Commentary on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Today’s Gospel reading strikes many as an ironic choice for Ash Wednesday.
Jesus tells the crowd assembled to hear his sermon on the mount that they should avoid showing off their piety. After hearing his words read in church, 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 piety, what is?
NRSV’s translation of the opening words may be a bit misleading. The Greek does not refer to piety 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 commands believers to do justice (Micah 6:8), and Jesus himself, just a few verses earlier, commended those who suffer for righteousness’ sake (Matthew 5: 10) and said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
In Matthew 6, Jesus addresses three ways that the Jews of his day practiced their faith: through charitable giving, through prayer, and through fasting. He does 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 debt forgiveness, fair treatment of workers, just distribution of cropland, and interest-free loans that are designed to prevent poverty. In Jesus’ day, however, the greed and oppressive labor 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 satirically refers to those who sound a trumpet before them when they make a charitable donation. There is no evidence that such trumpet-sounding was an actual practice. What we have here is hyperbole, 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 criticized those who humiliated the poor by their ostentatious giving.
Nevertheless, in the honor/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 behavior. In such a context, Jesus’ warning against giving in order to be seen and honored by others was a radical word. We might do well to reflect on the ways that our own giving practices shame the needy and polish 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 memorize 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 neighbors to hear, or would I hug my mother and murmur the words into her ear? Jesus says our prayers should be intimate conversations with our heavenly parent, not stage 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 58 says that the fast God chooses 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 when he was tempted by Satan, 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 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 indicates that Jesus is telling his hearers to stop doing something they are already doing: 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, is by selling one’s goods and giving them to the poor (Matthew 19:21). If God’s approval is our greatest treasure, then we will direct our hearts and minds and wills to loving God and our neighbor. Then, indeed, we will have treasure in heaven.