1 “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. 2 “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. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
I will not soon forget one of the more embarrassing moments of my life. I speak of it now only with a sense of shame. Some years ago I was in a small village in Honduras with a team of pastors, doctors, dentists, builders, and others. On one particular day, I was with a group of four or five others in a truck. We were driving around the area, giving bags of rice and beans to the poor.
We stopped in front of one house. A little Honduran lady emerged from her little house. I can close my eyes right now and see that road and that house and that lady. We introduced ourselves and I handed her a bag of rice and a bag of beans. One member of the team was shooting video of this so that, after the trip, he could put together a presentation to use as a tool for encouraging others to go on these mission trips. In truth, I didn’t give much thought to it, though it was a little uncomfortable having all of this caught on camera.
So I gave the lady her rice and beans and, after visiting a moment, we turned to go. “Wait just a minute,” the cameraman said. “My camera failed to record. Let’s do it again.” And, before I knew what was happening, another member of the team had taken the rice and beans back from the poor, bewildered lady and had given them to me to re-give to her. I do recall protesting with nervous laughter that this made me very uncomfortable, but I certainly should’ve protested even more. I was embarrassed for the lady and, in truth, for myself as well. But I gave her the rice and beans again. This time it was all caught on tape. The good deed recorded, we left.
As I gave the lady the rice and beans for a second time, I thought of the words of the Lord Jesus that we are considering this morning.
1 “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.
I felt dirtied by what I had done and I told myself I would never again consent to such a deliberate staging of a good deed. As citizens of the Kingdom of God, as followers of Jesus, we are not to indulge in cheap religious showmanship and posturing. To do so is to reveal a heart beset by false and ignoble motives. The entire Sermon on the Mount is about bringing the human heart in line with the truths of the Kingdom of God. That day, my heart was not in line, and I still cringe at it.
In our text this morning, Jesus is speaking about that vice that John Chrysostom called “the most tyrannical passion of all, the rage and madness with respect to vainglory, which springs up in them that do right.” Vainglory refers to the selfish manipulation of others through our own posturing with an eye towards receiving their praise. It is religious showmanship. It is ostentatious and arrogant showiness that Jesus is speaking against in our text. The Jews had their ways of doing this. So do we.
In an 1803 booklet that John Hancock wrote to the Quakers, he complained of the Christian tendency to repeat the errors of the Jews that Jesus was addressing in our text. After noting that Jesus came to found “a religion of practice, instead of one consisting in exterior shews and ceremonies, as it was then practiced,” Hancock wrote this:
This outward shew of religion has been too generally substituted by many of his professed followers in the place of that which He taught: so that, comparing what passes with many for the Christian religion, with the former modes, which it appeared to supplant, we can say little more, only that there has been a change of name, and some little diversity in the ceremonies, while the radical principle of an ostentatious, showy religion still remains.
To the extent that this ostentatious, showy religion does indeed still remain (and who can deny that it does?) we really do need to tend again to the warnings of Jesus in this regard.
I. Religious showiness and posturing is a sin. (v.1-2,5)
Let us begin with a basic assertion: religious showiness and posturing is a sin.
1 “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.
Jesus is not condemning righteousness, or practicing your righteousness, or even practicing your righteousness in public per se. After all, we must live in public and one hopes that Christians are righteous in public. In fact, we are commanded to live righteous lives in public. Remember that earlier in chapter 5, Jesus said this:
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 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.
Placed beside each other, these verses and our text this morning present a fascinating idea: works of righteousness arising naturally from a heart transformed by the indwelling Christ should and must be done before men, for, in that case, the believer isn’t deliberately calculating his actions. In that case, the believer is simply living outwardly the reality of Christ who dwells within him or her. This we must do! In fact, we are wrong to conceal Christ in us.
No, Jesus is not condemning public righteousness. What He is condemning is practicing your righteousness before other people to be seen by them. This is a reference to arrogant intent in the practice of righteousness. This is a reference to doing holy things precisely so that people will see you. The issue is showing off. The issue is doing things with the intention of receiving praise.
The phrase, “to be seen,” is a translation of the Greek word theathenai. Our word “theater” or “theatrical” comes from this. There were those in Jesus’ day who made a theatrical display of their righteousness. “Look at me!” they seemed to say. “Look at how holy I am!”
The result is that the one doing this “will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” “From your Father” is literally translated “beside your Father.” A.T. Robertson gives it the sense of “standing by [God’s] side, as He looks at it.” When God looks at the intent behind your righteousness, what does He see? Purity of heart or the desire for applause? And how does the idea of standing beside God as He looks at your heart make you feel?
Why do we do what we do? Jesus offers us an illustration of impure motivation.
2 “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.
There is no record of anybody literally blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to announce their own righteousness. This appears to be a figure of speech that Jesus is employing. However, there were very close parallels to this idea. Clarence Jordan has passed on an example cited by E.M. Ligon.
It was customary for a Jew who wanted an unusual portion of God’s blessing or forgiveness for some sin, to do penance in the form of almsgiving. One of the customary ways was to buy a skin of water and give it to the poor. Water was scarce in Palestine, and usually obtainable only from a water-carrier. Then the carrier would stand in the street with the giver beside him and sound a trumpet and shout, “O thirsty, come for drink offering.” The poor who accepted this charity paid for it by good wishes to the giver, such as, “God forgive thy sins, O giver of drink.” In this way the giver obtained considerable free advertising, and supposedly some forgiveness.
This is an example of religious showmanship, of ostentatious, spiritual arrogance. We need not blow a literal trumpet to be guilty of this. The anonymous 5th century commentary on Matthew, the Opus Imperfectum, defines the trumpet as “every act of deed through which boasting about the deed is made known.” That seems true enough. We blow our own trumpets whenever we do what we do to be seen by others. This is hypocrisy, as Jesus put it, because a heart that wants to be seen and complimented by others is not a heart that is truly God’s.
We can do this in the way we give money, the way we serve, the way we talk, and the way we act in church. We can also do this in the way we pray.
5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
Here again is the charge of hypocrisy: it is hypocritical to pray as if you are really praying to God when, in reality, you simply want your prayers to be noticed. There is great danger in long, public prayers. The danger is that our prayers can become shows in which we try to prove our own righteousness to others. We want others to say, “My, how spiritual he must be!” We want others to say, “Did you hear her prayer? What a great woman of God!” And so we are tempted to show off when we pray.
The church has often battled with the temptation to pray in a showy manner. Barclay notes that “in 18th century worship in Scotland length meant devotion.” He quotes W.D. Maxwell as saying that “the efficacy of prayer was measure by its ardour and its fluency, and not least by its fervid lengthiness.” Furthermore, a Rabbi Levi said, “Whoever is long in prayer is heard.” Another saying was, “Whenever the righteous make their prayer long, their prayer is heard.” Finally, he notes the words of one preacher who described a particularly long and flowery prayer offered in a Boston church as “the most eloquent prayer ever offered to a Boston audience.” Meaning, of course, that the one praying was doing so for effect and not truly to God.
This, brothers, is a sin. This, sisters, is a sin. Religious posturing reveals a heart that has yet to be turned over fully to Jesus Christ.
II. The Christ-saturated heart is content with the secret blessing of God. (3-4,6-8)
What, then, is the answer to these empty acts of religiosity? The answer, once again, as in every area of the Sermon on the Mount, is to have the human heart so captivated by Jesus Christ that there is no room in it for these selfish desires to be entertained. Jesus demonstrates this in the examples of almsgiving and prayer.
3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
This is an amazing figure of speech, apparently invented by Jesus: “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” We are not to do things for the Lord to be seen by others. Apparently there is a sense in which even we ourselves do not need to dwell long on what we are doing. And this makes perfect sense. The more we ponder having our works seen, either by others or by our own selves, the more we will be tempted to perform. But as we have seen time and again, the Kingdom life which we should model is not a matter of performance. We should simply act out of the inclinations of hearts that have been redeemed by the Lord. So give in secret and give before the King.
So, too, with the way we pray.
6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
To pray in secret does not mean that we should not pray publicly. Indeed, it would be strange for the people of God to gather together in worship and not pray! Here again, Jesus is less concerned with the literal location of our prayers than He is with the intentions of our hearts when we pray. Having a secret place to pray is a safeguard against our own pride and desire to be seen and heard. If you pray in secret it means that you likely are really praying and that the Lord God is truly your only concern.
This should be our great desire in our acts of obedience, charity, and prayer: to please an audience of one consisting of the Lord God of Heaven and Earth. In point of fact, it is manifestly silly to want the applause of anybody but God! That fascinating 4th century saint, John Chrysostom, painted a poignant picture of the absurdity of choosing the applause of men over the applause of God.
And let me add, even were there no penalty, it were not meet for him who desires glory, to let go this our theatre, and take in exchange that of men. For who is there so wretched, as that when the king was hastening to come and see his achievements, he would let him go, and make up his assembly of spectators of poor men and beggars? For this cause then, He not only commands to make no display, but even to take pains to be concealed: it not being at all the same, not to strive for publicity, and to strive for concealment.
Whose approval could ever mean more to us than God’s? Whose joy could ever be as valuable to us? Whose “Well done!” should we truly want?
Jesus repeats this phrase twice in our text this morning: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” I ask you: is that not enough? Is it enough for us to be seen and rewarded by God?
In truth, the motivations behind our actions are wonderfully accurate revealers of our true spiritual condition. When you do something for another, do you have ways of letting other people know? When you give a great gift, is it important to you that people be made aware of it? What reward are you seeking? Whose approval do you most desire?
 John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Vol.10. First Series. Ed., Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), p.130.
 John Hancock, Thoughts on the Abuse of Figurative Language as Applied to Religious Subjects. (Belfast: J. Smyth, D. & S. Lyons, 1803), p.45.
 “But notice he did not say only ‘before people,’ but added, ‘in order to be seen by them.’ Therefore whoever does not do it to be seen by people, even if he did it before people, nonetheless appears not to have done it before people. Therefore, if it is not possible to give alms in such a way that nobody sees or perceives it, it is possible to do it with the intention that we are not seen by people…Therefore the alms that are seen by people are not displeasing to God, but only those that have been given in order to be seen by people.” Thomas C. Oden, ed., James Kellerman, trans., Incomplete Commentary on Matthew (Opus imperfectum). vol.1. Ancient Christian Texts. Thomas C. Oden and Gerald L. Bray, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), p.113-114. “Wherefore it is not simply the thing, but the intent, which He both punishes and rewards.” Chrysostom, p.131.
 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol.I (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.50.
 Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1952), p.53.
 Oden, ed., p.83-84.
 William Barclay, Gospel of Matthew. Vol.1. The Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1968), p.194-195,197.
 Chrysostom, p.132.