The entire section is framed by the opening verse in Matthew 6:1
“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.Matthew 6:1This opening informs us of the subject that is to follow, namely to avoid the public display of righteousness. In other words, avoid at all cost doing good in public in order to be seen. This warning is followed by the introduction of the concept of rewards. The implication is that God the Father is the only One who needs to see your good deeds. Conversely, the performance of them in the public eye in order to be seen, and subsequently praised, will not result in a heavenly reward. This verse frames the discussion of three righteous activities along with the pairing of heavenly and earthly rewards that accompany each.
Giving – Matthew 6:2-4In the first pairing from this chapter, the subject is giving. The passage is cited below.
2 “Thus, 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. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:1-4As this passage unfolds, we see it building on the previous introductory warning with the little word, thus, as it introduces the topic of giving to the needy. The warning carried forward into this first topic is to not sound a trumpet, as the hypocrites do in their public display of righteousness in order to receive their praise. This public praise is referred to as the hypocrite’s (earthly) reward.
The contrast begins with, “but when you give to the needy,” giving a clear implication that their is an expectation of giving to the needy by God’s people. This is followed by metaphorical instructions on how this giving is contrasted with the earlier public display, namely that not even your own left hand should know that your right hand has given. Giving to the needy is to be done in secret. In doing so, our Lord says that our Father in heaven sees in secret and will give us our reward. The clarity of the passage is striking; being seen in a public display of giving to the needy IS the reward on earth, however being seen in secret by God results in a far greater, heavenly, reward from Him.
Perhaps applications here abound. Is there an emphasis in churches to give to the needy? Have we so removed ourselves from the needy that we don’t really know any? Does a generic giving of a “tithe”, which of course goes towards buildings and budgets, satisfy the command to give to the needy? In that respect, is passing a plate practicing your righteousness before others? I don’t have the answers, just observations and in light of this passage, I wonder if in most cases we have already received our reward.
Praying – Matthew 6:5-15In the second pairing from this chapter, the subject is prayer. The first part of the passage is cited below.
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. 6 But 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 6:5-6In our second passage, as the emphasis shifts toward prayer, we find the hypocrite described as one who loves to pray in public – the synagogues and street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Their motivation is public recognition of the righteous deeds performed by prayer. Again, our formula of an earthly reward follows this public display of righteousness.
Contrary to this hypocritical behavior is that of a believer, here given as instruction by Jesus to His disciples. He tells them to pray in private by going into their room, closing their door, and praying to their Father in secret. This private activity of praying, in a sort of prayer closet way, is then said to be given a heavenly reward, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
This passage, of course, isn’t condemning corporate prayer, nor is it condemning praying in front of others. Moreso, it is addressing what we might classify as pretentious prayers – prayers that are spoken with air of superiority for the sole purpose of being heard.
In the second half of this passage on prayer, we read of the following instructions
7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven,Here again we find a negative prohibition, empty phrases for the purpose of again being publicly heard. This time, instead of it being described as the activity of a hypocrite, it is described as what the Gentiles do. The use of Gentile in this case is interesting. It occurs as the second of three references in the Sermon on the Mount, here as ethnikos, to that of Gentile behavior in contradiction to that of believers (Matt. 5:47; 6:32). Gentile here could also be translated as heathen or pagan. This creates a dilemma for those who would hold Jew – Gentile distinction in absolute terms or based only on physical descent, failing to recognize that true Jews are those who are circumcised inwardly (Romans 2:28-29). If you are not of Jewish descent or nationality, would it be correct to refer to yourself as a Gentile? Only if you’re fitting the description of heaping up empty, repetitious prayers like they do.
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Matthew 6:7-15
As with the hypocrite, the Gentile behavior is likewise contrasted with the proper, godly behavior of believers. After Jesus says plainly, “do not be like them,” followed by a promise that the “Father knows what you need before you ask him,” he describes the proper way to pray. Without going into the details of the so-called Lord’s prayer (maybe better, The Disciple’s Prayer), we ought to first note it’s simplicity. Simple in its language, simply in its parts and petitions. Our Lord rounds out the description of the proper pattern for prayer by offering commentary on a single aspect from the prayer – forgiveness.
Fasting – Matthew 6:16-18Finally, we arrive at the third section and pairing of godly behavior in contrast to hypocritical behavior.
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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that 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 6:16-18The first observation of this passage ought to be how our Lord frames his teaching on fasting, namely with the introduction of “when you fast”. This gives the implication that fasting is indeed a discipline that ought to be undertaken. As the discussion unfolds we find that when believers fast, they are instructed to not look gloomy, like the hypocrites, who draw attention to their figure/face/etc. in order to be recognized in their fasting by others. By neglecting their appearance, or we might say in letting themselves go, the hypocrite draws attention to themselves in order to impress others for the religiosity in fasting. When this recognition occurs, our Lord says that they have received their reward, their earthly reward in keeping with our theme here.
Conversely, and in keeping with the pattern of the previous two sections, our Lord next gives instruction on the proper way to fast: anoint your head and wash your face. In other words, keep up your appearance as usual so that it would not be easy for another to discern that you have been fasting. The motivation for this is precisely the opposite of the hypocrite, in order that your fasting NOT be seen by others. By fasting in secret, the resultant reward of the Heavenly Father who sees in secret is the promise of a divine, or heavenly reward, one which far exceeds the praise of men.
Giving, Praying, and Fasting. Each of these spiritual disciplines are to be done in private; in secret for the purpose of ensuring that our righteous deeds are not flaunted for others to see. The private exercise of these duties allows our hearts to be free from the motivation of pride that comes when others recognize how righteous deeds when we are in doing them in public. These passages are a reminder that nothing is hidden from the sight of our Heavenly Father and an exhortation to remind us that His eyes are all that matter. The earthly reward spoken about above is simply the recognition of righteous deeds by men. The heavenly reward is recognition of righteous deeds by our Heavenly Father. While we aren’t told precisely what this reward is, we may reasonably conclude that it can be summarized as grace; precisely what we need when we need it.