8 August 2016Matthew 6:1-4
“Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’” (vv. 1-4)
Psalm: Psalm 130
Matthew's Gospel presents Jesus' major teaching in five discourses. The first of these discourses is the well-known Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1 - 7:29). The discourse in chapter 5 begins with Jesus going up a mountain (which Jesus does 11 times in Matthew's Gospel, perhaps recalling the revelation given at Mount Sinai to Moses).
Here in chapter 6, Jesus explores the meaning of true piety, righteousness and the consequences for our actions. Jesus focuses on the danger and temptation of hypocrisy, practising one's faith to receive the praise and adulation of others. The word 'hypocrite' occurs many times in the Gospels. Originally the word, referred to an actor in a theatre. Early in the first century, outdoor theatres, seating 2,500 were present in Jericho and Jerusalem; play acting would be a familiar concept. Jesus uses the word hypocrite here to describe and criticise those who acted out their 'piety' in a performance of righteousness without sincerity, drawing attention to their actions, and therefore, themselves.
In the Greek theatres of the first century, trumpets often announced a new scene or action, and trumpets might be sounded for prayer or worship, but there were no Jewish traditions of sounding trumpets for almsgiving (charitable donations). Once again we find Jesus using humour to illustrate his message, "Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets". The message is clear and stark, beware of your motivations and desire for the praise of others.
Almsgiving was an important part of Jewish piety in fulfilment of the Hebrew Bible's command to be generous to the poor. Jesus instructs his followers, "when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret". Our giving is to be motivated by our love and praise of God and to the glory of God alone.
So in these four verses Jesus identifies the importance of three key orientations of 'righteous living': right behaviour, right attitude and right motivation. Giving to others is assumed, "whenever you give", followed by the instruction of how to give and why to give.
- Reflect on your own giving. What motivates you to give?
- In the communities you belong to (including your local church) how is giving decided and publicised?
- What might our bank statements, who, how and what we give, tell us about our priorities for Christian discipleship?
- Brian McClaren, in his book Naked Spirituality (Hodder, 2012), says "the secret of spirituality is to want to be better than you appear, the secret of hypocrisy is to want to appear better than you are". How do we challenge the hypocrisy of our own lives?