Matthew 6:1,  righteousness and reward

6:1 “Be careful that you don’t do your charitable giving before men, to be seen by them, or else you have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”

(Matt 6:1 WEB)

Righteous acts and their reward

So far the Sermon on the Mount has addressed the ninth commandment: firstly by discussing how being a true witness to the Heavenly Father's nature means sharing his heart; secondly by tackling the topic of swearing falsely. Now, it moves on to explore how that commandment applies in the realm of personal piety.

In some translations, the WEB above included, Matt 6:1 is made to flow seamlessly into Matt 6:2-4, but there is a good reason to consider verse one on its own. If one ignores the Lord’s Prayer, it is easy to see that the remnant of Matt 6:1-18 revolves around three central topics, hypocrisy, pious deeds, and reward. Focus on these and the presence of a distinct, repeated, pattern is easier to see (as illustrated in the introduction to Matt 5:38-6:18). Once this clearly repeated pattern is recognised within the discussions of giving, prayer, and fasting, verse one falls outside its scope, and is more clearly seen to be an introductory statement, setting the scene for the three sections that follow.

The subject of this verse is often portrayed as charitable giving, but this is a paraphrase of the Greek, no-doubt intended to support the notion that Matt 6:1 and Matt 6:2-4 are a single unit. A more literal translation, and one with clearly discernible Biblical roots, would be doing righteousness.

As in Matt 5:45, this verse’s reference to the heavenly Father is there to remind us that this verse is concerned with what constitutes a correct parent/child relationship, between God and his children. The reason for this reminder becomes more apparent once you realise the event that inspired this verse, for the verse’s three topics, doing righteousness, reward, and the father/son relationship, all come together in the events that surround one of the Hebrew Bible's pivotal episodes, Abraham’s rescue of Lot.

For those, not familiar with Genesis 14 and 15, a re-cap of the salient points may be in order and, together with a little bit of contextual background, will reveal the relevance of that text to Matt 6:1.

Genesis 14 tells of how an alliance of kings launched a raid upon Sodom (then a thriving place), carrying off its people and goods. As captives were considered the property of their captors, these folk could have been kept as slaves, or sold for profit. Many leaders, when their people were captured, would redeem them, paying for their release, but, for the newly-impoverished king of Sodom, that was presumably not an option. As those captured included Lot, the nephew of Abraham (at that time known as Abram), did the patriarch do the minimum expected of a relative and redeem his nephew? No, instead he launched a military intervention to recover all that had been stolen. With the help of God, he defeated the kings, and so the captive people and goods became his to deal with as he chose. At which point two things happen, firstly Abraham meets with Melchizadek who attributes Abraham’s success to the hand of God, secondly the now-impoverished king of Sodom appears on the scene. The king acknowledges that Abraham can keep the goods, but, in a plea for mercy, asks for his people to be returned. Abraham’s response was unexpected, not just for its time but possibly also for ours. He, as far as he could legitimately do so, returned both Sodom’s people and their goods. His reasoning was significant - he had committed to serve God, so he did not want people to see his rescue mission as something done for the king of Sodom, i.e., because he trusts that God will provide his reward, he does not want to be seen by men doing righteousness for any man.

Moving on to Genesis 15, the text recounts God’s confirmation that He will be the patriarch’s reward, yet Abraham queries how useful this reward might be as he lacks a son. The promise God then gave him, of sons as abundant as the stars, would echo down the centuries, precious to Christian, Jew, and Muslim alike. Several chapters later, in Genesis 17 God re-affirms the promise following the birth of Ishmael, adding the command "walk before me, and be blameless." Then, in Genesis 18, as the fate of Sodom once again hangs in the balance, the Bible gives voice to the thoughts of God. He recalls Abraham’s interest in the city and how He had earlier called the Patriach because He knew that Abraham would teach his sons to do righteousness.

For those not already convinced that the Sermon is here alluding to Abraham’s example, it might help to know that Gen 15 is the Bible’s first reference to reward and Gen 18 its first reference to doing righteousness.

The Genesis account is important as it qualifies and provides context to Jesus’ statement, allowing the following paraphrase “Be careful not to practice your religion such that men might conclude that you are serving a human agenda." But, if knowing the context clarifies what it is that is to be avoided, then what of the promise that, by doing this, there will be no reward, especially as Matt 6:2-4 seems to say that if you do this, then you will already have received a reward? The Rabbinic rules for interpretation would decree that, in such a case, one looks for a contextual answer. As that is what Jesus expected his hearers to do, then we must do likewise.

The resolution, to the apparent conflict between Matt 6:1 and Matt 6:2, would seem to lie in a Hebrew distinction that never made its way fully into the Greek and English. Biblical Hebrew used three words to express the idea of reward, or, where the context demanded, recompense. Although the boundaries to their use were not clearly defined, sakar (Greek misthos) was used primarily for a divinely granted reward, peullah (Greek misthos) tended to express the idea of reward achieved through personal effort, and tesallem (Greek apodidomai) suggested the legally appointed reward for compliance. Sakar was the type promised to Abraham and it follows that it is also the type of reward forfeited here, whilst Matt 6:2 speaks of peullah-type reward and Matt 6:4 of the tesallem type. It was this sakar-type reward that the prophet Isaiah foresaw God coming with in response to the ministry of first John the Baptist preparing the way of righteousness and then that of Jesus himself. So finding such an emphasis on it here supports the Sermon’s claim to date from the early ministry of Jesus.

Whilst the Hebrew Bible is reasonably vocal on reward, you can count on one hand how often it mentions the lack of it. Because reward and recompense were the opposite sides of every judgement, if you were still alive and didn't get one you usually got the other. Of just four passages that talk about no reward, two are relevant, the one in Zechariah particularly so. Through the prophet, speaking after Israel’s return from exile and the laying of a foundation for the new temple, God reminds his people that prior to this (i.e. when Israel had chosen to serve men rather than God, resulting in the exile) there had been no reward. When these folk had been getting no reward every man was against his neighbour, just as Israel was divided into opposing factions at the time of Jesus ministry. But, as Zechariah goes on to state what God required, he commands them to speak the truth to their neighbours, not devise evil against them, exercise true judgements, and not to love false oaths. Thus, once again, this section of the Sermon has exposed its false-witness-related ninth commandment root.

From a slightly earlier period, comes the Hebrew Bible’s other relevant statement. In it Nebuchadnezzar is reminded that when God has sent him against Tyre he had got no reward. Nebuchadnezzar being the king who was once told “break off your sins by righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor” (Dan 4:27 WEB), a statement used as an early Rabbinic proof text for the possibility that righteous (legally correct) acts could never-the-less be sinful (i.e. morally wrong before God).

The temple’s sacrificial system was broken and without a king from David's line, enthroned in Jerusalem to play his part (as a faithful priest to atone for the sins of the high-priest), it could never provide the atonement Israel needed. The solution did not lie in ever greater humanly-motivated acts of giving, prayer-promises, and fasting, but in accepting the divinely approved solution of returning to the way of righteousness and practising the commandments as God intended them to be practised.

Matt 6:1 in detail.