In the previous section of the sermon the Lord has demonstrated that true righteousness involves a much more radical obedience to the law than that taught and exemplified by the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. Now he turns to another aspect of life to demonstrate that the same deeper engagement and commitment of the heart is required not only in matters of obedience to the commandments of the law but as well in the matter of religious observances and the practice of piety. He is still, very obviously, contrasting two different religious visions and principles and now illustrates their difference in respect to three aspects of piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Once again the three sections follow a literary pattern: we read first how the hypocrites observe these duties and the reward they will receive, then how Christ’s followers are to undertake the same obligations and what their reward will be. We take this morning his remarks regarding almsgiving. Interestingly, these three activities – which were the most prominent requirements for personal piety in the religion of first century Judaism – together with pilgrimage to Mecca and the recitation of the creed constitute the five pillars of Islam. Jesus takes it as a matter of course that his followers would also give to the poor, pray, and fast. He does not say, “If you give to the poor…” but “When you give to the poor.”
In a general way, the three obligations express our obligation to others, to God, and to ourselves. We give to help the poor, we pray to God to express our dependence upon him and to worship him, and we fast, at least in part, to sanctify ourselves. [Stott, Christian Counter-Culture, 127]
v.1 This verse is a statement of the theme of the entire section and applies as well to his later remarks concerning prayer and fasting as they do to almsgiving. There is a great deal of difference, a world of difference, between living a life of public righteousness and living so as to gain a reputation for one’s righteousness. God knows the difference.
v.2 Generosity is right and good. Ostentation is entirely another matter. “Sounding a trumpet” – tada…tada – is a figure of speech, the Lord’s way of mocking the attitude of those looking for credit for themselves when they are ostensibly caring for others. It is as if they send a trumpeter ahead of them to be sure people notice what they do. The only reward they will get from this ostentatious generosity is the praise of those men impressed by such things. God is not. In rabbinical teaching, by the way, almsgiving was promised a great reward.
Now two matters bear mention. The first is that there are certainly better sentiments in the Jewish literature of the period. People know that they ought not to be hypocrites. The rabbis certainly never recommended hypocrisy. But we have Jesus’ own word and our own inner experience to teach us how great a problem people have in doing the right things for the right reasons. The fact is that the religious system of Judaism in the first century was bound to produce more hypocrisy, not less. Second, Jesus had said earlier in the sermon, in 5:16 that we should let our light shine before men and that they should see our good works. Here he seems to say the opposite. But Jesus is addressing different issues. We should not let cowardice keep us from practicing our faith openly – that is the point of 5:16 – but we should not give place to pride and vanity in the doing of our good works – that is the point here. A.B. Bruce, in his great work on the Gospels, neatly sums up the difference: we should “show when we are tempted to hide and hide when we are tempted to show.” [Cited in Stott, 117]
This is the first use of the word “hypocrite” in the Gospel of Matthew. It won’t be the last. The scribes and Pharisees are called “hypocrites” in Matthew 23 again because they do all their works to be seen by men. The Greek word originally meant an actor, and that is not far from its meaning here. An actor pretends to be someone he is not. He plays a role – in this case the role of the benefactor, the generous man concerned for others – but it is only a role. He is really interested in the praise of his audience.
v.3 Gordon Ross, the late organist at Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen, Scotland once told me that the secret to playing the organ was not to let the left hand know what the right hand was doing and to keep the whole thing a secret from one’s feet! The idea is not only secrecy, but that in the heart of the almsgiver himself there should be a state of unselfconsciousness. We should not be watching and admiring ourselves as we do good works. The poor should be in our view, not ourselves.
v.4 No one else needs to know what good works one does, because God knows. And God will not fail to reward the generosity of his people who give for the sake of others and not for themselves. The idea of God rewarding his people’s obedience is obviously not in any way inconsistent with the Bible’s teaching that we are saved by grace or that without the Lord we can do nothing. As Augustine so memorably put it, when God rewards his people’s obedience and faithfulness he is “crowning his own gifts.” And so, when his people pray for grace to live faithfully, they will pray, as Augustine did, “Command what you will, Lord, but give what you command.”
As Alexander Whyte once put it,
“Our Lord’s words always go to the bottom of things…. Men
alone, of all God’s creatures on earth, have motives.” [With Mercy and with Judgment, 44-45]
Because the heart is the wellspring of life, because God looks upon the heart and judges the human life primarily by what he finds in the heart, the Lord’s teaching is always full of the matters of the heart and the motives of the heart. For the Lord, the motive is the key thing, the thing that determines for him the meaning of what human beings do. It is what he looks for. What a man or woman, boy or girl, is in his or her motives, that is what that person really is, that, just that, and nothing more. As the poet has it:
For I am [a]ware it is the seed of act
God holds appraising in His hollow palm:
Not act grown great thence as the world believes,
Leafage and branchage vulgar eyes admire.
So, the Lord tells us, the essential thing in the practice of piety, as it was in the practice of obedience, is that it is first and primarily a secret thing of the heart. It must be first the love and the worship and the godly intention of the heart before it is ever truly an act of kindness or a prayer or authentic fasting. And our conscience and our own sense of judgment confirms this. If we find out later that some good deed was done all for show, all to gain praise, we withdraw all the credit we attributed to the person who did that deed. When we hear Winston Churchill, as a young soldier, write home to his mother, “I play for high stakes and, given an audience, there is no act too dangerous and too noble,” we cringe and now cannot help but think that some of his most inspiring oratory was uttered in the craven hope of receiving praise. And that really spoils his reputation in our minds. As it should.
So, in the matter of giving to the poor, of helping the needy with one’s time and money, Jesus effectively says that the man who gives with a selfish motive is like the man who does not give at all. If all that the Bible says about the necessity of compassion for the poor and needy condemns “the selfish stinginess of many,” [Ryle in Stott, 128], well it also condemns those who give with their hands but not with their hearts and who are, in fact, not really giving to the poor at all, but buying from them. They are paying for the admiration of men. The fact that the poor may have received some benefit was an accident.
The heart has its ways to practice idolatry and will adjust them to fit the circumstances. There is a great deal of hypocrisy in human life of both the secular and the overtly religious kind. When a secular politician trumpets family values while cheating on his wife we rightly judge that man a hypocrite. He was playing a role. He wanted approval for the expression of sentiments he did not really mean and was not convinced of himself. And, similarly, when a religious man strikes a pious pose that is not the true expression of his heart, he too is a hypocrite. It is sometimes said by people, in justifying their indifference to the church, that people who go to church are hypocrites. What they mean by that, apparently, is that church-goers strike a pious pose that they then abandon in their everyday conduct. A man comes to church and kneels in prayer before God and confesses his sins and sings his praises, but then at work he swears, he is unkind, he cheats on his expense account, and constantly boasts of his achievements. Well, that, alas, is too often true. Especially among nominal Christians. It is no less true, however, of people who do not go to church. They are also always striking poses.
The difference, however, is that religious hypocrisy is a greater crime because God’s name is invoked and the pose one strikes is of loyalty to God. Counterfeit holiness is a worse thing than counterfeit goodness. Counterfeit faith in Christ is a deeper crime than counterfeit morality.
Christian hypocrisy is the worst kind of hypocrisy because it employs Christ and the gospel for vain and selfish ends. That is why the Lord is so hard on the Pharisees!
Now, it is worth saying that, characteristically, the Lord puts everything in black and white. One is either sincerely interested in the poor or hypocritically interested in one’s own reputation. Often people’s motives are mixed and, quite often, people are largely unaware of their motives. Certainly they often think that their motives are better than they are. But Christ is going to the bottom of things as he always does. God sees the heart and knows what the true and fundamental motive is and there, it is black or white, however incompletely or imperfectly it expresses itself in the conscious behavior of individuals. What that means, of course, is that even sincere Christians struggle with hypocrisy in their behavior. They want to have pure motives, but they find sinful motives crowding in. Ministerial acquaintances of mine have lost their ministry because they have stumbled with another woman. But they would be the first to tell you that what they did was wrong, that it was contrary not only to what they had preached to others but what they themselves most deeply believed. Hypocrisy is not failing to live up to the standards one aspires to meet. That is human frailty. Hypocrisy is pretending to meet them when one doesn’t really embrace those standards in one’s heart; hypocrisy is the acceptance of one set of standards for the hand and another for the heart. Even then, every true Christian struggles with hypocrisy, because hypocrisy is simply another form of that mother sin of all human sins: pride and self-love.
I’ve told you before of the great 18th century French preacher Jean Massillon, whose pulpit oratory captivated large congregations. One Sunday, after being complimented on his sermon by a parishioner, he replied, “The Devil already said that to me and much more eloquently than you.” Every serious Christian knows how easily the best things he or she ever does are tainted with mixed motives and lurking pride and the desire for praise.
It is this fact, this reality of our struggle with our motives, with the unrelenting pressure of our self-love, that led the perceptive “Rabbi” Duncan, of the 19th century Scottish Presbyterian Church to say,
“I have never done a sinless action during the seventy years
[of my life]. I don’t say but by God’s grace there may have been
some holy action done, but never a sinless action during the
seventy years. What an awful thing is human life! And what a
solemn consideration it should be to us, that we have never done
a sinless action all our life, that we have never done one act that
did not need to be pardoned.” [Moody Stuart, Life of Duncan,
Duncan means, of course, that he never did anything with perfectly pure and unmixed motives. He never did anything that was entirely and perfectly motivated by love for God and for others and had nothing of himself and self-love in it. That is how pervasive sin and the corruption of sin is in human life. The saints have always admitted this. Here is William Cowper’s verse:
When I would speak what Thou hast done
To save me from my sin,
I cannot make Thy mercies known,
But self-applause creeps in.
The best things we ever do – even the worship of God – are tainted by our self-love and its spirit coming up from deep within us. I mention this to place us in the right frame of mind to consider the Lord’s injunction. Obviously Jesus is not concerned here to tell us that our motives are always mixed and that we never do a righteous thing. He is telling us to look to our motives and to do our acts of piety, our religious works in sincerity and without regard to our reputation or credit. As before when he told us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, the Lord is not concerned to reflect on our imperfections but to set before us the standard of behavior to be embraced, aspired to, and obeyed by his followers.
Hear your Lord and Savior tell you to look to your motives; to be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men… You see, you have to be careful not to do that. It takes concentration of mind and determination of will. It is to your mind and your will that you Savior is appealing. You mind because we are so used to our self-love that we hardly notice it or think about it. But we must think and think hard about it. He appeals to our will because it takes some doing to stand against a power as mighty as our pride.
Listen to wise Christians across the ages in their simple wisdom about this and about how Christians must proceed if they are to heed their Master’s summons here and do their works of righteousness for God and for others and not for themselves. Listen and then ask yourself if this is the sort of wisdom and counsel that we get much of in our Christian world today. In every case, this is counsel designed to purify the motives and especially take ourselves out of them. Jesus says, “Don’t desire to be recognized for your good deeds.” Wise Christians apply that this way:
Charles Simeon, the great Anglican evangelical of the 18th and 19th centuries, speaking to himself in his diary: Talk not about myself.
Thomas à Kempis in his masterpiece, Imitation of Christ: “Desire to be unknown.”
Jeremy Taylor the saintly writer of the spiritual classics Holy Living and Holy Dying, “O teach me to love to be concealed.”
Archbishop Leighton, the godly Scot of the Second Reformation, “Be ambitious to be unknown.”
The crest of the French catholic mystic, François Fénelon, “ama nesciri”, that is, “love to be unknown.”
And Alexander Moody Stuart, the 19th century Scot preacher, “There is not one humble heart in all the world that the high God is not dwelling in.”
And, better still, an illustration I gave some of you many years ago and you have never forgotten. Now it is time for the rest of you to hear it and take it to heart.
Bonaventure tells us in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi  that when people extolled the holiness and piety of Francis – in other words, when Francis got precisely those plaudits that Jesus here warns his disciples not to seek (and, of course, he got lots of such praise) – he commanded one of his friars to do the opposite. That is, Francis would depute one of his monks to follow him wherever he went and whenever people praised him for his piety, this monk was under strict orders to whisper spiritual insults in Francis’ other ear. So, when someone praised Francis for his holiness, this monk would tell him that he was boorish and mercenary, unskilled and useless. And Francis would reply, “May the Lord bless you my beloved son for it is you who speak the very truth and what the son of Peter Bernadone should hear.” (Don’t all volunteer at once to serve me in this way!)
Now that may seem outrageous to many today – what a silly way to live, what a ridiculous thing to do – but, then we live in a proud and self-loving age and hardly any of us is nearly as humble nor our motives nearly as pure as those of St. Francis and these other men who made it a matter of pointed intention to rip the selfishness and the pride out of their hearts so that they might live and act in the kind of holy disinterestedness that Jesus commands his followers here in Matthew 6. Those who study carefully both the Word of God and their own hearts know very well that selfish motives, prideful reasons for our behavior, even our best behavior, are so deeply fixed in us that the only way they will come out is to be torn out.
Perhaps we can relate more easily to Amy Carmichael’s insistence that high caste converts in India, where she was a missionary, be required to hew stones and dig foundations for a house – low caste work – and to do so in front of low caste Christian coolies. No sterner test could be found. It was honorable to preach and teach and grace in teaspoons would suffice for a preaching tour and for giving one’s testimony in public. Ditch digging, however, lent dignity to no one. Grace in rivers was required for this. But, day by day, such high caste converts, required to work in true disinterestedness, not only without hope of the praise of others, but actually working in a way likely to bring their reputation into disrepute with many whose opinion had before been important to them, day by day they grew in Christian manliness. [A Chance to Die, 264]
So let us all accept, without any quibble, that our sanctification, our growing in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord, our true holiness of heart and life, and, as the Lord Jesus makes a point of saying here and three times through this section, the promised reward of God’s grace, all depend upon the correction, the purification, the simplification of our motives. If we are going to be holy and to live a holy life, if we are to honor the Lord in our works, if we are to please him in the service we offer to others, we must absolutely and in the first place look to our motives. We need to think less about what we do and what we should do and think much more and much more often about why we do what we do and should do what we should do. We must attend to and be careful about our motives, which means, simply, that we must inspect them, correct them, pray over them, and insist to ourselves that only the right motives, the loving and holy motives will be permitted to govern our behavior. Purify the why and the what will take care of itself.
And then we will take the advice of the Christian centuries and make it a point of actually seeking obscurity in our works. It is not enough simply to avoid looking for praise. The proud and self-seeking motive is too powerful, too insidious for that. It must be stood against. It must be pummeled and cut up and starved. And the best way to do that is to cultivate what is contrary to self-seeking. If our sinful motive is to seek attention, then we put that motive to death by seeking obscurity.
And there is a wonderful encouragement here. Many Christians have little enough to give to the poor. But surely it is a great comfort to know that a good man or woman with a pure and selfless motive makes the smallest gift and the least recognized kindness a great thing and a thing to reward in God’s heart-searching sight. [Whyte, With Mercy and With Judgment, 55] Some people give large amounts to the poor or make large contributions to the kingdom of God in other ways but because their motives are wrong, and the trumpets are blaring as they act, their works are, in Augustine’s memorable phrase, simply “splendid sins.” But the smallest gift given with a truly Christian motive – one cup of cold water, one visit, one kind note, one small check or envelope with a little cash in it, even one kind word – one shaft of love and light sent secretly over the city or over the sea for love’s sake and for Christ’s sake, and the record books are opened in heaven and the deed written down in letters of gold. Few as those purely motivated deeds are among all the deeds of mankind, no wonder they make such an impression upon the heart of God!
Look to your motives, think about them, act from right and pure motives and I tell you that you will find a new power in your obedience and in your good works and a new blessing resting upon them. Such is God’s interest and Christ’s interest in your motives.
And there is one encouragement more. There is more perfect freedom and genuine happiness in humble selflessness and in purely motivated works than one could ever find, however temporarily, in the praises that men might lavish on the good works you performed in order that you might be noticed. All the posing, all the posturing, all the worrying about what others think of you, whether you will get the credit you deserve, all the desire to be looked at and the fear that others are being looked at instead is bondage and slavery and nothing else.
But to be rid of all of that is to be free and free to be happy! Remember C.S. Lewis’ wise remark?
“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is a nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.” [Mere Christianity, 114]
Is that not what you want: a cheerful life of holy unconcern about yourself and delight in serving others? Well, look to your motives. They are the key, they are the secret of all obedience and of all of God’s blessing. And how much more blessing we will be to others when we stop worrying about buying things for ourselves with the gifts we make to others.