God’s approval is our greatest treasure
‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 ‘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. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 ‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever 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.
16 ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19 ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus told the crowd, who were gathered to hear his sermon on the mount, that they should avoid showing off their devotion. After hearing his words read in church today, we are marked with ashes, and then we walk out bearing the sign of the cross on our foreheads. If that isn’t a public display of religiousness, what is?
The NRSV’s translation of the opening words may be a bit misleading. The Greek does not refer to piety or devotion in the sense of overzealous religiosity. It actually says, “Beware of doing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them.” The word translated as “righteousness” can also mean “justice.” Jesus certainly is not warning his hearers against righteous acts. On the contrary, God, in Micah, commands believers to do justice, and Jesus himself, just a few verses earlier in our text, commended those who suffer for righteousness’ sake and said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.
In this chapter of Matthew, Jesus addresses three ways that the Jews of his day practiced their faith: through charitable giving, through prayer, and through fasting. He did not suggest that there is anything wrong with these practices. Far from it! Each section begins not “If you…” but, “Whenever you…” Jesus presupposes that his hearers will give, and pray, and fast. He corrects not the actions themselves, but his followers’ motives for doing them.
The first part of today’s reading deals with almsgiving, or “doing acts of mercy.” Biblical law lays out social structures such as forgiveness of debt, fair treatment of workers, a just distribution of farm land, and interest-free loans that are designed to prevent poverty. In Jesus’ day, however, the greed and oppressive labour practices of the rich had left many of the common people struggling to survive. Jesus expects his hearers to show mercy toward the poor by helping them financially. God desires justice, but when society is unjust, the merciful must protect and provide for the poor.
The truly merciful, however, do not call public attention to their acts of mercy. Jesus mockingly refers to those who sound a trumpet before them when they make a charitable donation. There is no evidence that such attention seeking was an actual practice. What we have here is exaggeration, a humorous description of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that people make sure others notice how kind and generous they are to those less fortunate than themselves. Jesus was not alone in condemning such displays. The rabbis criticised those who humiliated the poor by their ostentatious giving.
Nevertheless, in the honour/shame Society of Jesus’ day, public displays of charity were the social norm for anyone who had wealth to spare. Reputations depended on public acknowledgement of generosity and good behaviour. In such a context, Jesus’ warning against giving in order to be seen and honoured by others was a radical message. We might do well to reflect on the ways that our own ways of giving can shame the needy and add polish to public perceptions of the rich.
After warning against charitable giving for social profit, Jesus turns to the topic of prayer. Once again he focuses on motives. Jesus warns against hypocritical prayer, but he clearly does not forbid corporate or formal prayer. A few verses later in this same passage Jesus teaches his community of disciples the Lord’s Prayer as a model to memorise and use. Although in today’s reading Jesus advises praying behind a closed door, his focus is not on where one prays, but on why and how.
Genuine prayer is not a theatrical display; it is a conversation with “your Father who is in secret.” His language suggests a loving family relationship. If I wanted to tell my mother, “I love you,” would I shout the words in the street for all the neighbours to hear, or would I hug my mum and murmur the words into her ear? Jesus says our prayers should be intimate conversations with our heavenly parent, not staged acts intended to provoke public amazement at our verbal skills and our lung capacity. Real love focuses on the beloved, not on the onlookers.
From teaching about prayer Jesus turns to commands about fasting. Other passages in the Bible associate fasting with repentance and with occasions that call for especially focused and intense prayer. Isaiah explains that the fast God desires is a fast from our habits of abusing and oppressing other human beings in order to clothe and feed ourselves in the manner that we feel we have earned. Jesus fasted in the wilderness, even though Satan tempted him, and he clearly assumes that his followers will fast as well. As before, Jesus warns against practicing this form of righteousness to gain praise from other people. Fasting that wins God’s approval is inconspicuous. The person who fasts should look just like anyone else going about his or her normal business, dressed and ready for work.
Jesus’ final words in today’s reading warn against “treasuring up treasures on earth.” In context “treasures” refers both to other peoples’ good opinions and to material goods. The Greek phrase used signals that Jesus is telling his hearers to stop doing something they are already doing, he is questioning motive: Stop storing up treasures on earth, where they will be eaten away. Treasure up heavenly treasures instead. How can someone store up treasure in heaven? One way, according to Jesus in this reading, is by selling one’s goods and giving them to the poor. So then if God’s approval is our greatest treasure, then we are to direct our hearts and minds and wills to loving God and our neighbour. Then, indeed, we will have treasure in heaven. Amen.
The Rev'd Mo Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 21/02/2021