly meant by a “fix,” a word that refers to a narcotic that is taken to “hold us over.” Jesus is not a fix; He is a fixation. We are not to take Christ in small doses, a weekly vaccination of the “Jesus germ,” as it were, a vaccination to guarantee that we never “catch” the real thing. Christ is not our “fix.” He is to become our fixation, the sustained and constant preoccupation of our minds and hearts.
If we are to run the race that He has run, then we must at all times know exactly where He is. This is why there must be something obsessive about the Christian life. If we are to be, as St. Paul says repeatedly, “in Christ,” then Christ must be our very atmosphere. Christ must become our constant mode of thought, which St. Paul refers to as “the mind of Christ.”
Second, Christ is our Teacher. In the Gospels, in fact, the disciples often address Him as “Rabbi,” a Semitic word that means “teacher.” He tells us to learn from Him. To learn, we all know, I think, is to be set free from ignorance and deception.
And what is required of someone who wants to learn? Docility, which is to say “teachableness.” The surest guarantee against learning anything is the sense that one already knows it all.
When Jesus invites us to learn from Him, He adds, “For I am meek and humble of heart.” If meekness and humility are the qualities of Christ our Teacher, what level of meekness and humility are required of us as His students? You see, the term disciple is simply the Latin word for student. As Christians we are life-long students of Christ, always prepared to be instructed further, ever eager to learn more.
Third, Christ is our Helper. When we follow Him, He does not run out ahead of us so as to lose track of us. It is He that sustains us in the struggle. How does Jesus treat those that endeavor to follow Him? St. Paul learned the answer to this question while he was first at Corinth. St. Luke tells us, “Now the Lord spoke to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city.’”
Christ our Lord does no less for us than He did for Paul. When we stumble, He is always there to hold us up. When we slip and fall, it is He that restores us to the race. When we wander and become lost, He leaves the ninety-nine sheep on the mountain and goes out in search of us. When we can no longer walk, He carries us. When we are weary with toil and grow faint from the journey, He it is that upholds us. In joy He strengthens us. In despondency He cheers us. In repentance, He forgives us. In all things He teaches us.
The Leader and Teacher Christ, whom we follow, is our ever-present Help in time of need, the food for our journey, our living water in the desert, our fortress in affliction, the healing of our hearts, our solace in every sorrow.
The name of Jesus, therefore, is seldom absent from our lips and never absent from our hearts.
With blind Bartimaeus we cry out to Him. With Mary Magdalene we cling to Him. With the leper we plead with Him. With the widow of Nain we trust in Him. With Thomas we love and adore Him. With Martha of Bethany we strive in all things to serve Him, and with her sister Mary we sit, docile, at His feet. With Peter we walk on the very waters to come to Him. With the Apostles and holy women, we prostrate ourselves before Him.
This is what it means to be a disciple, and to all this Jesus our Leader and Teacher invites us today, when He says to us, as He said to the first four of His disciples, “Come, follow Me!”
Monday, January 16
Matthew 5:1–12: The Sermon on the Mount begins with two very solemn verses, as though to allow everyone to sit down and get settled for a long discourse. The Sermon functions in more than one way to serve the structure of Matthew’s entire composition. For example, taking place on a mountain at the very beginning of the Lord’s ministry, it is the initial component of a parallel with the mountain at the end of the Gospel, the mountain from which Jesus sent the Apostles to teach what he had taught (28:20).
Again, the Sermon is the first of the five great discourses—a New Testament Chumash as it were—which are the didactic backbone of Matthew’s Gospel. Functioning thus, it stands in chiastic correspondence to the last of these five discourses, the lengthy sermon on the Last Things (chapters 23–25).
Close readers of Matthew have long observed that this Sermon itself forms a commentary on the Beatitudes with which it begins (verses 2–10). This commentary is also chiastic, meaning that it reverses the order of the Beatitudes. Thus, for example, verses 11–12 form a commentary on verse 10, verses 13–16 are a commentary on verse 9, and so forth.
Compared to the shorter Beatitudes in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (6:20–22), we observe that, whereas Luke’s version contains only “situations” (poverty, hunger, etc.), Matthew’s version commends ethical norms (mercy, purity of heart, etc.). Luke’s version is entirely kerygma, or proclamation, whereas Matthew’s is also didache, or instruction. It includes a moral code, in addition to the proclamation of the Kingdom and the overthrow of the worldly order.
We observe Matthew’s use of an inclusio, beginning and ending with “the Kingdom of Heaven” (verses 3,10).
This text, often described as the best lines of Jeremiah, is also one of the most emphatic passages to come from his pen. It is emphatic in the sense of its repeated insistence that God is the one who speaks. Four times this text affirms, “says the Lord.”
The significance of this repetition become clear in a consideration of its context: the fall and destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah, like the others citizens of the Holy City, saw the obliteration of everything connected with it: the temple, the priesthood, the worship, and so forth. What was left? Nothing but the covenant of the heart. Jeremiah still knew God in the heart.
This heart-knowledge of God, Jeremiah believed, would become the substance of a new covenant with the people of God. The Torah would be written in the heart, not on tables of stone. God would be known immediately, not as the content of someone else’s teaching. God would act with the sovereignty of His grace: “I will make . . . I will put . . . I will write . . .I will be . . . I will forgive.”
Tuesday, January 17
Matthew 5:13–20: In verse 11 the address of Jesus shifted from the third to the second person: “Blessed are you.” The addressed party is the Church—or rather, the Christians—inasmuch as the number of the address is plural. That plural, addressed to Christians, is maintained in the verses now under consideration: “You are the salt of the earth,” this section begins, and it ends, “for I say to you (verse 20).
We start with the metaphors of salt and light, both of them referring to Christians. In each case the beneficiary of these two blessings is the earth (ge) or World (kosmos), meaning those who are not Christians (verse 13). Salt and light describe the very people that the world persecutes and maligns (verses 11–12). No amount of persecution justifies the forfeiture of the Christian vocation to be salt and light to the rest of humanity. Neither salt nor light exist for themselves. Should Christians fail in this vocation, they are no longer of any use. They are to be “thrown out,” like the tares (13:40) and the inedible fish (13:48).
The metaphor of light on a lamp stand is transformed into a city seated on an acropolis, where it is visible to everyone (verse 14). Neither can Christians be concealed if they do the “good works” (ta kala erga) that their heavenly Father expects of them (verse 16). Those who see these good works belong to the same “earth” or “world” that persecutes the Christians. The world is to be enlightened by the very people it persecutes.
What Matthew has in mind here is the Christian vocation to holiness, by which the world is instructed in the ways of God. This holiness, according to the present passage, pertains to the missionary mandate of the Church. It is the way the Church shares the Gospel with “all nations” (28:19–20). This is the light that shines on those sitting in darkness (4:16).
The connecting link of verses 13–16 with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is “your Father in heaven” (verse 16). This reference will become a leitmotif in the following chapter.
The rest of chapter five, starting with the present verses, is concerned with Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament Law. This theme is related to the metaphors of salt and light through the continuity linking the Church to ancient Israel, the legitimate continuation of God’s redeemed people. It is the Church that continues Israel’s vocation to “salt” and illumine the world. For this reason it is imperative to speak of the Church’s relationship to the Torah, and this relationship is the subject of the rest of the present chapter.
Wednesday, January 18
Matthew 5:21–30: The first of Matthew’s five contrasts has to do with the Lord’s understanding of the Torah’s prohibition, “Thou shalt do no murder” (verse 21). Here, as in the next examples, Jesus responds, “but I say to you,” a formula indicating that His own understanding of the Law is superior even to that of Moses.
There is an irreducible claim in these sustained assertions—namely, that Jesus, being the very Lawgiver of Mount Sinai, has the authority to speak for the Law’s intention. This claim is based on the standard legal principle: “the meaning of a law is determined by the intention of the lawgiver.” Moses, after all, was only the promulgator of the Torah, not its author. Jesus implicitly makes the latter claim for Himself, which is the reason He is speaking from the mountain (verse 1).
Thus, Jesus understands the prohibition against murder not simply as an injunction against taking someone’s life, but as an interdiction excluding all acts of anger and violence, including speech and even thought (verse 22). This teaching is given in detail and at some length, as Matthew portrays Jesus as the Teacher of the Church. He teaches with authority (7:29).
In the present case—dealing with anger—the teaching of Jesus is consistent with standard Old Testament moral doctrine, especially tht found in the Wisdom literature (Proverbs 6:14, 34; 14:17, 29; 15:1, 18; 16:14, 32; 19:19; 27:4; cf. James 1:19–20).
The context of this prohibition against anger and violence is the Christian Church, a point indicated by the references to the “brother” (verses 22, 23, 24). Indeed, these admonitions are set within the context of the Church’s Eucharistic worship (verse 24). This is clearer, perhaps, in the Didache, a Syrian work roughly contemporary with Matthew: “But every Lord's day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned” (Didache 14). In short, love is superior to sacrifice (12:7; Mark 12:33–34).
Reconciliation must be made “quickly” (verse 25), so that the conflict does not grow out of hand. The “imprisonment” in this section refers to the divine judgment, as it does in the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:34–35).
The teaching of these verses implicitly contrasts contention with love. For Jesus and the New Testament, love is the true fulfillment of the Torah (22:40). For this reason, it is important to understand what is meant by love and not to be confused by its counterfeits. This consideration forms the sequence to the next contrast.
Thursday, January 19
Psalms 37: If we think of prayer as speaking to God, Psalm 37 (Greek and Latin 36) appears at first to challenge the very notion of the psalms as prayers, inasmuch as not a single word of it is explicitly addressed to God. It speaks about God, of course, but never to Him, at least not overtly.
Psalm 37 is also strangely constructed, even if the construction is rather simple. It is one of those twelve psalms built on what is known as an alphabetic acrostic pattern—that is to say: starting with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, each new line (in this case, every other line) of the psalm begins with the next successive letter of the alphabet. Thus, if one looks for some sort of logical or thematic progression in the course of the psalm, he may be mightily disappointed. The arrangement of the psalm’s ideas is determined only by something so artificial and arbitrary as the sequence of the alphabet, so the meditation does not really progress. It is, on the other hand, insistent and repetitive.
It is obvious at once that Psalm 37 has close ties to the Bible’s Wisdom tradition. If it were not part of the Psalter, we would expect to find it in Proverbs or one of the other Wisdom books. It appears to be a kind of discourse given by a parent to a child, or a wise man to a disciple. It is full of sound and godly counsel: “Fret not thyself because of evildoers . . . Trust in the Lord and do good . . . Cease from anger and forsake wrath . . . Wait on the Lord and keep His way,” and so forth. Such admonitions, along with the psalm’s allied warnings and promises, are stock material of the Wisdom literature.
So how does one pray such a psalm? To begin with, by respecting its tone, which is one of admonition, warning, and promise. Surely prayer is talking to God, but it also involves listening to God, and this is a psalm in which one will do more listening than talking. It is a psalm in which the believer prays by placing his heart open and receptive to God’s word of admonition, warning, and promise.
One may likewise think of Psalm 37 as the soul speaking to itself: “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him . . . But the meek shall inherit the earth . . . The little that the righteous has is better than the riches of many wicked . . . The Lord knows the days of the upright . . . The Law of his God is in his heart,” and so on. The human soul, after all, is not of simple construction. The great thinkers who have examined the soul over many centuries seem all to agree that it is composed of parts, and sometimes these parts are at odds one with another. This mixture of conflicting experiences in the soul leads one to utter such petitions as, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” It is one part of the soul praying for the other.
In this psalm, one part of the soul admonishes the other, reminds the other, cautions the other, encourages the other. And this inner conversation of the human spirit all takes place in the sight of God, the Giver of wisdom.
This inner discussion is rendered necessary because of frequent temptations to discouragement. As far as empirical evidence bears witness, the wicked do seem, on many occasions, to be better off than the just. By the standards of this world, they prosper.
Our psalm is at pains to insist, however, that this prosperity is only apparent, in the sense that it will certainly be short-lived. As regards the workers of iniquity, “they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb . . . For evildoers shall be cut off . . . For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be . . . For the arms of the wicked shall be broken . . . The transgressors shall be cut off together.”
The suffering lot of the just man is likewise temporary and of brief duration. He need only wait on the Lord in patience and trust: “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He will give thee the desires of thy heart. Commit your way unto the Lord, and trust in Him, and He shall bring it to pass . . . But the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord; He is their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord will help them and deliver them; He will deliver them from the wicked and save them, because they trust in Him.”
This, then, is a psalm of faith and confidence in God, without which there is no Christian prayer. It is also faith and hope under fire, exposed to struggle and the endurance that calls for patience. After all, “faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1), and “We were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope . . . But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (Rom. 8:24, 25). Our psalm is a meditative lesson on not being deceived by appearances, and a summons to wait patiently for God’s deliverance.
Friday, January 20
Matthew 5:43—6:4: We begin with the fifth and final contrast between Gospel righteousness and that of the scribes and Pharisees; it has to do with the love of one’s enemies. The Old Testament does not actually prescribe hatred of one’s enemies, of course; that part is a sort of hyperbole. Nonetheless, the prescribed love of one’s neighbor (22:39; Leviticus 19:18) certainly prompted some question about who, exactly, was included in this list (Luke 10:29). Jesus extended the Mosaic commandment on this point by expanding the word “neighbor” to include “enemy.” This truly was a new idea in Israel’s experience.
This love of one’s enemies must come from the heart, because Jesus made it a matter of prayer (verse 44). It has to do with one’s relationship to the “Father in heaven” (verses 45,48).
Once again, as in all these five contrasts, believers are called to “exceed” (perisson–verse 47). Their love, like their righteousness, must be “in excess” (verses 46-47). To love those that love us affords no reward, because such love is its own reward. The love of one’s enemies, however, is not an act rewarding in itself. One loves in such a way only for the sake of the heavenly Father.
This kind of love makes a person “perfect,” it most renders him like God, and being “like God” is the purpose of the Torah (Leviticus 19:2). It is understood, of course, that only God can enable a person to love in this way (Romans 8:2-4).
The love of one’s enemies appears last in Matthew’s sequence of contrasts based on the Torah, because it is the perfecting and ultimate sign of Gospel righteousness. It must be the distinguishing mark of the Christian. By it, believers become not only “more righteous, but perfect like unto God. The love of one’s enemies certainly does not “come naturally.”
Indeed, if it does seem to “come naturally,” something is wrong with it. In such cases, it is a counterfeit. Such counterfeits are not rare, so we do best to distinguish this Gospel love from things that resemble it.
For example, the love of enemies enjoined in the present context is not a tactic, a thing done to accomplish something else. It is not the practical means to an end, such as the conversion of the enemy. The love of enemies enjoined in this passage is an end in itself, because it renders a man like unto God.
This Gospel-enjoined love of enemies is not a mark of noble character—the generosity of the magnanimous man—nor is it the cultivated fruit of universal benevolence, of the sort we associate with the oriental religious sage. These are but human counterfeits of what the Lord enjoins here. Christian love of enemies is done purely to please a Father in heaven.
Nor is the purpose of the love of enemies to feel good or virtuous. In fact, the Christian who loves his enemies may feel perfectly miserable about himself. The love of one’s enemies is not an exercise in self-fulfillment. It is, rather, an act of self-emptying. It is the Cross. It is to love as Christ loves, and as His Father loves.
The first four verses of chapter 6—on the subject of almsgiving—are proper to Matthew.
The first word, a plural imperative, is a summons to caution: “Take care,” prosechete. The Christian moral life has this in common with any serious moral system; namely, that an intense, reflective custody of the soul is necessary. In the present instance this custody has chiefly to do with the purity of one’s intentions. The entire moral life can be radically undermined by wrong intentions. Purification of intentions requires a most serious vigilance over the mind and will.
Jesus, having told us in a series of five contrasts, that our righteousness must excel that of the scribes and Pharisees, now insists that this righteousness (dikaiosyne) must not be “done” (poiein) for the benefit of human approval. Were this latter to be the case, that human approval must suffice as its reward.
In this insistence we find complement to the preceding chapter. In the five contrasts just noted, attention was given to righteousness with respect to our dealings with our neighbors (control of the temper and the sexual impulse, complete honesty, non-resistance to aggression, and the love of enemies). Now the direction of righteousness is turned to God, our Father in heaven (verse 1).
This verse introduces the three subjects treated in chapter 6, the great triad of traditional Jewish piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Because our Lord Himself authoritatively juxtaposes these three components here in Matthew, it is normal to think of them together as constituting a kind of ascetical standard. In truth, for a very long time Christians (for example, Hermas and Leo I of Rome, John Chrysostom, and Maximus the Confessor) have habitually spoken of the three together as sort of a paradigm or outline of biblical ascetical life. In pre-Christian biblical literature, however, that specific triad of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is found in only one place: Tobit 12:8. It is through Matthew that this triad passed into Christian piety.
Even as Jesus treats of these three practices of piety, however, He continues the spirit of the five contrasts that He elaborated in the previous chapter. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, He says, are all to be undertaken in a spirit that is contrasted with that of the hypocrites (verses 2,5,16). By now it is clear that this word refers to those same scribes and Pharisees; it is shorthand for the Jewish leadership that set itself against Jesus and the Gospel. Matthew’s references to them in these early chapters show a rising hostility on their side, as well as Jesus’ disposition to take them to task. This latter disposition will reach its climax in chapter 23, which several times will condemn the “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
In the present text, these hypocrites are accused of failing to “take care” not to practice their righteousness to gain human approval. Theirs is not a true righteousness.
The first deed of righteousness named by Jesus is almsgiving (verses 2-4), which comes closest to the concerns of social behavior enunciated in the preceding five contrasts. The social nature of almsgiving makes it the easiest thing to do for human approval. However, those who abuse almsgiving by a bad intention are simply using the poor to their own advantage. Very well, says Jesus, they must be satisfied with that advantage (verse 2).
According to Gospel righteousness, on the other hand, the value of almsgiving must be preserved in secrecy. If the deed is disclosed to others, it loses its value before God (verse 3). The deed must not be spoiled by its motive.