In today’s gospel reading, we find three sections that correspond to each major aspect of Lent: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.
What is interesting here, and possibly easy to overlook in our familiarity, is that the Lord speaks of doing ‘righteous deeds’. In the biblical sense, righteousness is closely connected with justice and fairness. This term also speaks to divine approval. It is easy to see how these are linked together, especially when we think of the divine approval we receive by God’s grace through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). Earlier in the beatitudes, Jesus tells us that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are happy and will be satisfied.
Yet, the more immediate context of Jesus' teaching here is justice and fairness to our fellow man. The way we act toward others has a direct correlation to our standing before God. The Church teaches the Corporal Works of Mercy, which present ways we might do the righteous deeds Jesus asks of us in today’s verse and elsewhere (cf Matthew 25).
Justice is one of the cardinal virtues. To be just is to render to each, God and neighbor, what is rightly due. It is the virtue that perfects the will. Thus, in the end (and yet again), Jesus is teaching something very radical. Especially to the modern, autonomous, and interiorly oriented self; our fellow man is rightly due something from us. In the most real sense possible, we have a profound obligation to our fellow man. And so we answer back to Cain that, indeed, we are our brothers' keeper. We are to be intimately concerned with our fellow man. Not just ‘sending them good vibes’ or thinking of them from time to time. We are concerned with our wallets, our time, and our focused prayer life.
There is something else quite striking about the beginning of this passage, and it runs throughout each section. Jesus presupposes that those who follow Him are doing these things. He does not say “if you do righteous deeds” or “if you fast”. Instead, He says “when” you do these things. We should take this to mean that it is not really optional. At least for those who claim to follow Christ. The Sermon on the Mount most poignantly presents to us the heart of the Father. If we want to know God’s will, here it is in plain language. Do righteous deeds. Pray. Fast.
Since there is nothing accidental in Sacred Scripture, we might also note the order of the practices Jesus illuminates. Righteous deeds come before prayer, followed by fasting. We should not overlook this as we proceed through the Lenten season. It might be that our prayer life will be enriched, and we will draw closer to God, by first thinking of others before we recess to our respective prayer closets and commence our fasts.