Scripture: “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. 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.” Matthew 6:1-4 ESV
Observation: In verse 1 of chapter 6, Jesus lays down a principle applied in three subsequent scenarios: Be righteous without show or pretense. Righteousness here refers to godly living, and verses 2-4 present the first example: when giving to the needy.
For this first example, it seems unfathomable that people would blast a trumpet when helping the poor. No historical records support the use of trumpets to announce a generous donation. But Mark (12:42-44) and Luke (21:1-4) record an incident when Jesus saw the rich making a show of their giving by placing their gifts in the offering box. Extra-biblical writings suggest that a ram’s horn may have been affixed to the offering box to prevent theft. Thus, one could make a loud sound as larger coins whirled down its funnel. Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind.
But another and more likely explanation comes from rabbi and theologian Adolph Büchler. He records that when the religious leaders called the people to observe a public fast to invoke the Lord to bless the earth with rain for their crops, trumpeters would initiate the ceremony with a blast. Concurrent with this ceremony, the people would give alms to ensure the efficacy of their fasts and prayers. Naturally, this could lead to ostentatious giving.
Regardless, Jesus warns that those who make much show of their generosity will receive their reward in this life only. Instead, his disciples are to give to the needy discretely, unlike the hypocrites whose motivation is to gain admiration and praise from others. And when they give in secret, their Father will reward them in secret.
Takeaway: Again, in line with the preceding six antitheses of chapter 5, outward behavior must match the inward reality of a heart moved by pure motives. In contrast, a hypocrite is all about impression management. The Greek word hypokrites, as cited in this text, is derived from the ancient Greek stage, referring to the actors who would wear one of two masks to communicate to their audience their character: comedy or tragedy. Jesus here criticizes the religious leaders for metaphorically wearing external masks of righteousness that conceal their inner corruption (see Jesus’ fourth woe to the scribes and Pharisees in 23:25–26). They outwardly do the right things (giving to the needy) for the wrong reason (to be praised by others).
Interestingly, the Greek word translated as “to be praised” above is doxazo, more often translated as “glorified” in the New Testament. It is a composite of two Greek words that mean “straight” and “glory.” The idea of straight conveys righteousness, as the Lord makes our paths straight (e.g., Proverbs 3:6). But we cannot bear the weight of his glory that provokes fear and reverence in its beholder. If we attempt to do so, its weight will crush us. Indeed, this would eventually happen to the hypocritical Pharisees and Sadducees when Rome razed Jerusalem to the ground in 70 CE. And the outcome is the same for us, whether in this lifetime or on our judgment day.
However, when our outward giving reflects a changed heart of gratitude for our Savior, our gracious Father will reward us in secret. How so? As theologian Michael Wilkins contends, “with inner righteousness in this life and complete perfection in the after life” (The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, p.273). And our righteousness in this life bears his joy, peace, and love, founded in our sure faith in the Father and Son’s love for us. Indeed, as Paul tells the Corinthian church, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7c ESV).
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who never made a show of his righteousness but modestly came into our world to give his life as a ransom for us. Would you please help us to follow his command and life example of righteous giving by discretely sharing our time and resources with the needy to glorify you and not ourselves? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling