Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The heart of this passage is found in an accurate translation of the key word in Matthew 6:1, “Beware of practicing your justice before others.”
A number of translations translate dikaiosyne as “piety.” This term, though, is too narrow, often suggesting only the personal and spiritual. The term “justice” has a much broader sense of societal practices, relationships, and structures.
The same term appears in Matthew 5:10, 20, and 6:33 where it appropriately translates as righteousness or justice. Scenes in 5:1-16, 21-48 have presented examples or vignettes of the “greater justice/righteousness” that Jesus’ disciples are to exhibit in their identity and lifestyle. The translation of “justice” frames the three actions in 6:2-21 — almsgiving, prayer, fasting — as further acts of justice that engage and challenge societal structures and practices.
Right Deed, Right Reason
Matthew 6:1 announces the general principle of how disciples are to live this life of doing justice. Doing justice stems from and reflects their commitment to God. Disciples are not to be motivated by nor oriented toward approval from a human audience. In the honor-shame society of the first century, a person’s good reputation was gained by doing public, honorable actions. These actions displayed a person’s wealth, power, and status and were visible to and esteemed and honored by others. They created dependence among beneficiaries to reciprocate the benefit. Jesus’ warning — beware — strikes at a fundamental societal practice. Yet it re-inscribes it by replacing the court of public opinion with God’s favor.
It is important to emphasize that there is no debate here about whether to do works of justice. The focus is on motivation. Jesus expects disciples to do the works of justice outlined for example in Matthew 5. To do justice/righteousness is to work for a society of restructured societal relationships and fair access to resources. It is to do mercy, make peace, to be transforming salt and light, to seek reconciliation, for men to treat women justly without lust, to honor marriage commitments, to practice integrity, to resist evil creatively and non-violently, to love enemies. Jesus requires such actions and adds three more in Matthew 6:1-21, but they are not to be performed to gain public esteem. Their reward is divine approval.
The first of the three illustrative acts of justice involves almsgiving (Matthew 6:2-4). The root of the word and practice is “mercy.” Almsgiving performs mercy. That disciples do practical mercy is assumed. It was a standard practice in Jewish texts (Proverbs 25:21-22; Tobias 1:16-17, 4:6-11). In the Roman world some charity toward the poor occurred but often as self-regarding to enhance the reputation and honor of the giver in contexts of reciprocity and patron-client relationships. These acts of charity were not intended to change social stratification or to ensure just access to resources. Quite the opposite. They maintained societal hierarchy but provided selective relief from its damage. Some refused assistance to the “undeserving” poorest or destitute.
Jesus’ instruction has a particular twist. Matthew’s audience most likely comprised a majority of folks who were poor to varying degrees. These are people with limited life-sustaining resources. What does the command to the poor to practice almsgiving signify? For this audience, shared resources provide a mercy-motivated survival strategy, assisting one another not out of abundance and surplus but out of everyday limited resources. Almsgiving is an act of community solidarity, performed in secret for divine approval. It is not to be performed, for example, out of fear or to ensure reciprocal help from others when disaster strikes (Matthew 6:3-4).
Despite its appeal to doing merciful justice, the passage is ironically less than merciful in its nasty caricature of Jewish practices (Matthew 6:2). There is no evidence that synagogues attracted attention by sounding trumpets. And nor were they peopled with any more hypocrites than any other religious group, including churches. The rhetoric is nasty polemic, not informed research. It functions to define the Jesus-group over against synagogues. The nastiness must not be replicated in our preaching.
Prayer as Justice
The second act of justice concerns prayer (Matthew 6:5-6). Again, an uncharitable comparison with and caricature of synagogue practices functions to highlight a distinctive practice directed toward God. Verses 7-15, excluded from this lectionary selection, show prayer to be an integral partner in the doing of justice with its petitions for God’s empire, will, daily bread, forgiveness of debts, and divine action in our world.
The third act of justice concerns fasting (Matthew 6:16-21). Given that fasting does not seem to be widely practiced in many contemporary faith communities, many of us are not tempted to parade our fasting in public. Yet fasting is about our relationships with and use of material resources, especially but not exclusively food. Access to adequate amounts of nutritionally-balanced food was a challenge for many in the ancient world. Food access and supply reflected structures and practices of imperial power.
Not surprisingly, prophetic traditions link fasting with acts of social justice. They protest fasting when it is associated with injustice. Isaiah denounces fasting when it is accompanied by “serving your own interest…and oppress(ing) all your workers…to quarrel and to strike with a wicked fist.” By contrast, Isaiah redefines fasting as,
“to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go
free, and to break every yoke. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the
homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide
yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:2-10 selections).
Such actions are consistent with the criterion of merciful practices employed in the judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46 — feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, housing the homeless etc.
This concern with justice in the use of resources for the good of others is reinforced by verses 19-21. Disciples are not to be distracted from doing acts of justice by either the lack or the abundance of material resources. Acts that seek just societal relationships and structures are to reflect the heart’s commitment to doing God’s will.