While preparing to preach through Matthew 6, I came across this insightful commentary on verses 1-18 from nineteenth century German theologian and biblical scholar Johann Peter Lange (1802-1884). Though the language is a bit ornate (as per its nineteenth century origins), the thoughts are profound and useful for self-examination in Christian living.
1. The one radical perversion of religious life consists in the desire to appear before men. Spiritual religion has, indeed, its outward and becoming expression, – chiefly, however, in the meek and devout worship of the Church, where the piety of individual believers is lost to outward view. The worship of the Church is, so to speak, the shadow in which the humility and meekness of the individual worshipper finds shelter and protection.
Hence perversion of religious life first manifests itself in separatism of worship, which gradually intrudes upon the worship of the Church, and ultimately perverts it. The consequences of this speedily appear in the three departments of practical piety (Editor’s Note: this is in reference to almsgiving, prayer, and fasting). Thus, instead of charity toward our neighbors, we have religious self-righteousness on the one hand, and religious idleness on the other – a show of kindness, and a corresponding spirit of mean dependence. Similarly, the worship of God assumes the form of lengthened prayers and tedious processions without devotion, while asceticism degenerates into hypocritical fasts and monastic extravagances. But if, in our religion, we consciously and purposely aim after mere externalism and show, we enter upon a course of hypocrisy, setting up in our outward forms a counterfeit of what is sacred. The commencement of this false religionism consists in painful service and outward works. Although a man may at that stage still set God before him, it is only in an external manner. In worshipping Him, he no longer has regard to the character and the love of God, because he realizes not that God has regard to his affections and state of heart. He is only anxious that god should have regard to his work, and his service, just as he has only regard to the work of God and the reward of God; and as he regards this reward as merely external, like his own work, he gradually comes to seek it among men. His externalism now leads him to merge his God in the opinion of men. Hence the outward show which marks the second stage of religious perversion. His great object now is to let his beneficence, his prayers, and his fasts appear as fully and as pompously as possible. From this spiritual pride and spiritual servility the transition is easy to the third stage, which is that of deception and imposition, when the hypocrite conceals his hardness of heart under the mask of beneficence, his coldness and deadness under that of singular devotion, and his love of the world and lustfulness, with the corresponding works of darkness, under that of asceticism.
2. A piety which primarily tends to externalism and show, is not only falsehood but folly. It may be compared to a root growing upward. The proper and genuine tendency of religion is inward, to secrecy – to that God who rules int he secret sanctuary of spiritual life. Hence also Christ urges in so strenuous terms the importance of this matter. Let beneficence remain a secret of our right hand – a shame-faced and holy affection – an act of genuine pity, from which we immediately pass without self-complacency. Let true prayer be concealed in our closet, and let us shut the door behind us. Let sincere fasting be concealed under the cheerful garb of holy festivity. This concealment is necessary, because true piety consists in full self-surrender to God, leading us to seek His, not ours; and because we cherish the firm confidence, that the Lord will own openly, by His leadings and by His blessings, in the domain of moral and of public life, in the kingdom of heaven here, and yet more hereafter, whatever is done in and for His name, and that He will in His own time and way attest both its reality and its value. Thus the root spreads deep in the earth where no human eye sees, in the assured hope that it shall spring all the higher, and spread all the more richly, in measure as its life is hid beneath the ground.
3. In this instance also the Lord sets before His disciples a picture which reflected His own life. In the gracious dispensation of His benefits, He alike removed the occasion of mendicancy and avoided the pomp of spurious kindness. By His intercession, He restored the life-tree of humanity, by restoring its root, and planting it in good soil, even in God. So also He fasted and renounced the world as the Bridegroom of the Church, – thereby and therein laying anew the foundation of true enjoyment and peace.