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Matthew 6:1-4 “Performing Righteousness, Part 1: Charity”

Beware not to do your righteousness before men in order to be spectated by them. Otherwise, you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. Therefore, whenever you might do charity, never sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they might be glorified by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. So, when you do charity, your left hand is not to know what your right hand does. So that your charity might be in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will give to you.

As righteousness is defined on a horizontal plain in 5:21-48, Jesus now prescribes how righteousness is performed on the vertical plain in 6:1-18. In 6:1, Jesus provides a governing principle which is then illustrated through three popular applications (alms, prayer, and fasting). By the first century, these three acts of piety became the pillars upon which second temple Judaism rested and, among some circles, almost replacing temple sacrifices in importance and as a means of atonement.[1] Jesus does not condemn or attack these acts in and of themselves any more than He disregarded the Old Testament passages that were misrepresented. Rather, Jesus exposes the errant thinking and motivation that lies behind these acts of supposed piety; the first of which is charity to the poor.

Governing Principle (v. 1)

While beginning a new section, this verse helps pave the way for Jesus’ advancing argument by pointing back to the previous point in both concept and in the language being used. Conceptually, Jesus continues to identify and illustrate superior righteousness (5:20) as that which emulates the Father (5:48). Linguistically, there is a similar structure to these verses in that (a) logical momentum flows from a general principle (5:20 vs. 6:1), (b) an enumerated division (here three-fold instead of six-fold) is indicated by a repeated phrase (you have heard…but I tell you vs. truly I say to you…they have their reward in full), and (c) a continuing contrast between contemporary righteousness and kingdom righteousness.[2] The general principle as stated here not only governs the discussion on charity (vv. 2-4) but also those on prayer (vv. 5-15) and fasting (vv. 16-18). The issue at hand is identifying false worship by false motives. In other words, worship is a heart issue that, when misapplied, comes with dire consequences.

Warning of Wrong Motives in Worship

Beware not to do your righteousness before men in order to be spectated by them.

This general principle is delivered in the form of a warning. The present imperative of προσέχω (beware, take heed, take care) demands constant and ongoing vigilance. Jesus is commanding His disciples to go out of their way and to take pains to avoid “doing righteousness before men”. “Righteousness” (τὴν δικαιοσύνην) is here presented as the object of the “doing” (ποιεῖν) rather than a state of rightness. Specifically, Jesus refers not to the internal character of His disciples, but the good deeds that flow out of that character.[3] It may seem that Jesus contradicts Himself as He earlier commanded that the disciples publicly display their good works so that men might see them and thus glorify the Father (5:16). Yet, if we pay close attention to the grammar, we find no such contradiction. In fact, we affirm that these two statements reinforce each other.

Jesus does not prohibit public acts of righteousness but public acts of righteousness whose purpose is to be seen by men.[4] The passive infinitive of θεάομαι (to see, look at, behold) is not a common verb in the New Testament (22x) as the apostles seem to greatly prefer the somewhat synonymous term βλέπω (132x – to see, perceive, observe) making Jesus’ use of it here intriguing. Matthew records a total of four instances of Jesus using this term (6:1; 11:7; 22:11; 23:5) all of which introduce the idea of seeing a spectacle, something new or strange, even a performance. This is the root from which we get our English term theatrical.[5] Jesus’ point is to prohibit acts of good deeds that are purposefully conducted to be put on display as a spectacle for others to witness as if they were an audience to a theatrical performance. The motivation behind such “righteousness” is utterly self-centered and misses the entire point. Rather than giving glory to God, such performances gain nothing but personal applause. Saying nothing about the deed itself, Jesus gets right to the heart of the matter.

Warning of Missing Reward for False Worship

Otherwise, you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven

Otherwise” presents a negative result if Jesus’ words are not heeded.[6] By mentioning a reward[7] in heaven Jesus recalls His encouragement in 5:12 (Rejoice and be glad! For your reward in heaven is great!) via His previous warning in 5:46 (what reward do you have?). It is not only those who fail to do what is righteous that forfeit future reward (loving others besides those who love them – 5:46) but also those who fail to act with righteous motives. Leon Morris responds to this lack of reward with appropriate sarcasm: “Why should there be [a reward]? The deed was done in order to secure a reputation, not in order to serve God.[8] There is no logical reason why any heavenly reward should be offered or secured. God owes such an individual nothing, for no service was rendered Him.

The general principle is simple and straight-forward. If one considers acts of righteousness nothing more than scenes in a play to be performed before an adoring audience of men, then there should be zero expectation of heavenly reward. Such action contributes nothing to a heavenly account. With that, Jesus moves directly to the first specific example of deeds of righteousness; namely, charity.

Righteousness Performed: Charity (vv. 2-4)

The noun ἐλεημοσύνη, often translated as “giving to the poor/needy” is better translated as “charity in order to capture the broader sense of the term. The cognate adjective ἐλεήμων (merciful) and verb ἐλεέω (to show mercy) have recently made an appearance in the beatitudes (5:7) and the related noun ἔλεος (mercy/compassion) is a significant biblical term in its own right. In 6:2, the term in question describes an act of mercy or charity. In this sense, it is right to understand charity, not as a handout, but as an act of loving mercy. In the following verses Jesus first exposes a form of faux charity that has no reward (v. 2) and concludes by exhorting and explaining righteous charity that pleases the Father and thus obtains a reward (vv. 3-4).

Unrighteous & Unrewarded Charity (v. 2)

While it is true that Jesus likely has the giving of alms to the poor and destitute in mind, it is important to understand that the giving of alms is supposed to be an act of mercy that demonstrates the character of God. Yet, as we will see, man has an amazing ability to twist the righteousness of God into something ugly and detestable.

Wrong Method: “Therefore, whenever you might do charity, never sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets” – It is noteworthy that Jesus never commands His disciples to “do charity” (ποιῇς ἐλεημοσύνην) but rather assumes it. If the sons are to emulate the Father (5:9, 45, 48) then they must show compassion, mercy, charity even as He does. The point is not what to do so much as how it is done.

There has been much discussion regarding this trumpet blowing. There have been many commentators who believe that the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees would literally have a trumpet blown to announce their presence or to call the poor to their location so that all could witness their “benevolence”. The problem with such a view is that (a) there cannot be found a scrap of evidence that even suggests such a thing occurred (and much effort has been made to find it[9]) and (b) it is difficult to imagine an individual blowing a trumpet in the synagogue. Two observations should be made, one more obvious than the other.

First, Jesus is using gross hyperbole to make a point. The point of blowing a trumpet is to gather people from afar to a centralized location. To do so in the synagogue (where people are already gathered together) or the street (where people are already conducting business and carrying on daily activities) is at best redundant and at worst exasperating overkill. Jesus is not saying that men actually blow trumpets to announce their charitable giving but that men often perform outward acts in an ostentatious way for the sole purpose of attracting attention to themselves.

Second, Jesus uses the blowing of trumpets to convey a very specific picture. Of the 12 times the verb σαλπίζω (to sound a trumpet) is used in the New Testament (1 Cor. 15:52; Rev. 8:6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 13; 9:1, 13; 10:7; 11:15), this is the only use that does not have a clear eschatological context of announcing judgment. The Old Testament LXX uses this same verb in several contexts that include (a) calling the nation to various assemblies (Num. 10:3, 4, 7; Jud. 3:27; 6:34; 2 Sam. 20:1), (b) a signal of warning (Num. 10:6), (c) a priestly task in connection with temple/tabernacle worship (Num. 10:8, 10; 1 Chr. 14:24; 2 Chr. 5:12, 13; 7:6; 29:28; Ps. 81:3), (d) calling the warriors to or from battle (Josh. 6:5, 9, 13, 16, 20; Jud. 7:18, 19, 20, 22; 1 Sam. 13:3; 2 Sam. 2:28; 18:16; 20:22; 2 Chr. 13:14; Neh. 4:18), (e) proclaiming the king’s coronation (1 Kings 1:34, 39; 2 Kings 9:13; 11:14; 2 Chr. 23:13), or (f) a combination of all the above in connection with Yhwh’s coming day of judgment and blessing (Hos. 5:8; Joel 2:1, 2:15; Zech. 9:14; Is. 27:13; 44:23; Jer. 51:27; Ezek. 7:14; 33:3). The point is that the blowing of trumpets is always used in a context of national significance, usually in the context of drawing the people’s attention to God. Yet here these hypocrites are said to point all attention upon themselves.

A hypocrite (ὁ ὑποκριτής) refers to the mask an actor would wear when he is pretending to be a character in a play. The sense is that one has a mask to wear that conceals his true self from others, allowing them to see only what he wants them to see. There are, of course, two kinds of hypocrites. The first knows they are not righteous and seeks out these opportunities to fool others into thinking that they are. The second fool only themselves as they think that such acts make them righteous.[10] Jesus condemns this method of charity because by attracting attention to self, it is self-defeating.

Wrong Motivation: “so that they might be glorified by men” – Here is the crux of the matter. The point of a disciple’s good deeds is to bring glory to God (5:16). The hypocrites seek out public places to “trumpet” their good deeds for an expressed purpose: to be glorified by men. They literally seek the worship of men and thus rob God of the attention, honor, glory, and worship that He alone deserves. It is difficult to imagine motivation that is more self-serving than this.

Wages Matched: “Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full” – As in 5:18 (truly I say to you), Jesus’ statement is to be taken with the utmost gravity, sincerity, and finality. Those who seek the applause of men have already obtained their reward (μισθός). Just as the general principle in v. 1 made clear, God the Father is in no way obligated to reward/give out as wages for services rendered these men who performed works that did not benefit Him. Their works were designed from the start to bring glory to themselves. Why would the Father pay them? Their deeds and their motivation were horizontally aimed, not vertically aligned or intended and therefore their reward is likewise horizontally received. The reward rightly matches the action.[11]

Righteous & Rewarded Charity (vv. 3-4)

After condemning errant motivation that brings glory only to self, Jesus now turns to exhort His disciples in the method of true righteousness.

Right Method: “So when you do charity, your left hand is not to know what your right hand does” – Again, Jesus assumes that His disciples will engage in righteous acts of charity and again, He uses hyperbolic language. The third person imperative (γνώτω – it is [not] to know) has the left hand (ἡ ἀριστερά σου) as its subject. One’s hand (right or left) does not possess a mind of its own or the capacity of self-awareness. Yet, there is one mind that controls both the right and the left hand that cannot divide its attention to the point where one part of the body is ignorant as to what the other is doing. Simply put: this is figurative language and must be understood as such. The point is not so much to emphasize privacy so much as it does subtlety.

To conduct acts of charity only in complete privacy misses the point entirely for it focuses the discussion on the deed itself and neglects the motivation, which of course is Jesus’ entire point. The idea is to meet a need quickly, quietly, and subtly so that while the right hand is doing the deed, the left remains “ignorantly” in its pocket or else left to go about its business. Jesus is not prohibiting public displays of righteousness, or else 5:16 makes no sense at all. What He prescribes is a method to avoid robbing God of glory from any righteous action that is done in public. This is essential if there is to be any kind of reward.

Right Reward: “So that your charity might be in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will give to you.” – Much of the discussion on this verse focuses on the secret (ἐν τῷ κρυπτῷ) nature of the charity and seems to miss the larger point. In the English we see what seems to be a repletion of the verb “to see” as well as a repetition of “reward” while the Greek employs different terms for both ideas.

While the hypocrites perform their charity as a spectacle to be seen (θεαθῆναι) by others, God is here presented as the One who sees (ὁ βλέπων). Selfless, secret, and sincere charity is not a spectacle that entertains the Father, rather, He sees exactly what is going on as He is able to perceive the heart. He knows that this act was done to glorify and honor Him rather than the one who performed it and will thus give to him.

The verb ἀποδίδωμι is used here rather than μισθόω, the verbal cognate of μισθός used in vv. 1&2). While literally meaning to pay/give back, ἀποδίδωμι is built on the verb δίδωμι which literally means to give. The term by itself may imply that God is paying for services rendered to Him, yet in the context it seems to indicate that this “reward” is really a gift rather than a wage. God is under no obligation to give it, yet His gift is appropriately proportioned and befits the honor that was given Him.

Charity/mercy is a good thing, a righteous thing, and is assumed of Jesus’ disciples more than it is demanded. Acts of charity are nothing short of physical acts of worship or service rendered to God as they display His charity and mercy. While obsessing over the manner of merciful acts (private versus public) many miss the point of motivation. The key question is not “can I be charitable in public?” There are some acts of mercy that cannot be helped but to be in public. Rather the question is this: who gets the glory? Hypocrites obtain glory for themselves. Bravo for them, their wages are paid in full. Disciples seek to reflect all glory back to their Father who is in heaven. Their gift will be revealed in the coming kingdom.

[1] Charles Quarles, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology 11 (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), p. 170.

[2] David Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 179.

[3] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 254-5.

[4] Πρὸς τὸ with the infinitive θεαθῆναι communicates purpose.

[5] Archibald Robertson, Matthew and Mark, vol. I, VI vols., Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p. 50.

[6] See Matt. 9:17; Lk. 5:36, 37; 10:6; 13:9; 14:32; 2 Cor. 11:16 for other instances of the construction εἰ δὲ μη γε.

[7] The term μισθός (reward) can carry the nuance of (a) what is owed by means of wages for services rendered as well as (b) a recompense or reward in recognition of moral character or right action.

[8] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 136.

[9] John Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, An American Commentary on the New Testament (Forgotten Books, 2012), p. 127.

[10] David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), p. 78.

[11] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 275.


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