We are studying Matthew 6:1-8 for Sunday, February 9 – a portion of the Sermon on the Mount dealing with how to worship properly. Or, dealing with motives and the condition of the heart. We’ll have to think further about what this text is “about.” [Some study questions for the text are here.] Meanwhile, here are my notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Let’s keep in mind several things we know: we’re in Matthew’s gospel, with its characteristic themes; we’re reading in the Sermon on the Mount, a long teaching discourse with a careful structure that focuses on entering the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 6:1-8 comes roughly in the middle of the Sermon. It follows the beatitudes, the sayings about salt and light, and the “antitheses,” the “you have heard … but I say” messages. It leads in to Jesus’s model prayer [which, by the way, is our text for next week], more instruction on what to desire and pursue, and on the importance of diligent practice.
Verses 1-6, along with verses 16-21, are one of the annual lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday, so folks who attend Ash Wednesday services will be very familiar with those verses. Judging by the number of times I’ve heard people bring up the idea of “praying in secret,” and whether saying grace in restaurants does or doesn’t qualify as “practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” this is a familiar text even for Bible readers who have never heard of the lectionary.
CLOSER READING: The text here in this talk by Jesus is a set of instructions about religious or spiritual practice: alms-giving, and prayer.
Jesus uses language that addresses everyone – “you all” – and alternates with language that addresses each individual member of the audience – “you,” singular. The pattern seems significant. Verse 1, a general introduction to the topic, is all “you all.” In verses 2-6 and again in verses 16-18, Jesus gives specific examples of what he means, with addressing a general instruction about what NOT to do to “you all,” following up with an individual instruction about what TO do addressed to “you” singularly.
We have a hard time hearing that in English; if we could hear it, though, the pattern would be striking. It would make us think that we ourselves, personally, individually, are assumed to be doing these things – giving to the needy, praying, fasting – and are being taught to do them for the right reason.
Verses 7-15, on the other hand, are addressed to “you all” throughout; it sounds like they’re intentionally about a collective practice of prayer and forgiveness, something we will all be doing together with others.
The word translated “piety” is translated “righteousness” or “justice” in other contexts.
[For the citizens of the ancient world, piety-righteousness-justice was probably closer to one idea than it is for us. We tend to think of “piety” as religious observance, distinct from either righteousness (actually good behavior) or justice (whether as fairness or as deserts). In the ancient world, however, “piety” meant something closer to “properly paying your proper respects to others,” whether the gods or people. That payment might be sacrifices or honor or deference or support or … it depended on which gods and which other people you were talking about and what your relationship was to them. Or so I was taught.
From this perspective, “alms,” offerings of compassion, are dikaiosynē, righteousness-justice-piety, because we owe them to the needy and to God. The needy have that proper claim on us, and God has instructed us to honor it. We owe prayer to God, too, because making supplications to God or before God is proper, since God is the source of everything. And so on.]
Verse 1 calls attention to motive: don’t make the purpose of the practice “to be seen” by others. The word in Greek is the same word that gives us our words “theatre” and “theatrical,” something put on for the purpose of being seen by an audience. A performance.
The word “hypocrite” also has connections to theatre; it can literally mean a stage actor in other contexts.
The word translated “reward” here is sometimes translated “wages.” (Like the wages earned by the laborers in the vineyard, for instance, in a story Jesus tells later in Matthew.) That is, it’s something earned, a direct repayment of some expended effort – the way enjoying a clean office is the reward of taking the time to tidy up, or spending less on emergency car repairs is the reward of doing the scheduled maintenance.
I take Jesus’s general point to be that people and God ask for and reward different things, and that the reward for attending to God is the one that’s really worth something. (See Matthew 6:19-21.) “You-all, don’t do your piety for people, to get their reward, because if you do that you’ll miss doing it for God, so you’ll miss the reward God gives.”
I have tried to find out what the custom of “sounding trumpets” actually referred to, and haven’t been successful yet; I’m not willing to assume it was anything less conventional than having a plaque with the name of a big donor engraved on it and set under a stained glass window or over the door of a Sunday school room.
The word translated “room” (or in the KJV “closet”) evidently meant an “inner room,” which might indeed have been used for storage, but in any event, was a more private part of a dwelling. Not one of the more public rooms. [At my house, this would be … not the living room, but one of the ones we don’t clean up before people come over. The ones that would show how we really live.]
With respect to verse 8, people often ask “If God knows what we need before we ask, why pray?” The question suggests that we think prayer is for letting God know what we need, or what we want. Jesus seems to be telling us that prayer has some other purpose. Or purposes.