Being religious is no guarantee that you are genuinely following God. Whatever you define as obedience to God (being in full-time ministry, church attendance, praying, fasting, giving to the poor, adopting social justice causes), Jesus says: stop and ask yourself who are you doing it for?
The entire Sermon on the Mount has been about one topic: Who will be accepted by God and receive a place in His kingdom?
- Matthew 5:1-16: Jesus tells us those with saving faith are blessed who will receive a place in the kingdom (the Beatitudes).
- Matthew 5:17-48: Jesus says your righteousness must be different than the kind the Pharisees have to enter the kingdom of heaven (the Antitheses).
- Matthew 6:1-7:11: Jesus warns his listeners to avoid the self-deception of the Pharisees.
- Matthew 7:12-29: Jesus concludes there are 2 paths. One path leads to life and the other to destruction. You must be the type of person described in the Sermon to be on the right path.
Matthew 6:1-18 includes the Lord’s prayer. This podcast will skip the Lord’s prayer and focus on the statements that bracket the Lord’s prayer, because they follow the same pattern.
- Matthew 6:1-4: Giving to the needy
- Matthew 6:4-6: Praying (with an extended discussion, including the Lord’s Prayer)
- Matthew 6:17-18: Fasting
Righteous and Reward
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 6:1
- Matthew 6:1 is the theme of the third major section of the Sermon on the Mount
- The thesis: there is a reward for righteousness. But if you practice your righteous in a certain way, you will not receive that reward.
- How does this fit with other New Testament writings? For example: Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 3:23-24.
- No one earns their justification. Salvation is a gift of God based on the blood of Jesus Christ.
- Jesus is addressing a different question in this sermon than Paul was addressing in his letters.
- By reward, Jesus means the goal or desired outcome.
In biblical terms, the question “am I righteous?” (or am I δικαιοσ?) can have at least 3 different meanings. The same Greek word is used for all 3 meanings.
- Am I forgiven or condemned (justified)?
- Am I morally perfect or morally corrupt (holy)?
- Am I open to God or rebellious to Him (saved)?
Paul typical refers to the first question (justification). Here in this sermon, Jesus is referring to the third question (saved). Which people who claim to follow God will receive salvation as the outcome for their seeking?
So far the Sermon on the Mount has been about one point which we can summarize in a number of ways: “What does genuine saving faith look like?” Or “Who will inherit eternal life?” Or “What characterizes the children of God?”
In this 3rd section, Jesus examines the same question from another angle: Beware of seeking God in a way that is a show for other people. Then he gives 3 examples using traditional Jewish religious practices.
Giving to the Poor
1“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” – Matthew 6:1-4
- The hypocrites Jesus has in mind are the Pharisees.
- While giving to the poor does not have to be a religious act, in this context Jesus is talking about giving to the poor as an act of obedience to God.
- Helping the poor is part of obedience to the Law. For example: Deuteronomy 15:7-8; Psalm 112:1-10.
- There is no solid evidence that sounding a trumpet was an actual historical practice. Many scholars think Jesus is speaking metaphorically (like our expression “Don’t blow your own horn”).
- The hypocrites give to the poor in a way that ensures everyone else knows they are giving.
- They seek the reward of the approval of their peers and they have that reward. They do what they do to be seen and approved by others and they get the approval of others
- In contrast, the faithful are looking forward to a blessing from God: life in the kingdom of God.
- In contrast, the faithful have so little interest in having an audience to their giving, that metaphorically their left hand doesn’t even know what their right hand is doing. They are not even showing off for themselves.
5“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6But when 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. …” – Matthew 6:5-6
- Prayer by its nature is a conversation with God.
- Yet the hypocrites use prayer to demonstrate to other people how pious they are.
- The hypocrites use public prayer to gain the approval of their fellow Jews and they have that reward in full.
- By contrast, when the faithful pray, they go into the most private room of their house and shut the door.
- Jesus challenges his listeners to consider: when you pray, who is your audience? Are you really talking to God? Or are you talking to your peers? Here’s one way to tell: go to the most private room in your house and shut the door. Do you still want to pray? Or has prayer lost its appeal to you? If prayer no longer appeals to you, then your primary motivation was being seen by others.
16“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” – Matthew 6:16-18
- Do not fast like the hypocrites do in order to be seen by other people. They have their reward in full.
- Rather, fast in such a way that no one knows it but you and God and you will have your reward from God.
- The Jews were commanded to fast once per year on the Day of Atonement.
- In the Old Testament, rather than being a habitual practice, fasting was typically a response to a specific situation. An individual or the community would realize they had broken the covenant in some way, and as part of their repentance they would fast.
- Fasting is the choice to restrict one’s diet for the purpose of paying attention to God.
- By New Testament times, the Pharisees adopted a practice of fasting twice per week (Luke 18:12; Matthew 9:14: Mark 2:18).
Jesus is NOT giving commands on how to give, prayer or fast. Instead, he’s explaining the true spirit in which these 3 traditional religious practices should be done.
Does Jesus contradict himself?
Some critics have charged Jesus with contradicting himself in this sermon.
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:16
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them,” – Matthew 6:1
- The topic in Matthew 5 is persecution. The context was the kind of hostility believers face for following Jesus in a world that rejects Jesus.
- In Matthew 5, Jesus urges us not to abandon our faith to escape the hostility of the world. We are not to hide our light, as he says, in order to avoid being persecuted because we follow Jesus.
- The topic in Matthew 6 is the motivation for performing various religious practices. Are you trying to be obedient to God? Or are you trying to win the approval of your peers?
- In Matthew 6, Jesus warns against displaying your religion before other people in order to gain their approval.
- The genuine believer is called upon to resist both those temptations. Our goal should not be to avoid the disapproval of other people. We are called to follow God whether others approve or not.
- Likewise, our goal should not be to gain the approval of other people. The only approval we should care about is God’s.
- His reward is the only reward worth pursuing.