June 28 – Matthew 6:1-4
Last week we concluded one of the big chunks of the SOTM in which Jesus gave 6 examples of things his audience had heard from the Pharisees, what we could think of as a Pharisaical standard of righteousness, and corrected these examples, showing how the law of God exceeds the expectations of the law of man. Again, this is a way for Jesus to communicate the true nature of the Kingdom which 1. takes God’s word and applies it to both our internal being and external actions (not just one or the other) and 2. reveals the way our horizontal relationships with other humans affect our vertical one with the Father.
So last week we looked at the final of those 6 examples, and Jesus concluded by telling his followers in 5:48 to “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now we’re moving into sections of the SOTM where Jesus will instruct us in areas of religious life, everyday life, and human relationships. Below is a simplified outline of the SOTM so you can see where we are. Ancient Jewish teaching methods tend to focus on whatever is in the middle (for you nerds out there it’s chiastic structure), and we’re getting into that middle section this week. Note the symmetry revolving around the 3 words on righteousness and the Lord’s Prayer:
- Intro – Mathew 5:1-16
- Beatitudes, salt and light, city on a hill
- Jesus came to “fulfill the Law and Prophets” – 5:17-20
- 6 words on the Law – 5:21-48
- Anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, love your enemies
- 3 words on righteousness – 6:1-18
- Giving, prayer (the Lord’s prayer being the centerpiece), fasting
- 6 words on Kingdom living – 6:19-7:11
- treasures in heaven, eye is the lamp, money, judge not, log in your eye, pearls before swine
- The Golden Rule “is the Law and Prophets” – 7:12
- Outro – 7:13-27
- Narrow gate, tree and its fruit, false prophets, build your house on the rock
Jesus starts this section on righteousness with, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” Beware. The Greek there is prosécho, “to attend, to pay attention to.” You keep your eye on dangerous things, or things you don’t trust. Jesus tells us to watch out for publicly practicing your religious activities because it’s dangerous, and the danger you tempt is that the pat on the back you get from other people would be your only reward. If you give to the needy or pray or fast in ways that are meant to gain people’s adoration, what’s your reason for doing these things? Whom are you actually worshipping? Jesus tells us we will receive the reward of whomever we direct our devotion; if towards people, we get their applause with all its fleetingness, if towards God, we get his delight with all its everlasting splendor.
Between striving for other people’s approval and God’s approval, the approval of others feels far more immediate and pleasurable. Think of a Secret Santa scenario; who stays anonymous after the gift is given? Especially if its a good gift, you want credit for that junk! This effect is similar but maybe harder to see when it comes to “Christian” activities. In environments when it feels like you have something to gain by looking like a very dedicated Christian, the allure of earning admiration by your devotion is potent. Potent and, remember Jesus’ words, dangerous, because in these scenarios its harder to recognize sin that looks like faithfulness (that’s his whole point about the Pharisees). Thus Jesus warns us to give and pray and fast in secret, to deal only with the one to whom our worship is meant to be directed, “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
This desire to have your righteousness displayed publicly isn’t unique to Christianity. We see the same thing in the world around us, where having constant digital access to one another pressures us to present an upright, put-together image. This is super relevant right now with race and injustice in our country, with tons of space online taken up by “virtue signaling,” when people hope to display their allegiance to the “virtuous” side of a particular social issue, usually to make themselves look good. It’s hard to distinguish between honest sharing and virtue signaling online (often we do both simultaneously), but there’s a distinct difference between just posting stuff online to prove you aren’t a racist and doing the harder work of unrooting racism in yourself and in our communities. The latter is a work of faithfulness that only God knows the full measure of, and his reward outweighs the likes and shares you might get.
Which, in talking about God’s rewards for us, we tend to tread lightly around this concept lest we think our obedience to God is only meant to pad a heavenly bank account. And that hesitancy is valid; if you only obey Jesus in hopes of being the Jeff Bezos of the afterlife, whom are you actually worshipping? We shouldn’t cast our vision for heaven from the same capitalistic mold we inhabit on earth, but we also shouldn’t ignore that Jesus talks about God having rewards for his children. And what could possibly be more valuable than having the Ruler of the Universe delight in you? Think of this in terms of an earthly father: which would you rather, a dad who just mails you checks or a dad who often looks you in the eyes with love and says he’s so proud of you? God’s stuff isn’t the reward, God himself is.
Questions for Discussion
• Would someone read Matthew 6:1-4 for us?
• What stands out to you from this passage?
• Jesus says “beware.” What do you think he’s warning us about here?
• How do you personally experience this desire to “[practice] your righteousness before other people”?
• Jesus says “when you give” not “if you give.” What about the Christian faith leads us towards generosity?