Matthew 6:1

RIGHT THINGS FROM THE WRONG MOTIVE

Matt. 6:1

Take care not to try to demonstrate how good you are in the presence of men, in order to be seen by them. If you do, you have no reward with your Father in heaven.

To the Jew there were three great cardinal works of the religious life, three great pillars on which the good life was based–almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Jesus would not for a moment have disputed that; what troubled him was that so often in human life the finest things were done from the wrong motives.

It is the strange fact that these three great cardinal good works readily lend themselves to wrong motives. It was Jesus’ warning that, when these things were done with the sole intention of bringing glory to the doer, they lost by far the most important part of their value. A man may give alms, not really to help the person to whom he gives, but simply to demonstrate his own generosity, and to bask in the warmth of some one’s gratitude and all men’s praise. A man may pray in such a way that his prayer is not really addressed to God, but to his fellow-men. His praying may simply be an attempt to demonstrate his exceptional piety in such a way that no one can fail to see it. A man may fast, not really for the good of his own soul, not really to humble himself in the sight of God, but simply to show the world what a splendidly self-disciplined character he is. A man may practise good works simply to win praise from men, to increase his own prestige, and to show the world how good he is.

As Jesus saw it, there is no doubt at all that that kind of thing does receive a certain kind of reward. Three times Jesus uses the phrase, as the Revised Standard Version has it: “Truly I say to you, they have their reward” (Matt. 6:2,5; Matt. 6:16). It would be better to translate it: “They have received payment in full.” The word that is used in the Greek is the verb apechein (GSN0568), which was the technical business and commercial word for receiving payment in full. It was the word which was used on receipted accounts. For instance, one man signs a receipt given to another man: “I have received (apecho, GSN0568) from you the rent of the olive press which you have on hire.” A tax collector gives a receipt, saying, “I have received (apecho, GSN0568) from you the tax which is due.” A man sells a slave and gives a receipt, saying, “I have received (apecho, GSN0568) the whole price due to me.”

What Jesus is saying is this: “If you give alms to demonstrate your own generosity, you will get the admiration of men–but that is all you will ever get. That is your payment in full. If you pray in such a way as to flaunt your piety in the face of men, you will gain the reputation of being an extremely devout man–but that is all you will ever get. That is your payment in full. If you fast in such a way that all men know that you are fasting, you will become known as an extremely abstemious and ascetic man–but that is all you will ever get. That is your payment in full.” Jesus is saying, “If your one aim is to get yourself the world’s rewards, no doubt you will get them–but you must not look for the rewards which God alone can give.” And he would be a sadly short-sighted creature who grasped the rewards of time, and let the rewards of eternity go.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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