Continuing His assault upon the religion of the scribes and Pharisees, our Lord directs His people into true heart religion, one which mortifies pride, and seeks exclusively after the reward which comes from God only.  He would not have us leave off prayer or almsgiving, but would have them done in the right spirit.  It is undeniably true that men may perform good actions, but those be unacceptable to God because they are done from the wrong motive.  In fact, the very greatest acts of charity and self-denial are unacceptable unless done out of a heart of love towards God and our fellow men, as Paul so ably instructs us in I Corinthians 13.  Faith too must be joined to all our actions if we would please God, “for without faith it is impossible to please Him.”

The problem with the hypocrites Christ so fearfully describes is not that they were prayerless and penny-pinching, but that they offered alms and prayers in a spirit of pride.  They only gave alms, and only prayed when other men could see them and praise them for their holiness.  They were of that stock of whom John says, “They loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.”  Their good deeds they performed not because they had a heart of pity for the poor, or because they would walk in obedience to the law of God, but rather because their fellow men would admire them for their external religious devotions.  There is a root of this bitterness in the heart of each one of us, against which we must ruthlessly war if we would obey this precept of Christ.  We must carefully scrutinize our motives, particularly when we come to observe any religious form.  When we pray in public, let us strive against that wicked thought that we wish to impress other saints by the eloquence of our petitions.  When we give our offering at church, or offer support to some poor person, let us be careful that we do it because we would show them the kindness of God, rather than to gain the reputation of a great Christian philanthropist.  God knows our motives, and therefore Jesus instructs us to be very private and secretive about our good deeds.  If our motivation in preaching, praying, almsgiving, hospitality, or any other Christian activity, is to win the plaudits of our fellow men, then it may sadly be said of us, “This man’s religion is vain.”