Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
MATTHEW 5-7. THE CONTEXT
Chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s Gospel are known as the Sermon on the Mount, and constitute a large body of Jesus’ teachings. It is unlikely that Jesus delivered all of these teachings at one sitting. Instead, Matthew collected many of his teachings and recorded them in these early chapters of his Gospel. A similar but shorter collection is found in Luke 6:20-49. Luke’s collection has parallels to portions of Matthew 5 and 7, but not Matthew 6.
Matthew 5 includes a number of teachings about righteous living. They deal with anger (5:21-26), adultery (5:27-30), divorce (5:31-32), oaths (5:33-37), retaliation (5:38-42), and love for enemies (5:43-48). The teachings of 6:1-18 move us to the next level by helping us to understand the attitude needed for pious deeds (almsgiving, prayer, and fasting).
Another link between these two chapters is that Jesus in chapter 5 says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (5:20). In 6:1-18, he tells us how to do that. While he does not mention scribes and Pharisees in 6:1-18, he does mention “hypocrites” (6:2, 5, 16). In this Gospel, he often calls scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites,” (15:7; 22:18; 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29) so it is reasonable to associate the “hypocrites” of 6:1-18 with scribes and Pharisees.
Scribes and Pharisees are surely among those who “do your charitable giving before men, to be seen by them” (6:1)—and who “sound a trumpet” to announce their alms (6:2)—and “stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men” (6:5)—and who put on “sad faces” and “disfigure their faces, that they may be seen by men to be fasting” (6:16).
In 6:1-18, therefore, Jesus teaches us that to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (the injunction of 5:20), we must not “let (our) left hand know what (our) right hand does, …so that (our) merciful deeds may be in secret” (6:3-4)—and must “enter into (our) inner room, and having shut the door, pray to (our) Father who is in secret” (6:6)—and must “anoint (our head) and wash (our face) so that (we) are not seen by men to be fasting, but by (our) Father who is in secret, and (our) Father, who sees in secret, will reward (us)” (6:17-18).
Essentially all of chapter 6 (with the possible exception of vv. 22-23) is a treatise on faith. In verses 1-18, Jesus teaches us not to solicit human praise for righteous deeds, but rather to trust God (to have faith in God) to reward us. The emphasis in verses 19-21, 24-34 is similar to that in verses 1-18, even though verses 19-21 and 34-34 deal with attitudes about material possessions rather than human praise. The main thrust of chapter 6 is that we should trust God to reward us (vv. 1-18) and to provide what we need (vv. 19-21, 25-34).
It might appear that there is a contradiction between Jesus’ charge in 5:16 to “let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” and his emphasis in chapter 6 on keeping personal piety private.
Some would resolve this difference by saying that “your” in 5:16 is singular and “you” and “your” in 6:1-4 are plural, so the church rather than the individual is responsible for valid witness (Hare, 64). However, “you” and “your” in 6:1-6 and 16-18 are sometimes plural (vv. 1, 5, 16) and sometimes singular (vv. 2-4, 6, 17-18), so that is questionable. Also, from a practical standpoint, both individual and corporate witness are needed to draw people into the kingdom.
Bonhoeffer suggests that “the hiddenness that should characterize the disciples’ action applies to the disciple. Disciples should ‘keep on following Jesus, and should keep looking forward to him who is going before them, but not at themselves and what they are doing. The righteousness of the disciples is hidden from themselves’ ” (Hauerwas, 74, quoting Bonhoeffer, Discipleship). This appears to go one step beyond what Jesus is saying in Matthew 6, but is nevertheless in keeping with Jesus’ meaning. Jesus is denouncing people who perform pious acts to impress other people, but that sort of behavior is inherently selfish and self-focused. Jesus is calling us to piety that is selfless and God-focused—and that is Bonhoeffer’s point.
To summarize, witness (both individual and corporate) is vitally important, but loses its power to bless the giver of the witness (and probably the receiver as well) when the giver is motivated by a desire to please people rather than God.
MATTHEW 6:1-18. CHARITABLE GIVING, PRAYER, AND FASTING
In these verses, Jesus emphasizes the proper approach to three spiritual disciplines: charitable giving, prayer, and fasting. He does not direct us to give, pray, and fast, but assumes that we will do these things. His emphasis is not on doing them but on doing them in the right way and for the right reasons.
Jesus uses the same basic formula to teach us about each of these three spiritual disciplines. He starts by saying, “When you do,” which assumes that we will. Then he calls us not to be like the hypocrites, and spells out how hypocrites perform each of these disciplines. He assures us that the hypocrites have received their reward. Then he says, “But when you,” and proceeds to instruct us regarding the secret practice of piety. Finally, he promises us that God will reward us for piety practiced in secret.
MATTHEW 6:1. DON’T DO YOUR CHARITABLE GIVING TO BE SEEN
1“Be careful that you don’t do your charitable giving before men, to be seen by them, or else you have no reward (Greek: misthon – from misthos) from your Father who is in heaven.“
“Be careful that you don’t do your charitable giving before men, to be seen by them” (v. 1a). Jesus begins by outlining the offense to be avoided—piety practiced with an eye to gaining human favor.
In this chapter, Jesus applies this principle to three disciplines, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. The principle, however, can be rightly extended to every act of righteousness—i.e., giving food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty—welcoming a stranger—clothing the naked—caring for the sick or visiting a prisoner (25:35-36). In chapter 25, when Jesus speaks of rewarding those who performed these righteous acts, the recipients of the rewards are surprised because they had no idea that they did anything remarkable or that anyone noticed their charity. They certainly did not perform charity to garner rewards. It is the combination of unselfish acts and unassuming attitudes that opens the channel by which God dispenses blessings.
“or else you have no reward (misthon – from misthos) from your Father who is in heaven” (v. 1b). The Greek word misthos has a marketplace ring to it. It is a word for “dues paid for work; wages” (Thayer, 415).
Jesus warns that those who practice public piety will receive their reward only from their public audience. Since they sought human acclaim rather than Godly approval, they will have to be satisfied with human acclaim—the only reward that they will receive. They have been paid in full.
This does not mean that people who receive human acclaim can never expect a reward from God. Many Christians have sought only to serve God but have nevertheless become famous for their selfless service (Wesley, Calvin, Luther, St. Francis, Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa—the potential list seems endless). The problem is not in receiving human acclaim, but in seeking it.
MATTHEW 6:2-4. SO THAT YOUR MERCIFUL DEEDS MAY BE IN SECRET
2“Therefore when you do merciful deeds, (Greek: eleemosunen) don’t sound a trumpet before yourself, as the hypocrites (Greek: hupocritai) do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may get glory from men. Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you (Greek: sou—you singular) do merciful deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does, 4so that your merciful deeds may be in secret, then your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.“
“Therefore when you do merciful deeds, (eleemosunen) don’t sound a trumpet before yourself, as the hypocrites (hupocritai) do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may get glory from men” (v. 2a). Eleemosunen can refer to any kind of a righteous deed (Psalm 11:7), but the context here suggests that Jesus is speaking of giving money to the needy. It is from this Greek word that we get the English word, eleemosynary, which has to do with charitable giving.
Hupocritai is the word for actors in a play. As noted above, Jesus frequently calls scribes and Pharisees hupocritai—by which he means that they are acting a pious role for public consumption when their hearts are devoted to selfish concerns rather than to serving God or the needs of other people. Later, Jesus will call the scribes and Pharisees hupocritai and tell them that they “are like whitened tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but inwardly are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (23:27). Throughout this Gospel, Jesus will warn his disciples about the danger of public piety that masks an impious heart.
The Torah requires certain practices, such as leaving a portion of the harvest for poor people to glean, that express God’s concern for the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 14:28; 15:11). In the absence of social welfare programs, voluntary charity is essential to provide for widows, orphans, and others who cannot provide for themselves. God promises blessings to those who give aid to those in need (Proverbs 14:21; 19:17). As a result, some people have come to think of almsgiving as a way of gaining God’s favor—and even as a way of atoning for sin.
While the Old Testament leaves no doubt that God favors almsgiving, Jesus says that giving from wrong motives can cancel any reward that the giver might otherwise receive from God.
Jesus tells his listeners not to sound a trumpet as they give their alms. We aren’t sure exactly what Jesus means by “sound a trumpet” (v. 2). Some have suggested that the receptacles for alms are trumpet shaped and that Jesus is warning about making the metal receptacles clang loudly by throwing large coins into them. However, it is more probable that “sound a trumpet” is simply colorful language that means calling attention to one’s gift in some ostentatious manner.
We should not interpret these verses as prohibiting accounting practices essential to good stewardship and fiscal accountability in the church. The point, from the perspective of the giver, is to make one’s contribution without fanfare—without trying to use the contribution to gain recognition. Churches should not publicize the names of benefactors as a fund raising technique (Blomberg, 117).
“Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward” (v. 2b). Jesus doesn’t say that God will punish people who practice public piety. He says only that they have already received their reward so that there is no need for God to reward them. They sought human acclaim for their actions, so God will consider human acclaim to be their reward.
“But when you (sou—you singular) do merciful deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does, so that your merciful deeds may be in secret” (v. 3-4a). The “you” in this verse is both singular (making it personal) and emphasized (showing that Jesus is contrasting the individual disciple’s behavior with the behavior of the hupocritai).
Jesus’ right-hand/left-hand language is hyperbole (exaggerated or colorful language) used to make a point. We are to practice piety in such secrecy that the hand with which we give our money knows our generosity but our idle hand remains clueless. How can anyone be more secretive than that!
“then your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (v. 4b). Jesus promises that when we give alms secretly, God will reward us. Some Christians find this verse difficult to accept because it smacks of works-righteousness, but Jesus clearly promises a Godly reward for secret almsgiving.
However, we must ask whether God will reward a person who does good works secretly but is motivated by the prospect of a reward rather than by the prospect of pleasing God. Given the emphasis on motivation in these verses, it seems unlikely that God would reward a selfish giver—even if the gift is given in secret.
There is a special note of grace in this verse. It implies a Godly reward that is far above anything that we could ever earn—probably greater than we can even imagine. God will reward our small acts of generosity with his great acts of blessing.
MATTHEW 6:5-6. PRAY TO YOUR FATHER WHO IS IN SECRET
5“When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Most certainly, I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But you, when you pray, enter into your inner room, (Greek: tameion—hidden room) and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
“When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men” (v. 5a). The principle here is the same as for almsgiving. Jesus’ disciples are to avoid performing pious acts for the purpose of soliciting human praise.
Prayer is a fixture of Jewish life. Among the personal spiritual disciplines practiced by Jews are prayers committed to memory and recited at certain times during the day. Some people pray these personal prayers quietly and privately, while others seek a public venue such as a street corner. They might do so with the idea that they are witnessing to those who need to pray more faithfully. However, it is difficult to make a public display of one’s personal prayers without falling prey to spiritual pride—without imagining oneself to be spiritually superior to others—without hoping to be seen by others to be superior. Before long, one becomes a hupocritai—an actor on a stage—a person playing a role—a person whose prayers appear to be directed to God but in truth are directed at other humans.
Jesus doesn’t prohibit praying with other people. Elsewhere, he says, “All things, whatever you (plural) ask in prayer, believing, you (plural) will receive” (21:22). He also says, “Watch and pray, that you (plural) don’t enter into temptation” (26:41).
Public prayer was part of synagogue worship, and Jesus nowhere condemns such prayers. The practice of the early church shows that it did not construe Jesus’ teachings to prohibit prayer in corporate worship (Acts 3:1; 14:23; 16:13; James 5:14-16). The issue here is the heart of the person offering the prayer. If it is to garner human favor, it won’t garner God’s favor.
“Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward” (v. 5b). Again, Jesus does not threaten punishment for those who practice public piety. The punishment is simply that God will withhold the blessing that would have come with private piety.
“But you, when you pray, enter into your inner room, (tameion) and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (v. 6). A tameion is a private room or storeroom—private and seldom visited. The King James Version translates tameion as “closet”—a word that captures nicely the private nature of a tameion. However, the word closet brings to mind a modern clothes closet, which would not have existed in the homes of Jesus’ day. In that setting, a tameion would more likely be a place to store tools, seed, or other essentials.
MATTHEW 6:7-15. THE LORD’S PRAYER
These verses are not included in the lectionary reading, but they are worthy of note. In verses 5-6, Jesus introduced the subject of prayer. In verses 7-8, he warns us not to “use vain repetitions” to insure that God will hear and assures us that “your Father knows what things you need, before you ask him.” He then gives us a model prayer (which we call the Lord’s Prayer but is really a Disciple’s Prayer) that models both piety and brevity.
MATTHEW 6:16-18. SO THAT YOU ARE NOT SEEN
16“Moreover when you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites, with sad faces. For they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen by men to be fasting. Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; 18so that you are not seen by men to be fasting, but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”
“Moreover when you fast” (v. 16a). Jesus does not command us to fast, but instead helps us to fast rightly and to avoid problems associated with fasting.
Fasting involves abstinence from food and/or drink for a period of time. Fasting is used to express grief (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:12; 12:20-23) or penitence (1 Samuel 7:6; 1 Kings 21:27). It is also used to prepare the person for prayer (2 Samuel 12:16-17; Psalm 35:13) or divine revelation (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9; Daniel 9:3; 10:3) or to seek the Lord’s favor (Judges 20:26; 2 Chronicles 20:3) (Myers, 377).
The only fasting required by Jewish law has to do with the observance of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31; 23:27). In at least one instance, God also commanded fasting as an act of contrition (Joel 2:12)—but added, “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13)—in other words, keep your contrition a private matter (“rend your hearts”) rather than showing an outward display of contrition (rending garments).
In a situation much akin to verses 16-18, the people of Israel earlier complained that they had fasted and God had not noticed. God responded that their fasting had been self-serving (Isaiah 58:3-4). God added, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7).
Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights as preparation for his temptation (4:2)—but that is the only account that we have of Jesus fasting. When the disciples of John asked Jesus why his disciples did not fast, Jesus said, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast” (9:15)—in other words, there is a time for fasting and a time for abstaining from fasting.
The early church practiced fasting as spiritual preparation for important decisions (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23).
“don’t be like the hypocrites, with sad faces. For they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen by men to be fasting” (v. 16b). Any kind of self-denial is unpleasant, and fasting especially so. Within hours, we find ourselves thinking of food nearly all the time. It is tempting under such circumstances to make a show of our fasting by looking miserable, making groaning noises, or acting faint. Expressions such as these make a public display of our piety. Their purpose is to gain sympathy and/or to praise. In other words, we are tempted to become hupocritai—actors playing to an audience—striving for applause.
“Most certainly, I tell you, they have received their reward” (v. 16c). The reward of the actor playing to an audience is the applause of the audience. There is no need for God to reward the actor further, because audience has already provided the reward.
“But you, when you fast, anoint your head” (v. 17a). Anointing the head with oil can have any of several meanings. It can be a sign of being set apart for a particular work (Exodus 29:7; 1 Kings 19:16; Isaiah 61:1). It can be a sign of well-being (Psalm 23:5). It can be done in conjunction with fasting or healing. In that setting, it was a common practice—normal behavior.
“and wash your face” (v. 17b). Washing the face provides an outward display of well-being. Anointing one’s head and washing one’s face would help a person to convey an appearance of normality or well-being. The person who does these things would attract neither sympathy nor praise.
“so that you are not seen by men to be fasting, but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (v. 18). Again, the principle is that God rewards pious acts done for his benefit rather than for the benefit of others.
MATTHEW 6:19-21. LAY UP FOR YOURSELVES TREASURES IN HEAVEN
19“Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth, where moth and rust (Greek: brosis) consume, and where thieves break through and steal; 20but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume, and where thieves don’t break through and steal; 21for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The teachings of 6:19-21, 24-34 instruct us regarding our attitude toward possessions, which is another way of saying that they instruct us regarding faith. As noted above, in 6:1-18 Jesus calls us to trust God to reward us. In 6:19-21, 24-34, Jesus calls us to trust God to provide for us.
“Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth” (v. 19a). There are very few things that we enjoy more than stored up treasures. We collect stamps, coins, crystal, china, and figurines of many varieties. We collect money in the form of cash, certificates of deposit, stocks, bonds, or precious metals. We collect real estate, academic degrees, jewelry, paintings, and sports trophies. We even collect adventures and travels. We do these things for several reasons: to guarantee our security, to feel superior to other people, and to gain praise. However, God would call us to trust him to guarantee our security, to acknowledge his superiority, and to give him our praise.
One irony is that the more valuable our collection, the more vulnerable we are to loss and the more anxious we tend to be concerning the collection’s vulnerability. Another irony is that the more valuable our collection, the more anxious we are to enlarge it. Materials possessions are like crack cocaine—a little bit only whets our appetite and no amount is ever enough.
“where moth and rust (brosis) consume” (v. 19b). Moths threaten cloth fabrics. Brosis can mean rust or corrosion, and it can also refer to damage caused by insects.
As every homeowner knows, the requirement for maintenance is constant. Roofs leak, as do pipes and faucets. Mold infects carpets and things stored in closets. Tree roots uplift driveways. Weeds require constant vigilance. A home left standing without maintenance can be expected to deteriorate beyond remedy within a few years. The same principle applies to automobiles, stocks and bonds, and nearly every other valuable. The security that they provide is hardly secure.
And then there is the matter of our mortality. We might live a few more decades or a few more hours—nobody knows. When death overtakes us, we will no longer be able to enjoy our possessions or control what happens to them. A son or daughter who inherits our lifetime savings might be tempted to try to turn a small fortune into a great fortune at the gaming tables—or to waste it in any number of ways. Even wealthy people who establish charitable foundations lose control. I have often heard of foundations giving money to questionable causes and wondered how the benefactor would feel if he/she only knew. The phrase, “He would turn over in his grave” comes to mind.
“and where thieves break through and steal” (v. 19c). If we were to leave large amounts of money or jewels lying about, we would expect a thief to notice. The astounding thing is that thieves strip metal guardrails from the sides of highways and cut down copper wiring to sell for scrap. They steal valuable but famous paintings that no one can display publicly. They smash expensive windows to steal trinkets. Hackers threaten our finances and our secrets. Our society spends billions of dollars on locks, security cameras, armed guards, and a host of other protections, but thieves continue to break through and steal.
“but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume, and where thieves don’t break through and steal” (v. 20). Treasure in heaven provides the kind of security that people fail to achieve through treasure on earth. The guardian of our treasure in heaven is not a lock that can be picked or a security guard who can be bribed, but God. No threat can breach the security that God provides to treasures stored in heaven.
The question, then, is how we can store up treasure in heaven. There is an old joke about a man who got to heaven and was disappointed to find that his mansion in heaven was only a rundown shack. When he complained, St. Peter explained that the shack was the best that they could buy for him with the little bit of money that he had sent (had given to the church). The problem with that joke is that it runs counter to what the New Testament teaches about God’s grace, so we ought not to tell it. We must avoid any suggestion that a twenty-dollar bill in the offering plate is the equivalent of twenty dollars stored in a heavenly bank.
But a careful reading of the Gospels will help us to understand how to accumulate heavenly treasure. In chapter 6, Jesus promises that God will reward the person who gives alms in secret (v. 4), and who prays in secret (v. 6), and who fasts in secret (v. 18).
In chapter 5 Jesus gives a list of virtues that bring blessings from God—being poor in spirit (5:3), mourning (5:4), meekness (5:5), hungering and thirsting for righteousness (5:6), showing mercy (5:7), being pure in heart (5:8), being peacemakers (5:9), and suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake (5:10-11). It would seem appropriate to count these blessings as the equivalent of treasures in heaven.
To the man who had many possessions, Jesus said: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (19:21).
In his vision of the judgment of the nations (25:31-46), Jesus promises rewards to those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the person who is in prison (25:35-36). He describes such people as righteous (25:37), and says to them, “Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34).
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v. 21). We love that in which we invest our treasure. One way to learn to love God, then, is to invest our treasure in God’s service. As we contemplate how we might do that, we must favor a broad definition of the word treasure. Our treasure is more than money or material possessions. It includes our time, our talents, and anything that is near and dear to our hearts. A person who loves music can sing music to the glory of God. A person who loves carpentry can use his/her carpentry skills to the glory of God.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Thayer, Joseph Henry, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New York: American Book Company, 1886)
Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan