Jesus teaches a high standard of righteousness, requiring sincerity in the heart. In startling words, he warns us against anger, adultery, oaths and vengeance. He says that we must love even our enemies (Matthew 5).
The Pharisees were known for strict standards, but our righteousness should be better than theirs (which could be rather dismaying, if we forget about the mercy promised earlier in the Sermon). True righteousness is internal. In chapter six, Jesus illustrates this point by denouncing religion done for show.
“Be careful not to do your `acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (vs. 1-2).
In Jesus’ day, some people made a show of religion. They made sure that people could see them doing good. They received the admiration of many, but that is all they will receive, says Jesus, because they are only play-acting. Their good works were done not to serve God, but to serve public opinion and to serve self. It is the wrong attitude, and God will not reward it.
Religious show-offs can be seen today in pulpits, or setting up chairs, or leading Bible study groups, or writing for church newspapers. They may be feeding the poor and preaching the gospel. On the outside, it looks like sincere service; but the attitude may be quite different.
“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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (vs. 3-4).
Our “hand,” of course, doesn’t know anything. Jesus is using a figure of speech to say that alms-giving shouldn’t be done for show, either for others or for self-congratulation. We do it for God, not to make ourselves look good.
But it is not literally true that charity must be secret. Jesus has already said that we should let our good deeds be seen so that people will praise God (5:16). The focus is on attitude, not appearance. Our motive should be to do good for God’s glory, not for our own glory.
Jesus said something similar about prayer: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (vs. 5-6).
Jesus is not creating a rule against public prayer. Jesus himself sometimes prayed in public. His point is that we should pray not just to be seen—or for that matter, neither should we avoid prayer out of fear of public opinion. Prayer is done for God, not for appearance.
“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (vs. 7-8). God knows our needs, but we should still ask (Phil. 4:6), and we should be persistent (Luke 18:1-8). But the effectiveness of prayer depends on God, not us. We do not have to achieve a certain number of words, a set length of time, a particular posture or a special eloquence.
Jesus then gave a sample prayer—a model of simplicity. It may be used as an outline, but other outlines are also acceptable.
“This, then, is how you should pray: `Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ ” (Matt. 6:9-10). This prayer begins with simple praise—nothing elaborate, just an expression of desire that God would be honored and that earth would be responsive to his will.
“Give us today our daily bread” (v. 11). This acknowledges that our lives depend on our powerful Father. Although we may go to the store to buy that bread, we should remember that God is the one who makes it possible. We depend on him day by day.
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (vs. 12-13). We need not only food, but also a relationship with God, a relationship that we often betray and are therefore often in need of forgiveness. And this prayer reminds us that we should be merciful to others if we ask God to be merciful to us. We know we are not spiritual giants—we need divine help so we can resist temptations.
That ends the prayer; Jesus then emphasizes again our responsibility to forgive one another. The better we understand how good God is and how far short we fall, the better we will understand our need for mercy, and so we should be willing to forgive others (vs. 14-15).
However, this sounds conditional: I won’t do this unless you do that. But there is a big problem with that: humans aren’t very good about forgiving. None of us are perfect, and none of us forgive perfectly. And is Jesus telling us to do something that God himself won’t do? Are we supposed to forgive others unconditionally, while he himself puts forgiveness on a conditional basis? If God’s forgiveness is conditional, and we forgive in the way that he has forgiven us, then we should not forgive anyone unless they have forgiven everyone – and they shouldn’t forgive unless everyone else forgives everyone else. That would place us in a chain that never moves.
If our forgiveness is based on whether we forgive, then our salvation is dependent on what we do – on our works. So theologically and practically, the face-value reading of Matt. 6:14-15 has problems. Now we can add to the discussion the point that Jesus died for our sins, before we were even born, and scriptures say that he has nailed our sins to the cross, and has reconciled the whole world to himself.
On one side, we have this teaching in Matt. 6 that makes it sound like forgiveness is conditional. And on the other side, we have verses that make it sound like all our sins are already forgiven – and this would include the sin of not forgiving. So how do we combine these two ideas? Either we have misunderstood the verses on one side, or we have misunderstood verses on the other side.
Now we can bring another point into the discussion: that Jesus often taught in an exaggerated way. If you eye offends you, gouge it out. When you pray, go into your room (and yet Jesus did not always pray inside). When you give to the needy, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Do not resist an evil person (and yet Paul did). Don’t say anything more than yes or no (but yet Paul did). Do not call anyone your Father – and yet we all do.
Now we can see that Matt. 6:14-15 is another example of exaggeration. This does not mean that we can ignore it – Jesus had an important point to make, the serious importance of forgiving other people. If we want God to forgive us, then we should forgive others. If we want to live in a kingdom in which forgiveness is given to us, then we need to be living in that way ourselves. In the same way, if we want to be loved by God, we should love others. If we fail to love others, we cannot change the nature of God to love. But it is still true that if we want to be loved, then we should also love. Although this may be expressed in a conditional way, the function of the saying is to encourage us to love, to forgive. Paul expresses it as a command: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13). Here is is expressed as an example, but not a condition.
In the Lord’s prayer, we ask for daily bread, even though we (in most cases) already have it. In the same way, we ask for forgiveness even though we already have it. It is an acknowledgement that we have done something wrong, that it does affect our relationship with God, and that he is willing to forgive. It is part of what it means to look to him for salvation as a gift rather than as something we earn through our performance.
Jesus then addresses another religious behavior: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (vs. 16-18).
When we fast, we groom ourselves as normal, for we are fasting to God, not to impress people. Again, the focus is on the attitude, not on whether somebody happens to find out that we are fasting. If someone asks us if we are fasting, we can answer truthfully—but neither should we hope that they ask. Our goal is not to show off, but to seek God.
In all three areas, Jesus made the same point. Whether we give alms, pray or fast, we do it “in secret”—without regard to whether people see. We do not make a show of it, but neither do we need to hide it. We just do it to God, for God, and he will reward us. The reward, like our activity, may be hidden, but it is real, and it is growing.
Our focus should be on pleasing God, on doing his will, on valuing his rewards rather than the temporary rewards of this world. Public praise is one form of short-lived reward. Jesus now turns to the shallowness of physical things. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (vs. 19-20).
Earthly riches are temporary, and Jesus is advising us to make a better investment—to seek the permanent values of God through quiet charity, unshowy prayer and secret fasting.
If we take Jesus too literally, we might think that he is making a rule against retirement savings. But his point is really about our heart—what it is that we treasure. We should value the heavenly rewards even more than we do the earthly savings. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v. 21). If we value the things that God values, then our heart will be right and our behavior will be right, too.
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (vs. 22-23).
Here Jesus seems to be using a proverb of his day, applying it to the desire for money. If we look at things in a good way, we will see opportunities to do good, to be generous. But if we look selfishly, enviously, we will be in moral darkness, corrupted by our desires.
What are we looking for in life—to get or to give? Are our bank accounts designed to serve ourselves, or to enable us to serve others? We are improved or corrupted by our goals. And if the inside is corrupt, if we are seeking only the rewards of this world, we are corrupt indeed.
What motivates us? Is it money, or is it God? “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (v. 24). Neither can we serve God and public opinion. We must serve God alone, without any competition.
How might a person “serve” money? By thinking that it can bring us happiness, by considering it all powerful, by valuing it highly. Those attitudes are more properly given to God. He is the one who can give us happiness; he is the true source of security and life; he is the power that can help us most. We are to value him more than anything else, to treasure him, to put him first.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry … saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them” (vs. 25-32). God, a good Father, will take care of us if we put him first. We need not worry about human opinion, and we do not need to worry about money and things.
“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (v. 33). We will live long enough, we will eat enough, we will have enough, if we have God.
Author: Michael Morrison, 2000