What is my relationship like with God the Father? That is the heart of Jesus teaching in these verses.
Jesus in this chapter takes basic teaching on piety (acts of devotion), and gives His teaching on these topics. It is taking for granted that we will give to the poor, pray, and fast – things that are important in our devotional life. In each case Jesus makes the same core point – I need to have a direct relationship with God. I should not be doing my acts of devotion for the praise or motivation of others. It is not that my relationship with others doesn’t matter (Jesus makes it clear that it does, in His teaching on forgiveness in v.14). It is that I can’t let any religious act, no matter how good, become something that is about me looking good, and not just about my connection to the Father.
I don’t bring my wife flowers just so I can tell others about it – I give her gifts, listen to her, and help her because I love her. That is the relationship God wants with us – He is the One who has loved us first, He loves us so much. Our job is not to posture in His name, but to love Him and serve Him in return. We know this deep down, but it is also so easy to brag about how “good” or “religious” we are – because it feels good to have the praise and admiration of others. I have to let the Father’s love and approval be enough – by soaking up that love and approval every day. Then I can go into the day not needing that approval or praise. Instead, I am filled up with God’s encouragement – and I can go encouraging others during the day. I can become a giver – which then blesses my life even more.
It all starts with accepting the Father’s perfect love, the love that only He can give.