“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:1-4 (NRSV)
As Jesus is defining faithful Israel in the Sermon on the Mount, we have to keep in mind that, for your average Joseph, “faithful Israel” meant very lawful, very rich, and very powerful people.
I’m hesitant to name specific categories like “the Pharisees” or “the Sanhedrin” in this regard, because we find examples and counter-examples in just about every group Jesus runs across. But we recognize the type.
The stereotypical “faithful” Israelite is well-off because God has rewarded his obedience. He donates large sums of money in the Temple in front of everyone. He prays loudly and longly where people can hear him. He associates only with other “holy” people and would not dream of touching unclean food or an unclean person. He has subscribed to a rigorous list of requirements to keep him from breaking the Law, which he fastidiously observes (at least in public) and constantly adjures others to do the same. Everywhere he goes, people know his name. He has a lofty position formally in the religious order and informally among the people. He is always given the best chair, the most prestigious seat, and his goal in life is to acquire even more “holiness,” prosperity, and regard so that he might move up even higher – all evidence that God must favor him, for what does the Law teach if not that true obedience is rewarded by earthly gain while disobedience is punished by suffering?
Everyone knows these people. Everyone has seen them out and about town on their way to the next important council to give an important speech. Everyone has seen the gold-plated furnishing in the Temple they have bought. Everyone has observed them at the corner adjuring some poor Israelite that God would exalt him if he would just be more observant of the holy Torah.
What people may not know, or perhaps have conveniently forgotten under the overwhelming weight of all this holiness, is that they have also had six different wives they have cast aside for trivial reasons, and when they found a beat up Samaritan on the side of the road, they crossed to the other side to scurry by.
As with the rest of the Sermon, Jesus encourages his followers not to be like those people, but rather to pursue true faithfulness for God’s sake. You don’t give alms to the poor to create an image and reputation for yourself; you do it because God has instructed you to take care of the poor among you, for such is His character and so are His people.
But here, Jesus is not content with correct motives – he instructs his followers to actually conceal their good works. He justifies this using an interesting economy where being rewarded with public opinion takes away from being rewarded by God. The more you are rewarded by man, the less you will be rewarded by God, and vice-versa.
We must be careful, though, not to make a theological abstraction out of this. This is historical and concrete. In Israel, the publicly showy holy men did receive rewards – money, esteem, power, influence. But those who would be faithful in quiet, unassuming ways would be rewarded by God at some point in the future.
Given the context of the Sermon on the Mount, it probably makes the most sense to conclude that Jesus is talking about the impending reversal of fortunes where those who are currently prosperous and in power will be brought low, whereas those who currently suffer and are oppressed will be exalted. This eschatological event presents a fork in the road that runs all the way through the Sermon: you can be with the rich and powerful now and receive their judgement, or you can be with the poor and oppressed now and receive their reward.
We do not have an impending reversal of fortunes like this that I’m aware of, but we do have a new creation where the things that get you ahead in the present state of affairs are unlikely to survive. The clock is ticking for the world that rewards fame, power, and stepping on the backs of the disadvantaged to improve your own position. The sand is running out of the hourglass for those who profess that their Lord is Jesus while they bow to the idols of our age – lighting a few mounds of incense for Caesar on their way to the Temple.
Perhaps we can find in Jesus’ teaching our own call to reject the things this present age rewards that we may find ourselves resurrected to a new creation.
- What are the things that characterize the new creation, and how can you identify with those things in your own life?
- What are some examples in our own day of receiving rewards “from men” for our behavior?