A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:2-4 A Christian’s religion: 1). Christian giving.
There is much teaching in the Old Testament on compassion for the poor. The Greek word for almsgiving in verse 2 (*eleemosune*) means a deed of mercy or pity. Since our God is a merciful God, as Jesus has just emphasized, ‘kind to the ungrateful and the selfish’ (Lk.6:35,36; cf.Mt.5:45,48), his people must be kind and merciful too. Jesus obviously expected his disciples to be generous givers. His words condemn ‘the selfish stinginess of many’ as Ryde put it.
Generosity is not enough, however. Our Lord is concerned throughout this Sermon with motivation, with the hidden thoughts of the heart. In his exposition of the sixth and seventh commandments, he indicated that both murder and adultery can be committed in our heart, unwarranted anger being a kind of heart-murder and lustful looks a kind of heart-adultery. In the matter of giving he has the same concern about secret thoughts. The question is not so much what the hand is doing (passing over some cash or a cheque) but what the heart is thinking while the hand is doing it. There are three possibilities. Either we are seeking the praise of men, or we preserve our anonymity but are quietly congratulating ourselves, or we are desirous of the approval of our divine Father alone.
A ravenous hunger for the praise of men was the besetting sin of the Pharisees. ‘You … receive glory from one another,’ Jesus said of the them, ‘and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God.’ (Jn.5:44). Similarly John the evangelist commented: ‘They loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.’ (Jn.12:43). So insatiable was their appetite for human commendation that it quite spoiled their giving. Jesus ridicules the way they turned it into a public performance. He pictures a pompous Pharisee on his way to put money into the special box at the temple or synagogue, or to take a gift to the poor. In front of him march the trumpeters, blowing a fanfare as they walk, and quickly attracting a crowd. ‘They pretended no doubt.’ comments Calvin, ‘that it was to call the poor, as apologies (sc.excuses) are never wanting: but it was perfectly obvious that they were hunting for applause and commendation.’ Whether Pharisees sometimes did this literally or whether Jesus was painting an amusing caricature does not really matter. In either case he was rebuking our childish anxiety to be highly esteemed by men. As Spurgeon put it, ‘To stand with a penny in one hand and a trumpet in the other is the posture of hypocrisy.’.
And ‘hypocrisy’ is the word which Jesus used to characterize this display. In classical Greek the *hupokrites* was first an orator and then an actor. So figuratively the word came to be applied to anybody who treats the world as a stage on which he plays a part. He lays aside his true identity and assumes a false one. He is no longer himself but in disguise, impersonating somebody else. He wears a mask. Now in a theatre there is no harm or deceit in the actors playing their parts. It is an accepted convention. The audience know they have come to a drama; they are not taken in by it. The trouble with the religious hypocrite, on the other hand, is that he deliberately sets out to deceive people. He is like an actor in that he is pretending (so that what we are seeing is not the real person but a part, a mask, a disguise), yet he is quite unlike the actor in this respect: he takes some religious practice which is a real activity and he turns it into what it was never meant to be, namely a piece of make-believe, a theatrical display before an audience. And it is all done for applause.
It is easy to poke fun at those Jewish Pharisees of the first century. Our Christian Pharisaism is not so amusing. We may not employ a troop of trumpeters to blow a fanfare each time we give to a church or a charity. Yet, to use the familiar metaphor, we like to ‘blow our own trumpet’. It boosts our ego to see our name as subscribers to charities and supporters of good causes. We fall to the very same temptation: we draw attention to our giving in order to ‘be praised by men’.
Of such people who seek the praise of men, Jesus says with emphasis: *they have their reward.* The verb translated ‘have’ (*apecho*) was at that time a technical term in commercial transactions; it meant to ‘receive a sum in full and give a receipt for it’. (AG). It was often used in the papyri. So the hypocrites who seek applause will get it, but then ‘they have had all the reward they are going to get’. (JBP). Nothing further is due to them, nothing but judgement on the last day.
Tomorrow:Matthew 6:2-4 A Christian’s religion: Christian giving (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.