Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount

June 7, 2016

by Peter Amsterdam

(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)

Right Motivation, Part 1

Having come to the end of Matthew chapter 5, which gave details as to how a believer’s “righteousness” was to be greater than that of the Pharisees, we now move on to chapter 6. This chapter begins by addressing the wrong kind of “righteousness,” using examples of giving to the poor, praying, and fasting. The second part of chapter 6 includes Jesus’ instructions to store our treasure in heaven and trust God for our well-being.

Within the section on prayer, Jesus teaches the disciples to pray what’s known as “the Our Father” or “the Lord’s Prayer.” Because the Lord’s Prayer is in a sense a topic on its own, I will cover it separately in the future.

The opening statement of this portion of the Sermon on the Mount is:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.1

The word “righteousness” used here refers to pious deeds that express Torah observance,2 meaning the practices or observances of faith, which in Jesus’ examples include giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. These three examples represent the practices we carry out as the outcropping of our faith life. Jesus tells us that when we do these things, we should not do them with the intention of being seen by others.

When Jesus tells His followers to beware of carrying out such practices with the intention of being seen by others, the Greek word used for seen in this instance means to look upon, to view attentively, to look at important persons that are looked on with admiration. Later in Matthew we read of Jesus castigating the Pharisees for this exact thing. They do all their deeds to be seen by others.3

Earlier in the Sermon, Jesus said that the result of the disciples’ way of life should be that other people may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.4 This could seem contradictory to what He is teaching here in chapter 6. The difference is that earlier Jesus was referring to the whole character and lifestyle of the disciples, while the subject at this point in the Sermon is specifically about religious practices and duties. R. T. France explains:

The [present] passage is about a deliberate search for public recognition, whereas 5:16 summed up a searching character study of true disciples which focused on essential qualities: those who live like that will inevitably be a town built on top of a hill which cannot be hidden, whether they like it or not. And whereas the outcome of religious ostentation is the desired rewardof human applause, the result of the shining light of the disciples lifestyle is that people glorify God, not them.5 

As disciples, we strive to reflect God with our lives, but that is quite different from intentionally drawing attention to ourselves when we pray, give, fast, etc., with the goal of being noticed and admired by others.

Let’s look at the first example Jesus gave:

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.6

Giving to the poor and needy was commanded by Scripture as an important part of the Jewish faith life.

There will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you,You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.7

Scripture also gave instructions for ways to care for the poor:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.8

R. T. France wrote:

By the first century there was a well-organized system of relief for the poor based in the synagogues, providing something of what our modern state-sponsored welfare systems aim to offer. The funding of this system depended on contributions from members of the community, some of them laid down under the regulations for the tithe for the poor9 but also involving a great deal of private initiative, which could reach such an extent that there were rabbinic regulations to prevent a man from impoverishing himself and his family by giving away more than 20 percent of his income.10

Jesus clearly expected His disciples to give to the needy. He doesn’t start with “if you give” but “when you give.” He painted a word picture of one sounding a trumpet when going to give, in order to draw attention to and be admired for one’s generosity. Some commentators believe Jesus was referring to the literal blowing of trumpets at the time of collection for the poor in the temple; however, Jesus specifically mentioned the synagogue and wasn’t speaking of the temple. There is no evidence of trumpets being blown when alms were given in synagogues, and therefore most commentators believe Jesus was speaking figuratively in order to make His point—when giving, we are not to draw attention to ourselves.

In Jesus’ example, there are those who “blow their own horn” when they give, and He is censuring this practice of giving in a way that draws attention to the giver. In speaking of giving in the synagogue and in the streets, both public places where the giving would be seen, He’s making the point that there is a kind of giving that is more interested in being praised by others than helping the needy, and it’s this type of self-promotional giving that He speaks against.     

He calls those who engage in this type of self-advertisement, which focuses on making themselves known as benefactors rather than helping the poor, hypocrites. The Greek word hypokrites originally meant an actor in a play. Those who give to be seen are “actors” in that they aim to impress others, but at the same time their behavior demonstrates how far they are out of touch with God’s understanding of “righteousness.”11 They are self-deceived in that they are doing a good thing in giving to the poor, but their motives are wrong. When we give to the poor, it should be done out of love, compassion, and obedience to God’s commands, and never as a means of enhancing one’s reputation.

If someone’s aim is to have others notice them, Jesus says: Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.12 We know this is important, as He begins with the solemn statement “truly, I say to you.” And the point He makes is important: those who give for the purpose of receiving the attention and acclamation of others have received all the reward they are going to get. After all, that is the reward they seek. The Greek used here for “they have received” is often used as a technical commercial term for receiving payments in full: the transaction is concluded and there is nothing more to expect.13 Those who have turned an act of mercy into an act of vanity have received their reward in full.

Having shown what not to do, Jesus then describes the proper attitude to have when doing our service to God—in this case, giving to the needy.

But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.14

Of course, it’s impossible to literally not let one hand know what the other is doing. Jesus is using this imagery to make the point that not only should we not give for the purpose of seeking the applause of others, but we are also not to dwell on the fact that we have given, congratulating ourselves because we’ve given.

John Stott wrote:

Of course its not possible to obey this command of Jesus in precise literalness. If we keep accounts and plan our giving, as conscientious Christians should, we are bound to know how much we give away. Nevertheless, as soon as the giving of a gift is decided and done, it will be in keeping with this teaching of Jesus that we forget it. We are not to keep recalling it in order to gloat over it, or to preen ourselves on how generous, disciplined or conscientious our giving may have been. Christian giving is to be marked by self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness, not by self-congratulation. What we should seek when giving to the needy is neither the praise of men, nor a ground for self-commendation, but rather the approval of God.15

While our giving is meant to be an act of mercy done in obedience to God’s command, reflecting the nature of God, done for His glory and not our own, it doesn’t mean it isn’t rewarded. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.16 God’s seeing in secret reflects what Scripture teaches, that nothing is hidden from Him.

O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.17

No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.18

When we “practice our righteousness”—doing the things our faith instructs us to do, nurturing our spirit through prayer, worshiping God, abiding in His Word, performing acts of mercy, and the other religious aspects of our lives, with the right attitude of heart—God sees and rewards. Jesus doesn’t specify exactly what the rewards are, but throughout the Gospels He mentions them repeatedly in words which seem generously out of proportion to the acts we’ve done.

His master said to him, Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.19

Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my names sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.20

Then the King will say to those on his right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.21

Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great.22

Regardless of what our eternal rewards may be, when we give with the right motives, we are rewarded with knowing that we have obeyed God, that others have benefited by what we gave—whether time, money, or prayer—and that as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.23


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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1 Matthew 6:1.

2 McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 153.

3 Matthew 23:5.

4 Matthew 5:16.

5 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 234.

6 Matthew 6:2.

7 Deuteronomy 15:11.

8 Leviticus 19:9–10.

9 Deuteronomy 14:28–29.

10 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 235.

11 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 237.

12 Matthew 6:2.

13 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 229 no. 4.

14 Matthew 6:3–4.

15 Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 130–31.

16 Matthew 6:4.

17 Psalm 139:1–10.

18 Hebrews 4:13.

19 Matthew 25:21.

20 Matthew 19:29.

21 Matthew 25:34.

22 Luke 6:35.

23 Matthew 25:40.