Thoughts on Matthew 6:1-4
The first word of this next section of the Sermon on the Mount is “beware,” and is a fitting theme for the remainder of the sermon. The following two chapters, as we will discover, are full of warnings prefaced by “do not” and “beware” statements. This first warning is against “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” I emphasize the last half of that quote because there’s a tension that must be held here with an earlier quote from this sermon that says, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (5:16). The Apostle Peter also addresses the “visibility” side of this tension in 1 Peter 2:12 which says, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
Clearly there’s a right and proper way to do good works that are visible to others that bring glory to God, and there’s a way to do good works for our own vainglory and for which we will not receive any reward from God. It’s important here to see that the first verse describes “practicing righteousness” in general, whereas the subsequent verses address giving specifically. The most obvious answer, which is contained in the first verse, has to do with our motives. Jesus implies that we should and will do righteous acts, but then warns that our reason for doing so must not be to “be seen” by other people. What I take from this is that our good deeds will be seen, and, according to Matthew 5:16 and 1 Peter 2:12, should be seen. Thus, we should be about the business of doing good deeds, but with pure motives. Again, as we have seen over and over again in the previous verses in this sermon, Jesus is cutting through the surface to get at our hearts.
We have already seen that good deeds, done with the right motives, bring glory to God and are an expectation for his followers. In the remaining verses of this passage, Jesus juxtaposes loud, attention-seeking giving with secret, quiets acts of charity to make his point that those who give in a flashy, self-aggrandizing way are “hypocrites” and have “received their reward” – the approbation of man, rather than the favor and reward of the “Father who sees in secret.” It cannot be ignored that Jesus says to give “in secret,” so we’re forced to figure out how to reconcile that with the other two passages I mentioned earlier. How do we give such that our left hand does not know what our right hand is doing, yet do it in such a way that others see it and glorify God? Jesus clearly says to give in secret, so how does that fit with visibility? Or does it?
There are two answers I see. One is that in the first verse Jesus mentions doing good works generally, as already discussed, and then drives down to a more specific and relevant topic that would resonate with his audience. The second is that giving to the poor, even if secretly/anonymously, often results in open and visible effects that bring glory to God. There are many stories where anonymous providential provision brought about much praise and thanksgiving to the Lord and benefit to the recipients (as well encouragement to those who heard or read about it). Those who gave “in secret” have been, or will be, rewarded, and God has received glory. Thus, the tension between giving in secret and letting our light shine is not as difficult as it may have seemed.
In summary, and as always, Jesus is after our hearts. Outward acts, no matter how good, do not matter compared to the motives of our hearts. Our call is to love God and love others, whether that means good works that cannot be hidden or secretive giving that openly blesses others. Either way, we are reminded to do all that we do for the glory of God. Soli Deo Gloria.