Jesus addresses a concept exposing faults in the Pharisees and scribes. They did things to be seen (vv. 2, 5, 16). Verse one has “piety” or “charitable deeds.” The former is from a more ancient version of Scripture. The three acts of piety are almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. A second-century BCE text highlights the relationship between the three.
Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold. For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life, but those who commit sin and do wrong are their own worst enemies. (Tobit 12:8–10)
Each deed was to have been done privately, without drawing attention to oneself so that God receives glory (vv. 3–4, 6–7, 17–18).
Almsgiving is commanded in the law (Deut. 14:28–29; 15:11), but it’s out of service to God and one’s neighbor that it is done and not for personal acclaim. The chests in the temple that people would place alms in were shaped like trumpets (shofar). The term translated as “hypocrite” is an old word for “actor.” One who plays a part or character that isn’t who they are is a hypocrite—an actor.
Jews prayed three times daily: 9 a.m., 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. (Ps. 55:17; cf. Dan. 6:10). The morning and evening prayers were at the same time as two of the daily sacrifices, so those living around Jerusalem would have heard the blast of the trumpets at the times of the burnt offerings (cf. 2 Chron. 29:26–30). Presumably, some would go about their day, and when the time of prayer came, they’d stop wherever they were to pray, drawing the notice of those present. The inner room Jesus speaks of here isn’t a closet per se but a storage room. The condemnation of vain repetition isn’t repetition altogether because Jesus did that (cf. Matt. 26:44). The idea here is showboating with too many words or bloviating.
Rabbis often gave their disciples prayers to recite, so Jesus would have expected this prayer to be prayed verbatim. Outside the New Testament, Christian writing prescribes it to be prayed three times per day—presumably the times of prayer.
And do not pray as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, pray thus: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, as in Heaven so also upon earth; give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the Evil One, for thine is the power and the glory for ever.” Pray thus three times a day. (Didache 8:2–3)
Many in the ancient world may have had little alternative to hunger, so to display fasting as an act of piety would have been rather insulting to those for whom hunger was common. This righteousness was often associated with mourning, repentance, and self-discipline.
Wealth can change people. Most lottery winners go broke, and that’s after sometimes having millions of dollars. Others, however, become so changed by it that they cannot enjoy the little things. Where their treasure is, their hearts are as well (Matt. 6:21). Jesus has already warned about the eyes’ capacity to lead to sin (cf. 5:27–30), so what a person dwells on determines who they are in the inner person. If they are wealthy, they will be a slave to it. However, focusing on God and trusting in his provisions ensures their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (6:34).