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There is no more astonishing proof of human perversity than our skill at transforming spiritual holiness into self-righteous hypocrisy. We possess an uncanny knack for using submission to the will of God as an opportunity for showmanship in the eyes of man. Jesus knew this. He was not nave about this sinful propensity in our hearts. He knew how easy and natural it is for you and me to prostitute high Christian morality into cheap, legalistic rules. He knew how prone you and I are to substitute love for godliness and holiness with love for a reputation for godliness and holiness.

That is why immediately following the moral commands of Matthew 5 there comes a warning in Matthew 6. No sooner had Jesus said, “Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect,” than he says, “Be careful about practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them.” Knowing the human heart as he does, Jesus in effect says: “Christian, by all means be righteous. But Christian, be careful!” What we have in this passage, therefore, is a warning lest we become theatrical in our pursuit of purity and thereby transform holiness into hypocrisy.

In what follows we find an initial exhortation (v. 1) followed by three examples (vv. 2-18). Each example shares the same structure: (1) a warning not to be like the hypocrites; (2) a guarantee that those who ignore the warning will receive their reward, but no more; (3) an exhortation and urgent call to sincerity and secrecy; and (4) a promise of God’s reward. Question: Why did Jesus select giving, praying, and fasting as examples? See Luke 18:10-12.

A.        The Exhortation – 6:1

Does this conflict with 5:16 where Jesus encourages you to let your “light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven?” Does Jesus contradict himself by commanding in 5:16 what he prohibits in 6:1? “The clue lies in the fact that Jesus is speaking against different sins. It is our human cowardice which made him say ‘Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works,’ and our human vanity which made him tell us to beware of practising our piety before men” (Stott, 127). In 5:16 Jesus was concerned with the temptation to hide our discipleship in order to escape persecution (cf. 5:10-12), whereas in 6:1 he is concerned with our egotistical propensity to show off. Thus “it is right to do good works in such a way that when people see them they think of God; it is wrong to do good works in such a way that when people see them they think of us” (Bruner, 230). So we must ask ourselves: “Am I acting like a mirror, reflecting back all the glory to God, or am I acting like a sponge, absorbing all the attention and adulation for myself?”

As Dallas Willard notes, “our intent is determined by what we want and expect from our action. When we do good deeds to be seen by human beings, that is because what we are looking for is something that comes from human beings. God responds to our expectations accordingly. When we want human approval and esteem, and do what we do for the sake of it, God courteously stands aside because, by our wish, it does not concern him” (190). See especially Col. 3:17-24.

We should also be aware that the choice Jesus presents is not really between pleasing men and pleasing God. It is between pleasing God and pleasing ourselves. Our ultimate reason for trying to please others by our so-called righteous deeds is not out of a sincere concern for them. We want to please them because we believe that, if we do, they will think more highly of us!

B.        The Examples – 6:2-18

[Note: Jesus speaks of when we give, pray, and fast, not if we do so. He assumes we will. These are not optional endeavors.]

He begins with the example of giving.

1.            the warning – v. 2a

What does Jesus mean when he speaks of sounding a “trumpet”? (1) This may be metaphorical, as in our expression: “Don’t toot your own horn.” But there is no reason to think that people in the first century utilized the same expression. We must be careful not to read our cultural euphemisms back into the Bible. (2) Others suggest that the reference is more literal and that Jesus has in view the trumpets in Jerusalem which were sounded to call the citizens together for urgent events. We know that public fasts were proclaimed by the sounding of trumpets. (3) It is possible that Jesus is referring to the 13 receptacles in the Court of the Women which were shaped like trumpets (to discourage pilfering) and made of brass, into which the worshiper would cast his/her contribution, the noise drawing attention to one’s philanthropy (Hagner says there were only 6 of them).

What kind of “hypocrisy” does he mean. On the one hand, there is that sort of hypocrisy that is evil and the person knows that it is evil. Many of the Pharisees were deliberately deceptive. But there is another kind of hypocrisy that is more subtle. In this case, “the hypocrite has talked himself into believing that at heart, he is conducting himself with the best interests of the needy in mind. He may thus be unaware of his own hypocrisy” (Carson, 57). Perhaps Jesus has both sorts in mind.

In any case, we learn from this that generosity is not enough. Motivation is the key. “The question is not so much what the hand is doing (passing over some cash or a check) but what the heart is thinking while the hand is doing it” (Stott, 128).

2.            the guarantee – v. 2b

Jesus does not say, as we might have expected, “Truly, I say to you, they will not have any reward at all.” They will receive a reward, all right: the acclaim and adoration and praise of the people whom they are seeking to impress. But note that the Greek word translated “in full” (NASB) is apecho, a word often stamped on a receipt which meant, “paid in full.” All has been paid, no other reward is given. In other words, if they want the praise of men, they will get it. But that’s all! Jesus’ point is that there is no reward from God for those who seek it from men.

3.            the exhortation – vv. 3-4a

Here we see yet a third kind of hypocrisy. We are careful to preserve our anonymity in giving. We do it secretly and quietly. No one knows. We do not parade it in the streets or announce it in the newspaper or tell our friends. But in the midst of our secrecy we inwardly congratulate ourselves. If no one else keeps a tally on our generosity, we do! It is this tendency of ours that calls forth the words of v. 3. Stott explains:

“Not only are we not to tell other people about our Christian giving; there is a sense in which we are not even to tell ourselves. We are not to be self-conscious in our giving, for our self-consciousness will readily deteriorate into self-righteousness. So subtle is the sinfulness of the heart that it is possible to take deliberate steps to keep our giving secret from men while simultaneously dwelling on it in our own minds in a spirit of self-congratulation!” (130)

Not only should we not try to impress others with our generosity . . . we should not even try to impress ourselves. This is what I meant when I spoke of our subtle, but sinful, skill in transforming an act of spiritual holiness into self-righteous hypocrisy. Privacy and secrecy do not, in and of themselves guarantee, that what we do is righteous and sincere. Furthermore, those who give quantitatively smaller amounts can be just as guilty of this form of hypocrisy as those who give large amounts.

The statement in v. 3 is obviously metaphorical. It is impossible to give properly without thinking and planning and being a faithful and responsible steward of the financial resources God has given to us. Neither is he suggesting that we not keep a record of our giving for tax purposes! Jesus’ point is that we are not to keep recalling to ourselves our giving in order to gloat over it. In other words, give . . . and then forget about it. “Christian giving,” says Stott, “is to be marked by self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness, not by self-congratulation” (131). We must be careful not to keep a personal record in our hearts for the purpose of patting ourselves on the back for being so generous.

4.            the promise – v. 4b