Open Matthew 6:1-4.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught the Galileans not to follow their communal rulers. He believed the people who ran the synagogues and towns were incapable of bringing the people back under God’s kingship as his nation — of restoring the kingdom of God.
The methods these people used to manage their communities was ineffective. They used an honour/shame paradigm. When someone did something good, they would publicly honour the person so others would follow their example. When someone did something bad, they would publicly shame the person so others would not follow their example.
Even today, some people consider “naming and shaming” to be a useful tool for managing communal life. Punishment for bad behaviour isn’t enough; it must involve rewarding good behaviour like generosity. But Jesus sends up this whole approach. Even positive reinforcement for good behaviour is inadequate. So, Jesus paints an absurd image of these “actors” blowing a ram’s horn so everybody notices their act of generosity. The crowd on the mountainside would have burst into laughter. While their defences were down, the message sinks in.
The actor who blows his trumpet draws attention not only to his own honour but also to the poor person’s shame. The goal of generosity is to restore those who have done it tough and suffered shame. Gaining honour at their expense only reinforces the injustice. That’s why it must be done surreptitiously, to value the person who is being restored.
But, the crucial thing to notice is Jesus’ alternative to bad leadership. A rising political star typically presents themself as the answer to all the people’s problems. When Absalom plotted to replace his father David as king, he promised to sort out everyone’s issues: “If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that they receive justice” (2 Samuel 15:4). This is precisely what Jesus does not do.
Instead, he teaches his followers that they, as God’s servants, are the solution to injustice in the land. He expects them to see when someone is doing it tough, and to slip them something without anyone noticing. The kingdom of God is founded on Jesus as king, but the way it works is that all the servants of the king willingly resolve the justice issues in the kingdom by quietly sharing what they have so that no one misses out.
Jesus has promised that the poor will be blessed under his kingship (5:3). But he’s not proposing a solution anything like Karl Marx’s (i.e. violent revolution and redistribution). As king, Jesus expects us, his subjects, to quietly share what we have until there is no longer any injustice in his realm.
The reward we receive for such generosity is not personal wealth: that would only exacerbate the problem. The reward is a joyful world where no one misses out and everyone experiences God’s kingship and care through the community — the kingdom of God.
Can you follow this king with his agenda? Will you put your possessions on the line to do that? That’s how Jesus’ disciples understood his teaching (compare Acts 2:45; 4:34).
Matthew 6:1-4 (paraphrased)
1 Take care not to do the right thing for the wrong reason — so people notice you. Your heavenly Father won’t reward you if you’re acting for another audience.
2 When you do something generous, don’t hire trumpeters to draw people’s attention so you can gain their respect. That’s what these actors do, in the synagogues and public places. The truth is, that’s all the reward they’ll get.
3 When you do something generous, make it inconspicuous, so your own left hand doesn’t know what your right hand did, 4 so your generosity is undetected. Your Father — the one who notices undetected things — he will repay you with his reign.
What others are saying
Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 112–113:
So what then is the mission of God’s people? Surely it is to live as those who have experienced that redeeming power of God already, and whose lives — individual and corporate — are signposts to the ultimate liberation of all creation and humanity from every form of oppression and slavery. …
Where people are torn apart by an upward spiral of debt and a downward spiral of poverty, with all the human indignity and social exclusion that go with them, what actions reflect the theological principles of the jubilee, with its insistence that debt should not have eternal life and that the failures of one generation should not condemn all future generations to poverty? …
Will we, in other words, choose to define our own mission with some degree of similarity to the way Jesus defined his own …
As we do so, we become communities that are like exodus and jubilee signposts, pointing to the redeeming work of God in the past and to the only hope of liberation that our world can have for the future.
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 207:
Jesus’ three examples are random; he intends secrecy to apply to all acts of righteousness. Although Jesus may have taken his three examples from a list in Tobit 12:8 (in which “righteousness” appears as a fourth; cf. Sir 7:10; 2 Clem. 16), such lists were never more than random examples … For instance, some teachers considered works such as visiting the sick, hospitality, and comforting the bereaved more meritorious than charity because they required personal involvement (Van Unnik 1954: 96–97). Matthew thus intended his audience to apply Jesus’ principle (6:1) not only to the specific cases by which he illustrates it (6:2–18) but to all acts of righteousness.
[previous: Authentic or acting?]
[next: What is prayer?]