Back in August of 2021, Mike and I started a series preaching through Matthew, knowing it would take us well into 2022, and that we’d have a few pit-stops along the way. We’ve recently had several of those pit-stops towards the end of the year, around the holidays, taking time to reflect on Thanksgiving at the end of November, then we had a guest speaker Tim Kubacki come and share the following week, and then the last two weeks have been centered around Christmas, the story of Christmas and what it means for us and for the world.
I think these have all been worthwhile and important digressions, and it’s kind of nice to have a break from a series as long as Matthew once in a while, but we’re going to get back onto the long-haul track today, kicking off the New Year by dropping back into Matthew and hitting the ground running where we left off in the Sermon on the Mount.
We left of in chapter 6 a few weeks ago, we did have one week, one out of the last five weeks we did spend specifically in Matthew, I started venturing into chapter 6. We read the first 18 verses of chapter 6 together, to get an overview of what’s coming ahead, and it’s a pretty loaded 18 verses! Remember we’re still in the sermon on the hill, where Jesus is teaching a crowd of his followers. As is generally the case with Jesus’s core teachings, he covers a wide variety of topics, but they all center around the Kingdom of God, of which Jesus himself is the principal ruler, and into which he is calling his followers to join him.
He’s already covered quite a few topics, from the blessing sayings, to properly interpreting Hebrew scriptures, and making claims of actually fulfilling the law himself, to practical principles for living truthfully and humbly and graciously, even in the midst of their enemies. But again, all of these are related to living life with a heavenly kingdom mindset.
And one thing I want to point out is that even though Jesus is preaching about the kingdom of heaven, it’s not about ignoring or renouncing life on earth, it’s about bringing heavenly, Godly principles TO life on earth. It’s not about transcending, or escaping reality, but about making God’s reality our reality. That’s the perspective he’s trying to shape in his disciples, so while he does make some very heady, profound statements which merit a lifetime of meditation and contemplation, those statements are complimented by even more practical, down-to-earth, actionable teachings.
You’ll see this is the case looking back at his sermon so far, throughout chapter 5, and perhaps even more so as we continue in chapter 6.
Remember, the first 18 verses get right into some very practical topics. Jesus is giving instructions on:
Each of which is pretty loaded with various context, but they all relate back to the opening verse of this passage, this warning about practicing righteousness:
Matthew 6:1 CSB
1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. Otherwise, you have no reward with your Father in heaven.
Notice, by the way, how he’s connecting what we do on earth with its significance in heaven…again, bridging, reuniting the two, will be a key theme to track throughout the rest of this chapter.
He’s giving practical guidance for the practice of righteousness, and this verse is what we zeroed in on a few weeks ago, before getting into the three examples he uses to expound on this principle, we looked at this concept of what it means to “practice righteousness.” Righteousness being that which is right and pleasing to God, and the practice of which being what we can also refer to as “spiritual disciplines.” The three examples he gives are of giving, praying, and fasting, but these are representative of a much larger group of disciplines.
I offered a list of some important ones, with the caveat that it wasn’t necessarily exhaustive, but just to get us thinking of the variety of ways we can be pursuing well-rounded spiritual maturity. And sure enough, Conner reminded me of one I missed that certainly should be on there, so I added it to this list at the end, the discipline of sabbath rest. I totally forgot to include that in the original list!
But it’s definitely a very important one, it’s even one of the Ten Commandments! We’ll encounter Jesus offering his perspective on this later on in Matthew, so I’m sure we’ll get a chance to discuss it more in detail, but in the context of spiritual disciplines it’s the idea of joining God’s rest, imitating the culmination of his act of creation, in recreation, recreation, enjoying creation and the presence of life by stepping back and resting from our weekly work and toil. Incorporating sabbath into the rhythms of life as a priority, it refreshes our souls, reinforces our trust in God, and glorifies him in demonstrating what is right and pleasing to him.
So, yeah Sabbath Rest is an important spiritual discipline, but I’ll leave it at that for today so we can get into the first of the disciplines Jesus chose to talk about, the first method of “practicing righteousness,” which is the practice of giving. Specifically, giving to the poor.
So, let’s read just the first 4 verses of chapter 6 again, and see what he says:
Matthew 6:1–4 CSB
1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. Otherwise, you have no reward with your Father in heaven. 2 So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. 3 But when you give to the poor, don’t 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.
Alright, so this particular teaching is pretty loaded with context that was very specific to the people who were listening to him. So let’s take some time to consider the immediate, historical context into which Jesus was speaking.
Starting with the beginning of verse 2: “Whenever you give...” or in other translations simply “when you give...” or the Jewish version “when you do tzedakah...”
I brought this up a few weeks ago but it bears mentioning again. Jesus assumes that giving to the needy is already a habitual part of his disciples’ lives. Doing tzedakah is still to this day a fundamental part of Jewish life! And its significance extends beyond just giving a percentage of income to charity, it’s about a whole posture of seeking to assist and seek justice for those in need, whether monetarily or otherwise.
There are quite a few Old Testament examples throughout the law and wisdom books about being generous and giving to the poor, here’s one little excerpt from a whole section in Deuteronomy on the topic, but these couple verses sum up the law pretty well:
Deuteronomy 15:9–11 CSB
9 Be careful that there isn’t this wicked thought in your heart, ‘The seventh year, the year of canceling debts, is near,’ and you are stingy toward your poor brother and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty. 10 Give to him, and don’t have a stingy heart when you give, and because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do. 11 For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘Open your hand willingly to your poor and needy brother in your land.’
Jews understood then, and still understand, that the old testament consistently teaches this perspective as important. Compassion and generosity is how Yahweh himself views and treats humanity, and in turn is how we ought to view each other: having our eyes open and compassionate, willing to generously give of ourselves in order to lift up those in need.
It’s not about checking a box or meeting a quota, it’s about a lifestyle.
NOT practicing generosity was seen as a wicked injustice, for which the poor would cry out to Yahweh against the greedy! Fundamental to the very concept of justice is making sure those who have lift up those who have not, and so balance the scales.
We can assume that for at least most, if not all, of his disciples, giving was a given.
BUT what Jesus is calling out is a problematic methodology to this practice of doing tzedakah.
What does he say not to do? He says not to “sound a trumpet before you.” Other translations may say something like “don’t announce it with trumpets.”
Now, there are a couple ways this could be interpreted. The literal blowing of trumpets did often accompany major events and rituals, including various calendar events, festivals and celebrations, which makes sense, but even public fasts were sometimes kicked off with the sounding of a trumpet, which is interesting.
Of course, ancient Jewish “trumpets” were a little different from what we call a “trumpet” today. The Hebrew word is shofar. A shofar is made from the horn of an animal, usually a ram’s horn, but can be from a variety of other animals like a Kudu. In fact, the Talmud specifies that a shofar may be made from the horn of any animal from the Bovidae family except that of a cow, although a ram is preferable.
We still call modern, western trumpets and other related instruments “horns” don’t we? It’s a whole family of instruments, the horn family, and they are descended from instruments like the shofar and others, which were literally made from animal horns!
A shofar would be used both musically and, again, simply to announce things. It’s actually not unlike how church bells have been used historically in western culture. They’re loud enough to be heard throughout the community and be used as a signal or a call to response.
I have with me something somewhat similar to a shofar, though ironically I’m pretty sure this is from the horn of a bull. It’s from Honduras, and fitted with a modernized mouthpiece, I don’t think this would fly in a Jewish synagogue. BUT it’s a lot closer to a shofar than my b-flat brass trumpet.
And it is pretty loud!
That would get people attention, wouldn’t it? Sounding that off to announce every time you do something charitable?
And it’s possible that Jesus meant the literal blowing of a trumpet when he said this, but some scholars think it’s more likely he’s referring to the process of how money was actually given in synagogues.
They would have a chest, a money chest for people to throw coins in. But to prevent thieves from stealing from the chest, it would be locked up, with a small opening, big enough for coins, but too small for a hand, connected to a long shofar, a horn, that would gradually widen up to the opening, so people could throw coins in, and they would funnel down into the chest, and they called it a shofar chest!
So, it’s likely that Jesus is referencing the fact that it would be possible to toss coins into the horn very loudly in order to draw attention, verses subtly and discreetly sliding them in.
This explanation makes a little more sense on a day-to-day basis than people literally blowing horns, BUT the point is really the same either way. In either case, he’s saying not to draw attention to yourself.
The people who do call attention to themselves he calls hypocrites.
Who or what is a hypocrite?
I looked up the definition of the word “hypocrite” and I got the following very unhelpful definition:
noun. a person who indulges in hypocrisy.
So, what is hypocrisy? This definition is a little more helpful:
noun. the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one's own behavior does not conform
And here’s a better definition of hypocrite:
noun. a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.
That’s the how the words hypocrite and hypocrisy has become used and defined in English. A similar term would be to say that someone has a “double standard.” They say one thing, and do another. They don’t practice what they preach.
But did you know that this association of the word “hypocrisy” with morality and holding to your standards is actually influenced at least in part by how Jesus used it in passages like this?
It came to English directly from Greek, and originally referred to Greek or Roman “actors” or “stage players.” It’s a compound word that literally means “one who interprets from beneath.” That is, one who interprets the role of his character from underneath a mask, because actors would typically wear masks as the most crucial element of their costume.
So, the word didn’t originally have a negative connotation necessarily, and it’s not that Jesus is condemning the profession of acting for entertainment purposes. He’s using a culturally relevant and visual word to describe what’s happening on a spiritual level.
He’s condemning the idea of being an “actor” or a “pretender” in a spiritual context. Of being a “fake” when it comes to spiritual disciplines. Of using our visible actions and audible speech as a facade, masks which hide what’s really going on underneath. In this case, pride and the desire for approval and admiration from humans rather than from God.
And this applies in every context, whether “in the synagogue,” that is, the formal, established avenues of giving charity, as well as “on the street,” that is, in the more spontaneous, every-day opportunities to show charity while going through life in the world.
So, what about this phrase “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing?”
How many have you have heard that phrase before, outside of this passage or any biblical context?
It’s kind of an odd turn-of-phrase, isn’t it?
If you take it literally, you’ll quickly realize it’s yet another hyperbolic reference to human anatomy…Jesus seems to like those. Aside from a pretty severe cognitive disorder, applying this principle literally is clearly impossible.
Having a baby, I learned that developing midline crossing skills, literally the ability for the two sides of your brain and body to communicate with each other, is crucial in early cognitive development, and without it we would not be able to function properly.
So, no, this is no more literal than Jesus telling us to pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands. But it’s a striking statement, and I think he means for it to be striking, to be memorable. I suppose that might be why it’s still used in popular culture, outside of the context of this passage.
A common English adaptation of this phrase in secular use is “The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” And it refers to an organization or team in which there is a lack of communication or collaboration, which is generally a bad thing. Other times it might be used to imply that one’s personal interests should be kept to themselves so as to most strategically benefit from a situation.
Neither of those uses really has anything to do with the point Jesus is making, other than the fact that it’s a rather striking metaphor.
So, what IS the point he’s making?
Well, this may be somewhat anti-climactic, but the exact reason for his use of this phrase and its origin is somewhat enigmatic, and there’s some debate about it.
But what’s clear, at least to me, is that it’s meant to be a memorable illustration of the principles he just laid out in the previous few sentences. We shouldn’t over-think it too much, certainly not cut our brains in half. But when we do good, charitable things, not to congratulate ourselves, not to seek public praise, to be discreet, rather than loud, to give, as verse 4 says, in secret.
Nothing can be hidden from God, so it doesn’t matter what your left hand or right hand or neighbor knows, because it’s not self-righteousness or public acclaim that we should be seeking, but righteousness before God.
And then there’s this promise of a reward. Verse 1 starts off by warning that if you DO give for selfish reasons, you WON’T get a reward. And then verse 4 ends by saying if you give in secret, then you WILL get a reward from God.
But…if you’re giving so that you get a reward from God, aren’t you then giving for your own gain?
It seems like somewhat of a catch-22, doesn’t it?
Ultimately, it’s not the rewards from heaven that should motivate us to be charitable. It’s love for our neighbor that should motivate us. But, the promise of recognition, of reward from God can still offer us hope, comfort, and encouragement, and it’s OK to recognize, expect, and look forward to that!
What are these rewards? Well, they might be in the immediate, temporary consequences on earth that God chooses to bless us, and he very often does bless those who are faithful to give generously with even more to give. We can see this principle in how God spoke to the Jews about the promised land, and in Proverbs like this:
Proverbs 11:24–25 CSB
24 One person gives freely,
yet gains more;
another withholds what is right,
only to become poor.
25 A generous person will be enriched,
and the one who gives a drink of water
will receive water.
Essentially, this is saying that greedy people come to ruin, while Generous people will be enriched and refreshed.
Now, these cause-and-effect-Proverbs, as we’ve said before, are NOT promises, or formulas for prosperity. They are general principles, not guarantees, and that is evident if we just look around and throughout history…of course there are greedy people who prosper and generous people who suffer.
And other scripture like Ecclesiastes and Psalms will speak to that as well.
But another, more important aspect to the promise of rewards is not that of temporal rewards, but of eternal rewards, the rewards in heaven that Jesus speaks of so often.
Paul writes in 1 Timothy about this:
1 Timothy 6:17–19 CSB
17 Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. 18 Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and willing to share, 19 storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of what is truly life.
Paul here says nothing about immediate, earthly rewards here, but about storing up treasure for the coming age.
This idea of storing up treasure in heaven will come up again later in this chapter, so I’ll just leave it for now by saying our hope of reward is staked more so in eternal prosperity rather than earthly prosperity.
And that the rewards we receive from God for our actions, whether immediate or eternal, might in some ways be perceived as far less glamorous but far more valuable than anything the world can offer us. Again, we’ll be able to expound and explore more on that concept when it comes up later on in this chapter.
How else can we apply this particular passage to our lives?
In this first of the three examples, the core point he’s making, the core message is pretty simple: don’t give charitably for attention or recognition.
But, given some of the wording in this passage, I think it’s important to also recognize what Jesus is NOT saying.
He is NOT saying that our righteousness is meant to be hidden! To the contrary, our righteousness should be evident, BUT evident by the fruits of the spirit in our lives, not by loudly practicing outward disciplines.
Again, we have to constantly remember not to isolate any one passage in this sermon too much, but to consider it in the context of everything that has been so far.
So, when we read in chapter 6 that Jesus says to “not practice righteousness in front of others” and to “give in secret” we should also take into account what he just said a few verses ago.
Remember, just in the last chapter Jesus said that his disciples should be the salt of the earth and the light of the world! Flip back to chapter 5 verse 14 with me:
Matthew 5:14–16 CSB
14 “You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Let your light shine before others!” Jesus says. So, he’s not saying to HIDE your faith, to HIDE your righteousness, to HIDE your relationship with God.
What he IS saying here in chapter 6 is like a followup, not contradicting what he just said, but balancing it, cautioning against the opposite extremes.
So, yes you should be a light on a hill, you should let your righteousness be evident, BUT, what the hypocrites are doing in the synagogues and on the streets is NOT that.”
As always, the issue boils down to the condition and motives of the heart. The actions of performing spiritual disciplines are important, but the motives behind them are much more important than simply checking off the fact that you’ve done them.
In the case of charitable giving, it should always be done for God’s glory, and for the sake of lifting up others, rather than for our glory and the sake of our own reputation.
Because God loved us, and loves us, in our deepest moments of desperation and neediness, because we have received his love and compassion, we are called to show the same love and compassion, genuinely to those around us.
Paul speaks to this in 1 Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 13:3 (CSB)
3 And if I give away all my possessions, and if I give over my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
He understands the heart issues that Jesus was getting at. It’s possible to live an outwardly pious and charitable lifestyle, and yet have a heart severely lacking in love, bloated with pride, sick with hate.
2 Corinthians 9:7 CSB
7 Each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not reluctantly or out of compulsion, since God loves a cheerful giver.
Hebrews 13:16 CSB
16 Don’t neglect to do what is good and to share, for God is pleased with such sacrifices.
These verses reiterate and reflect back on the goal of pleasing God. Of practicing righteousness, and rooting our hearts deeply in his spirit so that our lives reap the rewards of bearing his fruit! In this case a genuine love that results in generosity and justice for the poor and oppressed.
So, let us who call ourselves followers of Christ in 2022 not be hypocrites, actors, hiding behind a mask of superficial “Christianity.” Let us rather
Proverbs 31:9 CSB
9 Speak up, judge righteously,
and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy.
Let us come to their defense not just in words but in deed. Because that’s what Jesus did for us.
1 John 3:16–18 CSB
16 This is how we have come to know love: He laid down his life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has this world’s goods and sees a fellow believer in need but withholds compassion from him—how does God’s love reside in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in action and in truth.
Let us rather give generously, out of an abundant, overflowing love for our fellow humans, in our homes, our neighborhoods, and even in the global community we are now exposed to and a part of.
Freely have we received, so freely let us give.