SADDAM HUSSEIN was a very religious man, or so it seems. During his twenty-four years of dictatorship in Iraq, he brought about many religious “advances.” He built, for example, the largest mosque in the region, which supposedly contained a copy of the Quran written in his own blood. During his reign, he also added an inscription in his own hand on the Iraqi flag: Al-lahu Akbar (“God is Great”).
Shortly after Saddam’s death the British journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote a book using this Iraqi motto sarcastically for his title: god Is Not Great. In that book, which is critical of both Christianity and Islam, Hitchens argues How Religion Poisons Everything, as his less than subtle subtitle says. His hatred for religion comes from his intellectual convictions (he is an atheist, Darwinist, and materialist) but also from his experience as a journalist in which he saw firsthand so much religious hypocrisy.
For example, he writes about his visit to Iran, which like Iraq is an Islamic nation and thus stringently upholds the teachings of the Quran. Therefore, premarital intercourse and prostitution are outlawed. However, what happens is that the mullahs (the Islamic religious leaders) profit monetarily by licensing something they call “temporary marriages.” That is, a man comes to the mullah, often in a specially designated house, and receives a temporary marriage license to be the temporary husband of a girl he has never met. Then he can have a temporary union with her and just a few minutes later conveniently and lawfully receive a permanent divorce declaration. Some might call this legalized prostitution. Hitchens writes about how he was offered “such a bargain,” of all places, outside the shrine to the Ayatollah Khomeini in south Tehran.
As we have been learning from the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord Jesus Christ is just as hard on hypocrisy, though with a different result. He obviously doesn’t think hypocrisy negates holiness or that disingenuous religion nullifies true religion. But he does think that man-made religion indeed poisons everything.
As we studied the second half of Matthew 5, we saw him point out such poisoning when he spoke of those who held to the letter of the Law but neglected its spirit. In our current text Jesus is still on the attack. He warns us, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (v. 1).
In 5:20-48 Jesus taught us about right righteousness, a righteousness that is not like the scribes’ and Pharisees’, but a righteousness that puts on love— love for others—as its chief and foundational ethic. Moreover, in 5:14-16 he taught how this righteousness ought to make a difference in the world. People ought to see our good works. However, here in 6:1 -18 he warns that this light that others will notice needs to point in the right direction—not to ourselves but to our Father in Heaven (cp. 5:16b).
Therefore, here in our text Jesus is going to talk about motives. He is going to test us to make sure our natural disposition is not overruling our supernatural one. It is natural to hide our righteousness when we should show it and to show it when we should hide it. It is natural to do good in order to be seen and praised by others. But Jesus says that we shouldn’t practice our piety in order to been seen and rewarded by people, but rather to be seen and rewarded by God (cp. John 12:43).
House of Holiness
Before we look at almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, I want us first to see the importance of God’s sight and God’s rewards and how these two realities should be part of our motives for holy living.
First, we have God's sight. Hebrews 4:13 says, “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” In Psalm 139:7, 8 David writes, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”
“Would you do such a thing if your wife was present?” We answer, “Oh no, of course not.” - follow up, "How about if your boss was around" Again we reply, "Oh no, certainly not.” - conclusion, “Well then, why do you do this thing when you know that God is always present?”
God is always present! He knows all and sees all. Martyn Lloyd-Jones speaks of this reality as being “a fundamental principle for the whole of our life”. He writes,
I sometimes feel that there is no better way of living, and trying to live, the holy and sanctified life than just to be constantly reminding ourselves of that. When we wake up in the morning we should immediately remind ourselves and recollect that we are in the presence of God. It is not a bad thing to say to ourselves before we go any further: ‘Throughout the whole of this day, everything I do, and say, and attempt, and think, and imagine, is going to be done under the eye of God. He is going to be with me; he sees everything; he knows everything. There is nothing I can do or attempt but God is fully aware of it all. “Thou God seest me.’” It would revolutionize our lives if we always did that.
Our holiness is not so much waiting for God to do a work in us, although it can be that. Rather, it is recognizing that he is present even now and that his presence is power when it comes to our fight against sin, and the flesh. I’ll put it this way: we will only be as sanctified as we are aware of God’s ever-seeing sight.
If you think of our holiness as a house—let’s call it our House of Holiness this concept of God’s sight is like the roof. It is always over us, and without it we are in serious trouble. The house is thus left unprotected and easy to destroy, both from internal as well as external forces.
However, the foundation to this House of Holiness, at least in this text, is very different than what we may have expected. As we go down to the basement and look at what holds this house up, we first see the cornerstone, and engraved in that stone is JESUS CHRIST AND HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS. Then we find in the rest of the foundation’s stone walls what look like little safes. Written across all of them are REWARDS, and on many of them beneath that word are the words treasures in Heaven.
As little as we think about God’s sight mattering to our everyday Christian lives, I fear that God’s rewards—both present and future—mean even less to us. In fact, most of us, when we see how Jesus uses this language of rewards (seven times!), we do with it what we are not to do with our good works. We shove it under a bushel. But Jesus says, "Oh no, rewards are good and necessary. Without them your House of Holiness would fall.”
Nowhere does Jesus teach that we must be good for the sake of being good. That sounds noble, but it is not Biblical thinking, although it is nice to think that we could do good without the incentive of a reward. Throughout Matthew—think of the end of each beatitude or the parables on the last judgment (cp. 10:42; 25:14-30)—Jesus persistently uses the motive of God-given rewards to help believers live for God.
The problem, however, is that some of us view God like some stingy old boss who only reluctantly gives a raise, bonus, or praise. But God is not like that at all. Jesus will later teach that even earthly fathers, even the worst fathers, give good things to their children—they don’t give their son a snake when he asks for a fish (7:10). Our gracious, kind, and benevolent heavenly Father is quite happy to give us rewards for good behavior. Why wouldn’t he? A good government rewards righteousness; a good teacher or parent does as well. Why wouldn’t a good God?
The rewards mentioned here might include present benefits. If you live according to God’s ways, then blessings will follow—sometimes material blessings, sometimes emotional blessings, but always spiritual blessings—the closeness of God’s presence in the here and now (cp. James 4:8).
However, it seems most likely that the rewards Jesus refers to here are eternal blessings—“treasures in heaven” (6:19-21; cp. Luke 14:14). I say this because our Lord will repeatedly stress that following him here and now will bring about trials and tribulations, sufferings and persecutions. If you want to follow him, you must deny yourself and pick up your cross. So the reward is very much like Jesus’ own “reward”—if I can use that word—for his work. We are told in Hebrews 12:2 that it was for “the joy that was set before him” that he “endured the cross.” It is also like the reward to which the heroes of the faith listed in Hebrews 11 looked forward: they had their eyes on the ultimate prize—the city of God.
Therefore, Christian, when the rains and winds of this world beat against you, think about the roof and the foundation of this House of Holiness. As you seek to live not for self but for the glory of God, recognize that God gives you motives for perseverance—his sight and his rewards. Live before him and for him, knowing that the narrow way leads to life—to the final and eternal vision of God and to those unfading pleasures that he holds in his right hand (Psalm 16:11).
Now that we have seen what is above and beneath the house, let’s see next what is to come out of the house—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Jesus doesn’t use these three examples because they are the most important good works, but rather because they were the most important to the scribes and Pharisees. I’ll put it this way: as he is building up our house, he is also leveling theirs.
After Jesus’ thesis—“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” (v. 1)—he gives his application:
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. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (vv. 2—4)
Throughout Scripture—e.g., in the Law, the prophets, the Gospels, and the Epistles—God exhorts his people to care for those in need. Jesus modeled this in his own earthly ministry. He and the Twelve kept a money bag, partly to provide for themselves and partly to provide for the poor (John 13:29). Moreover, he modeled this in his very being: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). In our richness—our spiritual richness—we should care for the materially and oftentimes spiritually poor.
Yet, in Jesus’ day the act of almsgiving “had been carried to absurd [and un-Biblical] extremes by rabbinic tradition.” For example, according to the apocryphal book of Tobit, “It is better to give to charity than to lay up gold. For charity will save a man from death; it will expiate any sin” (12:8; cp. Sirach 3:14, 15, 30). Why give? According to second temple Judaism, it was to atone for sin. This tainted theology explains why, when Jesus taught that “only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (19:23), his disciples were baffled (19:25). In their minds, it was easy for a rich man to enter the kingdom because such a man could essentially buy his way in by simply giving to the poor.
Such a perspective is not far removed from many of today’s donors. Why do people give? Some are motivated by religious guilt. They give in order to get into Heaven. But people today aren't all that religious, and most people’s motives are actually much closer, oddly enough, to what Jesus says of the super-religious of his day. People give in order to get a reward (not from God, but from others). The reward could be something tangible like a nice plaque or the wing of a building named in their honor. It could be the reward of a tax deduction. I find tax deductions so ironic. No one today wants to admit that people are basically sinful, yet why would any government offer tax deductions if people are basically good? Won’t people give from the goodness of their heart or simply based on the size of the need? Our government smartly says, “I doubt it.” People give to get—to get publicity, to earn the esteem of others, to save on taxes, etc.
What does our Lord Jesus say to this give-to-get scam? He says, “Don’t blow your own horn.” That now common saying comes from right here in verse 2. Don’t blow your own horn, that is, don’t give in order to get notice, praise, love, an appeased conscience, or whatever your wrong motive may be. Instead, give (a) because you should—it is God's Law, (b) because you love others, which goes back to our Lord’s teaching in the previous chapter, and (c) because of God’s reward, which is far better than the praise of man. You give because you have faith in the future promises of God.
Now, Jesus knows we are going to struggle with all this, so in verses 3, 4a he helps us out. He says, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” Here Jesus counsels us to “seek secrecy.” We are not to announce our generosity to others. In fact, we are not even to announce it to ourselves.
Jesus gives this apparently absurd illustration about the two hands “to emphasize the intense privacy that should be present when we give to help others.” I say “apparently absurd” because any athlete knows that if you train your muscles—say to swing a bat when a ball is coming eighty miles per hour over home plate—you do not stop to think about what you are doing. You just do it. The same is true of a musician whose fingers, because of much practice, have remembered exactly what notes to play and when. It becomes second nature. Similarly, our giving is to be second nature, like a trained moral muscle.
So, do you see how it works? Ah, the genius of Jesus! It is hard to be praised by others (that’s the temptation) when nobody knows what you have given and when you don’t even remember what you yourself have done. It’s just part of who you are.
Do you recall the teaching of our Lord in 25:31-40, where he speaks of his second coming, when he will gather all the nations and separate people, some on his right and others on his left? Those on the right—the “righteous” or “the sheep” as he calls them—will enter into eternal life. These are the ones who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned. Do you remember their reaction when Jesus welcomes them into his kingdom, telling them of their good works? What do they say? They answer him:
Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? (25:37-39)
They didn’t see what their hands were up to. They had a self-forgetfulness about what they did. And I’ll tell you, God loves such forgetfulness! The King replies in essence, “What you did for the least was, in fact, done for me” (25:40). “Enter into the joy of your master” (25:21). That is how to give to charity -Jesus-style.
From almsgiving, which for the Jews was “the most sacred of all religious duties” our Lord turns his attention to prayer, which was a close second. Since he talks most about prayer in this section, I thought I’d do the same. So I will give you two chapters on prayer, based on verses 5-15. For now, let’s jump over these middle verses to the final three. Look with me at verses 16-18 and this topic of fasting. Here Jesus teaches:
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. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 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.
Again we hear the language of sight and reward. We also have the idea of secrecy as a measure against wrong motives. But those central facts aside, do you know what word I find most fascinating here? It’s the word “when.” “And when you fast...” What’s with the “when”? It implies that Christians fast.
I grew up as a devout Roman Catholic, and as such I most certainly fasted when and how I was told to. During the season of Lent, I ate no meat on Fridays, and on Good Friday (this was more of my own extreme tradition) I fasted completely from food. When I left Catholicism— to a tradition with comparatively little emphasis on fasting—I remember my first Good Friday with my Christian college housemates. When Good Friday came around, I planned on keeping my usual tradition—not only fasting from meat, but fasting from all food. However, my housemates, with their freedom in Christ, planned (and executed quite well) a pig roast. On the morning of Good Friday a pit was dug in the ground, the fire lit, and the pig set in place. Well, on that day I joined the dark side. At the time of Jesus’ death (3:00 p.m.), I skipped both church and my prayer time in order to stuff myself with pork. Since that very un-kosher Good Friday, I have thought a bit about fasting as it is laid out in God’s Word. Here is my summary: from a Biblical perspective, fasting lies somewhere between a roasted pig and fried fish—that is, between unbridled license and man-made rules.
Let me explain. In the Old Testament there was only one time per year when God’s people were called to fast—the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-34; cp. Acts 27:9). Since that Day has been fulfilled in Christ’s death (Colossians 2:14), there is no longer any command for us to fast. You won’t find one in all the New Testament. Note that. It’s important. If you don’t want to fast, it is no fat off my skin (it might, however, be fat under yours). I mean that seriously (the first part). For the moment we start commanding what God himself does not command, we fall into the danger I talked about in the last chapter—going above the line of Scripture. So, fast if you’d like. And fast when you’d like. In 6:16, the word “when” or “whenever” is key. Jesus never said, “Fast on Good Friday,” “Fast on the day before Christmas,” or “Fast during Lent.” Nor did he ever say, “Fast from meat but not from fish.” As an aside, the fasting done by some during Lent can be a mockery and reproach to God. To abstain from a hamburger and Coke for the market value catch of the day and a glass of expensive Merlot—how ridiculous! Why fast from dark chocolate but not from one’s darkest sins?
Jesus doesn’t command us to fast, but he assumes—with this “when”— that after his death and resurrection, his disciples will fast. He says so in 9:15b: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” I like very much what Martin Luther—had to teach on this matter. While he acknowledges that fasting is “not confined to any rule or measure, to any time or place,” he nevertheless says:
I would also be glad if at certain times, once a week or as often as might seem best, there were no evening meal, except a piece of bread and something to drink, to keep everything from being used up with the kind of incessant guzzling and gobbling that we Germans do, and to teach people to live a little more moderately, especially those who are young, sturdy, and strong.
Here Luther touches on one of the important reasons for fasting—to temper our appetites. Now, we know that the gobbling and guzzling of Germans is not an exclusive nationalistic trait. We obese or anorexic Americans have our share of troubles with food as well. We so often live between two equally obsessive and idolatrous extremes—either stuffing our faces or starving ourselves.
Have you ever been to one of our supermarkets with someone from a Third World country? Can you imagine trying to explain the plenty, to navigate through the raised eyebrows and dropped jaw when standing before the fresh fruit and vegetables and fish and meat and bread? Then after explaining that, as well as the cereal aisle and the apparent “need" for 150 brands—can you imagine turning to this impoverished friend and explaining why you are intentionally starving yourself so as to fit into a certain size jeans? It is no exaggeration to say that for too many Americans, to use Paul’s words, “Their god is their belly” (Philippians 3:19; cp. Titus 1:12). Who do you think about more throughout the day—the God of Heaven or the god of your gut? Are you counting your blessings or are you counting your calories?
Fasting is what we need, for in fasting we essentially say, “I do not live for my appetites—my physical appetites, my sexual appetites, my material appetites. Therefore, with self-control, which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, I'm going to stop all this incessant 'nibbling at the table of the world.’ I do not live for my appetites. But much more than that, I live for God and for his blessing.” That’s what we say when we fast.
The Bible provides a number of reasons for fasting—it might be an expression of humiliation and sorrow over one’s sin (Leviticus 16:29-34; Jonah 3:5) or of bereavement over a great loss (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:12). As we see in Acts, fasting occurs in conjunction with the appointment of elders (14:23) or the commissioning of missionaries (13:2, 3). But the main reason we fast is “to nourish our hunger for God and to reduce our hunger for the world.” I think that is in part the “reward” Jesus talks about in verse 18. Our “reward” for fasting is ironically but wonderfully a hunger and thirst for God, for he who hungers and thirsts for God shall be spiritually satisfied. Fasting can give you a larger appetite for God. This is why the Puritans, who fasted often, called it “soul-fattening.” Do you want a fatter soul? Then take seriously this word when—“when you fast...”
Rearranging the Ashes
There is a story about a so-called “holy man” who in a far eastern city, as a sign of his great humility, covered himself with ashes. However, every day he would situate himself on the most prominent street corner in the city and sit there all day. As the story goes, when a tourist would come up to him and ask for his picture, he would take his ashes and rearrange them so as “to give the best image of destitution and humility.”
In commenting on this story, John MacArthur notes:
A great deal of religion amounts to nothing more than rearranging religious “ashes” to impress the world with one’s supposed humility and devotion. The problem, of course, is that the humility is a sham, and the devotion is to self, not to God.
In our passage Jesus says, “Beware” (v. 1). Beware when we give, pray, fast, or do anything good. We must beware of practicing our righteousness before other people in order to be seen and praised by them. Instead we must live holy lives because we love God and love others, and also because we know that God’s eyes are always on us and his rewards are for those who seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (6:33).
(R. Kent Hughes. and Douglas Sean O'Donnell., 2013; edited Carl Hinton., 2020)