“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”Matthew 6.1-6,16-18
Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting have always been considered the three main spiritual disciplines or habits of the church. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks about them rather matter-of-factly, as if he expects his disciples to continue practising these acts of piety without much controversy. The early church document the Didache—or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, which was written between the late first century or early second century, refers to them as if they were common practices among the Christians in Syria-Palestine. It even prescribed fasting to take place on Wednesdays and Fridays, a tradition still kept by the faithful in the Orthodox churches, while the Roman Catholics now abstain from meat on Fridays.
Almsgiving is simply intentionally extending help to the needy around us, a putting into practice of Jesus’ command to love our neighbour as ourself. In this intentional practice, we learn to die to ourself by setting aside our own wants for another person’s needs without expecting anything in return. The Jews prior to Jesus’ time considered almsgiving to be the most crucial spiritual discipline. In the apocryphal book Tobit, it is said that “Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. … 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…”
Prayer is simply communication with our Father in heaven, through his Son our Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Or, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it elegantly, “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God.” When God graciously reveals himself to us, our natural response is to pray from our hearts, even though that prayer may take various forms. Even though our prayer may at times be spontaneous, it’s usually a learnt practice. As one meditates on Scripture and participates in the church’s liturgy, one acquires the proficiency, the posture, and the language in our prayer.
Fasting is simply practising control over a fundamental physiological drive—hunger—to acquire mastery over our disorderly passions. The goal is to achieve freedom from the vestigial powers of sin in our life. Prayer and fasting go together, such that the latter allows one to focus on the former. From this simple act of self-denial, we also acquire the freedom from excessive material acquisition to give more freely to those in need.
Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are the pillars of every godly person’s spiritual life, and they are habits which give growth to our love for God and neighbour. They are disciplines which crucify our self-centeredness and help us be more other-centered. Hence, Jesus derides the hypocrites who make these pillars into ostentatious displays. Instead of practising them to become more other-centered, these self-centered hypocrites are using them for self-gain. Clearly, nothing of eternal value would emerge from them. So, let us guard our hearts against such egocentricity in our practice of piety, knowing that through these practices our ego must diminish, while God and neighbour must increase.