Matthew 6 Commentary
Jesus emphasized secret giving in order to restrain us. Since there probably isn’t a higher form of cunning pride than the strategic placement of our good deeds in the path of others to see, there probably isn’t a more common desire to feed this pride than the desire to be praised by other people as a good and decent person.
So the need for secret giving couldn’t be more clear. There are no good and decent people in the world. If someone tells us that we are good and decent, they only do so relative to other sinners. And those who parade their good deeds before others, thinking that they do them from a good and decent heart, not only sin and deceive others but deceive themselves.
Secret giving kills pride. It forces the heart to set aside its self-love and it directs all glory to God.
In the first-century, the Pharisees used trumpets to puff themselves up. Today, we use press conferences and seminars. But in both ages, we find the same human heart. In both ages, the human heart uses the same crafty speech to draw attention to itself. It uses the same religious props and the same phony humility to get people to sing its praises. And the result is always the same. It brings the same temporary reward that is filled with long-term misery. It brings destruction that ruins everyone it touches.
Jesus’ remedy to pervasive pride is for us to give secretly. He tells us to hide our good works from others so that our reward might be hidden in God.
Many people don’t understand the joy in this kind of giving. They think that secret giving won’t bring them joy because no one will know about the kindness and generosity that lives inside them. But real kindness and mercy comes from the Spirit of God, and any kind or generous thing we do will be seen by God. Christians are content in knowing that their kind acts of faith will be seen by the Father and that he is pleased with them.
In secret, we please the Father by faith because we do our good deeds for his sake only, and so when we give in secret we show that they are only for him. This is all part of faith. When we do our good works in secret, we trust that Christ will reward us even though our hearts naturally long to be praised by men.
Secret good works “put to death the deeds of the flesh.” They move us from desires to please ourselves to please God. And in the end, lies the Father’s reward. He will be generous in giving us what we need now and will be lavish with us when he gives us eternal life with him in an unimaginable world.
And our secret good deeds will one day forever echo through the chambers of heaven. They will to be remembered and savored by our God. He will give us gifts in heaven for doing good deeds for Jesus’ sake, if they are done for him in secret.
Like secret giving, Jesus tells us to pray in secret. Public praying is not a sin, but it does come with spiritual danger. The temptation to make a show and appear religious is a temptation in us all. No doubt the hypocrites prayed with delusions that their prayers were as beautiful and powerful as Solomon’s public prayer dedicating the temple or as powerful as Moses’ final blessing to the people of Israel. The applause and praise they received only fueled their lusts to be praised all the more, and it compelled them to hone their skills to place their prayers before the largest audiences.
But Jesus shows us that these were ugly prayers. They were prayers empty of faith and as worthless as the Gentiles’ babblings to idols. They chanted prayers over and over again thinking that God was impressed by their endurance and many words.
Jesus’ example was a short, plain prayer. It was a counter example to the long-winded prayers of the Pharisees and the directionless chants of the Gentiles. It is a prayer that first begins with submission before God. It recognizes the God of the Universe by recognizing his realm, Kingdom and throne. The prayer progresses by teaching us dependence. It has us ask for food and for the Father to forgive us as we have forgiven others. The prayer then it ends just as suddenly as it begins. Perhaps in less than minute, we are closing the prayer, by asking for the Father to keep us from situations that would allow us to fall into sin and remembering his Kingdom and power.
Now debate has raged for centuries as to whether or not Jesus meant this prayer to be recited or to be used as a model for our prayers. Personally, I have no desire to engage this debate, except to say that we should allow for Christian freedom regardless. But I will say that this is a beautiful prayer. It is a beautiful expression of faith. Consider just some of its themes in relation to faith: “Father we humbly submit before your throne and we give praise to you alone. We bow before your kingdom in heaven and acknowledge that your will is immovable, unshakable and unbreakable. Father sustain our bodies for today and let tomorrow take care of itself. We confess before you that we are sinners and because you have forgiven us, we forgive those who have sinned against us. We cannot overcome the evil one in our strength, but you can overcome him. Help us Father by guiding us and leading us away from the evil that would overwhelm our hearts and cause us to sin before your holy throne.”
No one will ever enter the Kingdom of Heaven carrying a grudge. No one will come before God forgiven with bitterness in their heart that is against their brother, their neighbor or their enemy. This was a surprising revelation for Jesus’ contemporaries. They had always been taught that if someone takes your eye you should demand their eye in return. If someone cuts off your hand, you should cut of theirs in retaliation. But Jesus asked his hearers to set aside their vengeance for something grater.
An eye for an eye is attractive to us because our hearts are wired with the Law of God. And in this wiring is a sense of justice much like Newton’s third law of motion that tells us that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction.
But grudge keeping is the height of selfishness. In an age where the Gospel is freely offered to any who will take it, there is no reason why we should hold other people’s debts of their heads when ours have been set aside by the blood of Jesus. But there are many who refuse to embrace the Gospel on account of exercising “their rights” to hold someone else’s offenses against them. When we are wronged our hearts crave justice. We want instant accountability and a punishment that will satisfy our rage. But more to the point, we want revenge. But ignore the fact that we daily sin against our Heavenly Father, but we can’t ignore the slightest offense against us. And we are unjust when we take revenge, because when we do we substitute our lack of mercy for God’s great mercy and own wisdom for God’s.
But Jesus offers us atonement for our sins. At the cross he absorbed every offense we committed against him and others. This is why when we forgive, we walk as Jesus walked (1 John 2:6). We express a faith in the hope that at the end of time God will settle all accounts and grievances according to his mercy, justice and love. And through forgiveness we become like God, who has set aside our innumerable offenses that we might be like him and spend eternity with him.
It is ironic that the Pharisees took such a humble act and perverted into pride. Had they even bothered to delve into the Scriptures that they claimed keep with such meticulous precision, they would have seen how fasting was meant to humble themselves before God.
Notable fasting in Scripture was always seen as an expression of a selflessness It was always an act of emptying one’s pride. And fasting is also a Spirit driven exercise that wells up in a stirred a heart that it has been stirred to sorrow and love. When David fasted over his sick son, he wasn’t worried about eating and drinking for an entire week. His thoughts weren’t on what others thought about his fasting but on his infant son who lay dying on account of his many sins. Nineveh fasted as they trembled in holy fear at Jonah’s message from God. They weren’t worried about what their fellow countrymen thought about their fasting, they were worried about what God was thinking about them. In Susa, the Jews fasted as they cried out to God over Haman’s plan to annihilate them. They didn’t care about being seen by each other as more religious, they cared only for God’s help in saving them from extinction. In every case, fasting was never meant as a show of devotion, but as the devotion itself. And like other good works, Jesus tells us to do our fasting in secret.
Private conversations are meant to be kept private. It is no one’s business to know what has been said between you and God because there is no higher judge. The same is true when you fast along with prayer. God sees your fasting, and he knows you better than you know yourself. There is no way you can ever gain his approval by convincing others that what you are doing is noble and righteous. What other people think are beyond your control. So when hypocrites parade around their prayers, their giving and their fasting they do so not for God but for themselves. They do these things to gratify their lusts to be praised by other people instead of God. They take the most humble acts of faith and pervert them into the lowest acts of pride. It is no wonder that God reserves a greater condemnation for these things. To take a holy thing meant to lead others to Jesus and pervert it for personal gain brings disgrace to his Name and destroys the souls of others. This is why Jesus’ message is simple and clear: Don’t be like them. Keep your prayers and fasting secret and your heart will be forever lost if it you continue to parade it around before others.
Human beings are treasure seekers. God gave us heart senses that are so perfectly integrated with our emotions that sunsets are more than just the fading light from the daily dipping of our nearest start below the horizon and Mozart classics are more than incoherent scrapings on pieces of wood. God gave us longings and this is why we can discern beauty and even differentiate between them. This is also why our souls gravitate to those things we intrinsically know are beautiful and that give us joy.
The eye that Jesus speaks of in this passage is more than the complex mass of tissue and nerve fibers that enables us to see objects. The eye of the body is the marriage of the physical senses to our emotions. It is the thing that perceives the world around us that shapes the desires of our heart. So we can not only see things, we can discern things. We can make judgments about the quality and goodness of things whether they are ordinary like food or spiritual like things we think are worthy to worship.
In fact, we judge everything. Every waking moment we are taking in information that is being processed in our brains and filtered through our hearts about the things, people and concepts we encounter in daily life. Every day we are making decisions between what we would call ordinary and extraordinary things, the things that everyday we determine to be ugly, plain and beautiful to us.
So if the starting point of our decision making processes is damaged or flawed, then the judgments that follow will be damaged and flawed. If our eye is evil, then every decision that follows will be tainted with evil too. Even if we believe in our heart that our decisions are noble and true, it makes no difference if our hearts are diseased. Any blind man can hold up an ordinary piece of cut glass to his blind eyes and convince himself it is a diamond. But restore the blind man’s sight, and you’ll change his ability to perceive. He will not only be able to see the light that shimmers from a diamond, he’ll see things at a deeper level. He will have the capacity to see the difference between the diamond and cut glass when they both felt the same to him when he was blind.
The treasure that every heart seeks is God, but the treasure it rests on is often not God. This is why Jesus urges us to grasp a hold of the eternal gift of faith. And this is why he asks us to trust that the eternal treasures we cannot fully see now will come and satisfy us and bring us everlasting joy.
Jesus warns us that all earthly things will perish. Money, cars, houses, boats, computers, electronics are just as perishable as food in the shadow of eternity. They usually last no more than a century and they never bring us what they originally promised us. So we should treat these things like we treat perishable food. We should never consume to much and we should never expect it to be edible tomorrow.
Eternal treasures do last, and the greatest of all heavenly treasures is Jesus Christ himself. This is why we should serve God and not money.
Worry is the anti-joy. There is nothing more draining and more life sapping than the high anxieties that test us. Life’s trials are bad enough, but when worries come they paralyze us so that we cannot even call to God for help.
Worry is one of the most common spiritual diseases, and yet the ugliest expression of doubt. Nothing says to God “I distrust your promises” more than our worries that doubt that he will provide for us. In fact, that is all worry is. It is the fear that your own strength is insufficient to overcome this life and that there is nothing left to save you. So it offends God twice. It tells him that you believe that your strength is your only hope and that his strength is powerless to help.
Worries are often the last and highest hurdle the saint faces in their faith. The fight against worry is a fight against our doubts. From things great and small that we grow dependent upon, our worries signal those things we have put in front of God. These are the things that give life to and sustain our worries and they are like drumbeats that we can’t drown out in our minds.
Jesus devotes a significant portion of his sermon to the common worries of life and when he reminds us of these common worries he reminds us how foolish we are when we give in to them. Lesser creatures like birds and plants are fed and clothed by God, even though they do not plan for their futures, so why should we worry when God values us more than these? Jesus goes even further. He reminds us that we cannot control our bodies at even the most basic levels. The average heart beats nearly 40 million beats per year, yet we have no conscious control over it. We cannot command our hearts to start and stop as we please. Go even deeper and think about the tens of trillions of cells in the human body that make up the organs, fluids, bones, and skin that allow us to survive. Each of these cells are carrying on thousands of functions every moment of every day to sustain our lives, though we have no say whether they are carried out. This is why Jesus is so right in saying we cannot add even a single hour to our lives because we don’t have any control over them.
Jesus uses these pictures to humble us and to introduce us to true faith. Our Lord was interested in giving us a clear idea what a true and humble submission before God looks like. But to do this he has to show us the futility of worry, our wickedness and what it takes to resist it. Jesus’ faithful ones seek the Kingdom of God and his righteousness first. They depend on his forgiveness and righteousness. Jesus provides not only salvation, but all the means to it. And in his love he will sustain our bodies and provide us with clothing and shelter.
True faith is birthed while true repentance is watching over it and true repentance only finds us when we find ourselves surrendering our bodies, our hearts and our minds to the will of Christ. The heart of faith is about conceding to the truth of things, and through faith in Christ we find the joys that chase away all of life’s worries.