Summary: The subject matter in these verses focuses on giving, praying and fasting. The initial reading of the passage will show that the basic teaching of Jesus will be to avoid the seeking the praise of men and to seek to please God.
Seeking the Praise of God or Men
The subject matter in these verses focuses on giving, praying and fasting. The initial reading of the passage will show that the basic teaching of Jesus will be to avoid the seeking the praise of men and to seek to please God.
The first four verses cover the subject of “almsgiving” or giving to the poor. The general warning is not to do acts of righteousness before other people, to be seen by them, for then there will be no reward. There are times when it is necessary to do good deeds publicly. However, Jesus was speaking about intention, not to do them so that people would see and therefore think that you are spiritual. That is one form of hypocrisy, for in doing it that way you would not be seriously interested in doing the good deed, but in appearing to be doing good deeds. The motivation would be primarily self-promoting and the Lord always looks at the motives when He evaluates our works.
There is a trend today, especially in affluent societies, to let this one go. The thinking may be that the poor are just lazy and should work harder, or that it is the government’s responsibility to help them, or that it is a never-ending task and so it will not do much good anyway, and so on. There are many reasons people can come up with to avoid this spiritual duty. Prosperity theology fits into the reasoning as well, teaching that if people had faith they would have wealth, because God wants His children to be rich. What is most disturbing is to see the wealthy and the successful promoted on Christian talk shows on television or on stage in services as if they were the spiritual ones, blessed by God. Jesus said that when people give money to the poor they should not “sound the trumpet” as the hypocrites do in order to be recognized and honored by others (6:2-4). There are a number of ideas about the meaning of “sounding the trumpet” but the point is clear that the hypocritical almsgiver was more concerned about being noticed for his deed than for helping the poor. Jesus said we are not to do this. Those who do this would receive no reward from God, because their almsgiving was motivated by seeking the praise of men. Jesus calls those who seek the praise of men in their almsgiving, it is all a show of spirituality, but it is not genuine. Many people will give to the poor, but they thrive on the praise of people who perceive them to be generous and spiritual. Jesus was saying that if you give to the poor in order to receive this acclaim, then that is all the reward you will receive.
The subject of rewards is a difficult subject. The Bible warns people not to do good deeds for the praise and honor you would get from other people; and on the other hand, it instructs people to run the race for the reward. There is nothing wrong with doing a righteous deed for the sake of receiving a reward, or praise, as long as the praise you seek is of God. In the Bible, when we are instructed to do acts of righteousness there is always a mention of reward from the Father in heaven. There has to be a motivation for the righteous deeds and our chief motivation is to please God. How will we know if we have pleased God? By His “Well done, good and faithful servant.” This is very different from doing something so that others in the church will praise you or think more highly of you than they should.
Jesus said that when you give to the poor do it in a way that is secret, without the public notice and acclaim, and without the poor knowing it was you who gave. If God is the motivator of our good deeds, what people will think about us or what debt of gratitude they feel they owe us has no value.
The second point in Jesus’ instructions to the disciples is prayer. He told the disciples, the hypocrites “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men.” Jesus was describing someone who may or may not be sincerely praying, but certainly wants everyone to know he prays. Jesus was not ruling out public prayer; rather, He was criticizing the motivation of the hypocrite. Once again, Jesus was denouncing any religious act that is inspired by the opinions of people. In his denouncement He used sarcasm again: “They have their reward.”
There were two principle errors in the scribes and Pharisees posture of prayer, seeking the praise of men (v 5) and meaningless petitions (v 7). The places where they prayed, in the synagogues, which was the proper place for public prayer, but not for personal, and the corners of the streets. The purpose in praying on the corners of the street was to give the impression of their devotion to keeping the appointed hours for prayer; the real purpose was to seek the praise of men