Jesus covered many topics in His Sermon on the Mount. Midway through His discourse, the Lord returned to the problem of religious hypocrisy (Matthew 6:1–18). Presenting three closely patterned scenarios, Jesus addressed the devout practices of giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. Jesus taught, “When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16–18, NKJV).
Jesus began this segment, saying, “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” (Matthew 6:1). This instruction links back to the Lord’s earlier sermon theme statement: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Essentially, Jesus asked His listeners to examine their hearts, as if to say, “What are your motives? Are you a true follower or a spiritual fake? If you give in secret, pray in secret, and fast in secret, you are the real deal because you aren’t trying to flaunt your spirituality. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly because He recognizes the genuine devotion hidden in the depths of your heart. But if you give, pray, and fast to be seen by others, you are a hypocritical religious fraud, just like the Pharisees and scribes.”
These Pharisees and scribes believed that righteousness was achieved by strict adherence to the Law of Moses and religious tradition, or, in other words, by works and religious legalism. In contrast, Jesus taught righteousness based on a relationship with God in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21–26; Matthew 6:33).
In each parallel example presented by Jesus, He drove home the point that sincere kingdom servants seek God’s approval rather than the admiration and praise of other humans. In every good work we do for righteousness’ sake, our objective must be pleasing God (Galatians 1:10; Colossians 3:23; 1 Thessalonians 4:1; Ephesians 5:10; 2 Timothy 2:4). We seek our reward from Him and not people. If the prize you seek is human praise, then that is the only reward you will gain. But when you fast in secret, God will reward you openly because He can see the proof of your genuine dedication.
The central message of Christ’s teaching in Matthew 6:1–18 is not about the proper procedures for fasting, prayer, and giving; it is about our heart’s intentions. Jesus highlights the difference between hypocritical, self-righteous pretenders and authentic kingdom seekers. The religious leaders wanted applause from the people for their righteous acts, but the only reward that true believers desire is the private blessing of God, who sees in secret. The Lord always looks at the secret places of our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7) where our true Christian righteousness resides (Matthew 12:35; 15:18, 19; Luke 6:45; Proverbs 4:23).
There’s nothing wrong with other people seeing us commit a righteous act, as long as being seen is not the motivation behind the action. Jesus had just said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16; see also 1 Corinthians 10:31). The issue is whether our good deeds call attention only to us, or whether they glorify God and draw others closer to Him.
“God will reward you openly when you fast in secret” means a real Christian understands that, in the kingdom of heaven, we perform our righteous deeds to a private audience of One—that is, God. We can fool a crowd of human spectators in the public arena, but God knows the truth in our hearts. Jesus saw the inestimable value of the widow’s offering of two small copper coins (see Mark 12:41–44). He also saw greed in the hearts of the scribes who “parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be more severely punished” (Mark 12:38–40, NLT).
The self-righteous prefer the praise of men, and their reward is temporary, earthly, and fleeting. In the end, eternal punishment awaits them. But those who choose the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ will give, pray, and fast in secret—their faith will be expressed in bona fide, selfless devotion. And the Father will openly reward their faith with eternal life in His kingdom.