Matthew 6:1,  righteousness and reward, background

Parallel passages

This verse is without parallel in the canonical books.

Doing righteousness or charitable giving

The Biblical context

The phrase used by the Sermon comprises the Greek words ποιέομαι (poieomai), to make, do, perform, or behave towards, and δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē), acts of righteousness. Within the Septuagint, the phrase doing righteousness is less common than similar expressions (such as doing justice and righteousness) and its first occurrence is in Gen 18:19. This is a notable point, for this represents the first of several subtle inter-textual allusions to Abraham’s time near Hebron (for example the text of Gen 18:19 also has an echo in Matt 6:1’s mention of reward).

The phrase, do righteousness, is used at the point, just before the destruction of Sodom, where God recalls how he chose Abraham “to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that the LORD may bring on Abraham that which he has spoken of him.” (Gen 18:19 HNV). The reference to that which was spoken recalls the events of Gen 14 & 15, where Abraham intervenes to saves the people of Sodom and the Lord promises that his descendants will be as many as the stars. But the passage is also clearly relevant to the Sermon on the Mount’s developing theme of God, as Father, desiring that His children become like Him.

In Gen 18:19, the Hebrew behind the LXX’s Greek uses עָשָׂה (ʿā·śā(h)), to do or perform, and, צְדָקָה (ṣeḏā·qā(h)), righteousness or what is right. As with its Greek equivalent the Hebrew phrase, doing righteousness, recurs infrequently, with another variant, ‘doing justice and righteousness’, being the more familiar refrain. Yet, from a survey of passages where it does occur, the picture emerges of doing righteousness as a fundamental behaviour that God expects of His children.

From Moses’ prophecy concerning Gad, we discover that God does righteousness (Deut 33:21), but it is in Psalms 103 and 106, that show us that doing righteousness was also a requirement for God’s people.

Psalm 103 reminds its reader that the Lord does righteousness and that he made the way of righteousness known to Moses. It then tells us why the Lord requires righteous acts of his people. The psalm again recalls the father/son relationship that provided the phrase’s first context, for like a father has compassion on his children, so He has compassion upon those who fear Him.

6 The LORD executes righteous acts [does righteousness], and justice for all who are oppressed.
7 He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the children of Israel.
8 The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness.
9 He will not always accuse; neither will he stay angry forever.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor repaid us for our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his loving kindness toward those who fear him.
12 As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
13 Like a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we are made. He remembers that we are dust.
15 As for man, his days are like grass. As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
16 For the wind passes over it, and it is gone. Its place remembers it no more.

(Ps 103:6 HNV, emphasis and annotation added)

Psalm 106:3 then clarifies that a fundamental link exists between doing righteousness and experiencing divine blessing. “Blessed are those who keep justice. Blessed is one who does what is right at all times. (WEB)” (WEB, emphasis mine).

Proverbs reminds us just how pivotal doing righteousness is in God, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (Prov 21:3 HNV).

In Isaiah 56 we find that the prophet’s words echo those of Psalm 106:3. Here a call to do righteousness anticipates the coming of salvation and the revealing of righteousness, i.e. a time when God will intervene in judgement, a context it shares with Isaiah's call to way-building in Isa 62:10-11. The following verse drives home the message that just as it is good for a man to do this, so it is good for a man’s son to do it too.

1 ‘Thus says the LORD, “Keep justice, and do righteousness; for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed. 2 Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast” ’

(Isa 56:1-2a HNV)

In Isaiah 56 doing righteousness preceded the coming of judgement and salvation. Conversely, Isaiah 58 seems to imply that people have no right to expect God’s judgements if they are not prepared to do righteousness.

Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways: as a nation that did righteousness, and didn’t forsake the ordinance of their God, they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.

(Isa 58:2 WEB)

Before men

The Biblical context

The word here translated as 'before' is ἔμπροσθεν (emprosthen). This word, which normally relates to spatial positioning and is often translated that way in this verse, is used somewhat differently in the Septuagint of Genesis. In that text a number of passages use it to describe the action of one individual going in advance of another, to serve their interests. It is notably used in this sense by Abraham in the matter of his son:

6 Abraham said to him, “Be careful for yourself. Do not return my son there. 7 The Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, who took me from the house of my father and from the land where I was born, who spoke to me and swore to me, saying, ‘I will give this land to you and to your offspring,’ he himself will send his angel you, and you will take a woman for my son, Isaac, from there.

(Ge 24:5-8 LES)

Further examples are found in the account of Joseph. The first is when Jacob, returning to Canaan, sends gifts ahead of him in the hope that they will placate Esau - ‘And he gave into the hand of his servants a flock ⌊by itself⌋. He said to his servants, “Go before me and make a space ⌊between⌋ ⌊the flocks⌋”’ (Ge 32:16 LES).

A second, which particularly calls to mind the theme of Matt 6:2-4, is when a herald went before Joseph to announce his promotion - “And he went up on the second chariot of those belonging to him, and a herald made a proclamation in front of him, and he appointed him over the whole the land of Egypt” (Ge 41:43 LES). The possible thematic connection with Matt 6:2 being that a herald would often use a trumpet to summon attention to their proclamation.

A third is found when Joseph explains how God sent him before his family to ensure a remnant survived and was provided for - “For God sent me ahead of you, to leave you a remnant on the earth and to nourish your great remnant.” (Ge 45:7 LES)

A fourth occurs when the time came for Israel to move his family to Egypt, for he sent Judah before him to meet with Joseph (presumably to make arrangements for their arrival) - “He sent Judah before them to Joseph to meet him down in the City of Heroes in the land of Rameses.” (Ge 46:28 LES)

The Greek emprosthen translates the Hebrew פָּנֶה (pāněh). This Hebrew word is common, and first used in the account of Adam and Eve, when they try to hide themselves from before the Lord (Gen 3:8). Here pāněh may be used simply in a positional sense, but it could equally describe a relationship of service. It is certainly used that way in later passages, notably when the Lord appeared before Abraham to confirm the covenant of Gen 15:5-6, and declared “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” (Ge 17:1–2 ESV)

Clearly the intended sense of the word in Gen 17:1 is not spacial, for divine omnipotence makes a mockery of that. It must, therefore, be relational, but reflecting the normal relationship between a ruler and his subjects, the one in authority and those who stand before him.

The word is also found in the promise God gives Hagar, having met with her in the wilderness. The one who gave her the gift of a new life in secret, now declare that she should call him Ishmael and, echoing the experience of Joseph, that he would rule (the word means to dwell or to be enthroned) before his kinsmen (Gen 16:13), just as Joseph had. As an aside, from the family's need to accept the Egyptian practice of circumcision, at precisely the point this Egyptian son came of age, it appears that this promise came to pass (though Ishmael later forfeited that right to Isaac).

In rabbinic thought

One will occasionally encounter a quotation attributed to Rabbi Eleazer: “Alms-giving should be done in secret and not before men, for he who gives before men is a sinner, and God shall bring also the good deed before his judgment”, usually cited as B. Bat. 9a and accompanied with an injunction to compare Eccl 12:14. This looks suspiciously like a misquoted passage from the Jewish Encyclopaedia Almsgiving should, therefore, be done in secret (Eleazar, B. B. 9a; Derek Ereẓ Zuṭṭa, ix. 4, after Prov. xxi. 14), and not before men, for "he who gives before men is a sinner," as it is said, that God shall bring also "the good deed before his judgment" (Eccl. xii. 14, Ḥag. 5a, Shab. 104a, B. B. 10a).” (Kohler 2002, n.p.). There appears to be nothing similar in b. B. Bat 9-10, but it is possible that two sources have been conflated, for in the Babylonian Talmud we find comments on Eccl 12:14 involving one R. Yohanan (of uncertain date), and R. Yannai, a 2nd-3rd C. CE amora, which, if taken together amount to something along those lines.

18 A. When R. Yohanan came to this verse, he wept: “ ‘For God shall bring every work into the judgment concerning every hidden thing [whether it be good or whether it be evil]’ (Qoh. 12:14 [=Eccl 12:14])—a slave whose master weighs against him equally inadvertent and deliberate sins—can he have any remedy?”
. . .
20 A. What is the meaning of whether it be good or whether it be evil (Qoh. 12:14)? B. Said a member of the household of R. Yannai, “This is one who in public gives a poor person charity.”

(b. Hag. 1:1, VI.18 & 20, Neusner)

Given the apparently late date of these comments, the possibility of the Sermon on the Mount having indirectly influenced this teaching cannot be excluded.

The Babylonian Talmud does contain some teaching on alms-giving attributed to one R. Eleazer (probably the Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah who was active in the late 1st C. C.E., though there were others after him of the same name), but, whilst it does advocate giving in secret, it does not resemble the much-cited passage, nor does it appear to pre-date the Sermon on the Mount.

27 A. Said R. Eleazar, “Greater is he who discreetly carries out an act of charity than was our lord, Moses, for of Moses it is written, ‘for I was afraid because of the anger and the wrath’ (Deut. 9:19), but of one who gives charity in such a manner it is written, ‘A gift in secret subdues anger’ (Prov. 21:14).”

(b. B. Bat. 1:5, IV.27 A, Neusner)


The Biblical context

The word here translated as reward is μισθός (misthos). This word, which occurs 63 times in the Septuagint, where it is used to describe that which was due to an individual or body of people as a result of an activity, which might be e.g. work (i.e. wages), trade (i.e. profit), or law-braking (i.e. judicial recompense). Though not notable for its rarity in the Septuagint, it none-the-less provides some interesting inter-textual connections. 

The Septuagint's first use of misthos is in Gen 15:1 where it translates the Hebrew word שָׂכָר (śā·ḵār), which is also first used within the Hebrew Bible at this point. The context of the passage is clearly relevant to our understanding of Matt 6:1, for it concerns a merciful act by Abram and the reward that he received. To set the scene - a party of Kings led by Chedorlaomer had raided Sodom and taken both plunder and people, including Abraham's nephew Lot. Abram then lead a successful rescue attempt, defeating Chedorlaomer and his allies in the process. The aftermath of the battle left Abraham in possession of both the goods and the people of Sodom. At which point the king of Sodom approached Abram. Conceding that Abram had every right to keep the goods he had just captured, the king petitioned the patriarch to show mercy and return the people. Abram could have kept both people and goods, but he graciously return both. In the account Abraham explains that “I have lifted up my hand to the LORD, God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth,  that I will not take a thread nor a sandal strap nor anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich’” (Gen 14:22-23 HNV). Thus, Abram refused to seek a reward for his merciful action from people. God saw, and ‘after these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward” (Gen 15:1 HNV). Abraham's refusal to accept the credit, i.e. to be acknowledged (or seen) by men, prompted divine reward.

The Hebrew word śā·ḵār is found in 27 other passages, but knowing the Sermon on the Mount's fundamental concern with the Way of Righteousness, and that the context of the current section is false witness, several of those passages leap out. But before mentioning them it is worth reflecting that, whilst śā·ḵār was used of the wages of a hired man, in the overwhelming majority of cases it describes a reward that is, in one way or another, directly attributable to God. For example:

  • Gen 30:8 speaks of Leah's God-given reward
  • In Gen 30:28-29, 31-32, 33, 31:8 the sheep speckled by God provide Jacob's reward
  • Num 18:31 concerns the Levites reward for serving God
  • In 1 Kings 5:6, it is the wages of those who constructed God's house
  • In 2 Chronicles 15:6 it is the reward that God promises king Asa
  • In Ps 127:3, children, a gift from God, are a reward
  • Jer 31:16, God promises the figurative Rachel a reward for her tears
  • Zech 11:12, Zechariah receives a reward for the shepherding that God earlier asked him to do

Turning now to the passages that are more specifically relevant. In two places the Septuagint of Isaiah uses μισθὸς (misthos) to translate שָׂכָר (śā·ḵār). Both speak of the preparation of a way and the anticipation that God will then come, bringing with Him both reward and, its inverse, recompense. The first is Isaiah's call to prepare the way of righteousness, a passage with, through John the Baptist, a pivotal role to play in the origins of the Church. Note also how this passage keys into another of the Sermon on the Mount’s topics, that of fading flowers (Matt 6:28-30).

3 The voice of one who calls out, “Prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness! Make a level highway in the desert for our God.
. . .
6 The voice of one saying, “Cry!” One said, “What shall I cry?” “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades, because the LORD’s breath blows on it. Surely the people are like grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever.”
. . .
10 Behold, the Lord GOD will come as a mighty one, and his arm will rule for him. Behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.

(Isa 40:3, 6-8, 10 HNV)

The second passage, Isa 62:11, comes from a prophecy that addresses a similar theme, albeit in a more abbreviated fashion.

10 Go through, go through the gates! Prepare the way of the people! Cast up, cast up the highway! Gather out the stones! Lift up a banner for the peoples.
11 Behold, the LORD has proclaimed to the end of the earth, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your salvation comes. Behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.’”

(Isa 62:11 WEB)

The final passage to note, at this stage, is Mal 3:5, for not only does it speak of preparing the way, but it also contains a thematic progression that mirrors that found within the Sermon, i.e. adultery, false witness, and lack of charity toward the disadvantaged. Moreover, this text falls within one of the scriptures key passages concerning the preparation of the Way of Righteousness.

1 “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me; and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, behold, he comes!” says the LORD of Hosts.   2 “But who can endure the day of his coming? . . .

. . . 5 I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against the perjurers, and against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and who deprive the foreigner of justice, and don’t fear me,” says the LORD of Hosts.   6 “For I, the LORD, don’t change; therefore you, sons of Jacob, are not consumed.

( Mal 3:1-2, 5-6 HNV)

Mal 3:1-2 reminds us that, whilst the messenger will prepare the Way, they will do so, not according to their own wisdom or preferences, but before the Lord, i.e. by obediently carrying out His requirements.

The circumstances of zero reward

The Biblical context

In Matt 6:1 the emphasis is not placed upon the obtaining of a reward, but upon the loss of one. It is therefore worth reviewing those circumstances which the Hebrew Bible links to the receipt of no reward.

In 2 sam 18:2 a runner, wanting to carry unwelcome news to David, is promised no reward for his efforts, but righteous deeds are surely not analogous with evil tidings.

Eccl 9:5 suggests that the dead get no reward - “For the living know that they will die, but the dead don’t know anything, neither do they have any more a reward; for their memory is forgotten.” (WEB). In Matt 6:1, however, Jesus is speaking about those who have not yet died, so this verse offers little, unless the intention is to imply that those who give before men are metaphorically dead.

Given that the wider context of Matt 6:1, is the topic of false witness, then Zec 8:10 is of much more interest. The setting of Zec 8:10 has many similarities with the time of Christ, most notably the return of an individual with the authority to cleanse the priesthood. Moreover, Zechariah’s prophecy brings the spotlight back upon the need for honesty and sincerity in the relationships between neighbours. Through Zechariah the Lord reflects upon darker times, times before a re-boot of the cultic system enabled the high priest to once-again minister cleansing to the nation.

10 “For before those days there was no wages for man, nor any wages for an animal; neither was there any peace to him who went out or came in, because of the adversary. For I set all men everyone against his neighbor.”

(Zech 8:10 HNV)

But if, in verse 10, everyone was against their neighbour then that begs the question “How are people supposed to behave?” A few verses later on we are told, and central to this required behaviour is speaking of the truth.

16 These are the things that you shall do: speak every man the truth with his neighbor. Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates, 17 and let none of you devise evil in your hearts against his neighbor, and love no false oath: for all these are things that I hate,” says the LORD.”

(Zech 8:16-17 HNV)

In Eze 29:18-20 we read that Nebuchadnezzar, having received no reward for his God-instructed campaign against Tyre, is promised Egypt so that he can pay his men.

18 “Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon drove his army in a hard campaign against Tyre; every head was rubbed bare and every shoulder made raw. Yet he and his army got no reward from the campaign he led against Tyre. 19 Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am going to give Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he will carry off its wealth. He will loot and plunder the land as pay for his army. 20 I have given him Egypt as a reward for his efforts because he and his army did it for me, declares the Sovereign LORD.

(Eze 29:18–20 NIV84)

In Rabbinic thought

That the name of Nebuchadnezzar is linked to the concept of receiving no reward, is significant, for Dan 4:27 is cited in later first-century C.E. rabbinic discussions as an example of the sinfulness of gentile charity (b. B. Bat. 1:5, IV.45.E).

“‘… But the kindness of the peoples is sin’—all the acts of charity and mercy that the idolatrous nations do is a sin for them, for they do it only to prolong their dominion: ‘Wherefore O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you, and break off your sins by righteousness and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, so there may be a lengthening of your tranquillity’ (Dan. 4:27).”

(b. B. Bat. 1:5, IV.45, Neusner)

The rabbinic approach to this passage is based on an interpretation that seems to stand an obvious interpretation on its head, implying that Nebuchadnezzar is sinning through his righteous acts and his merciful attitude to the poor. The underlying logic is that if the Gentiles are incapable of righteousness because they are not in a covenant relationship with God, then even their kindness is sin (b. B. Bat. 1:5, IV.45, cf. Prov 14:34). The link with the Sermon on the Mount is evident in that Matt 6:1 also addresses an apparently God-commanded activity (i.e. doing righteousness) that is never-the-less unrighteous. It may also be significant, for the interpretation of Matt 6:2, that Nebuchadnezzar gave a great gift to his people in the form of a giant statue of himself, the worship of which was to be heralded with instruments (Dan 3:1-5).

Abraham’s rescue of Lot and its consequences

As illustrated in the main page for Matt 6:1, this verse seems to draw inspiration from the events surrounding Abraham's rescue of Lot and the subsequent revisiting of those events. To gain a proper appreciation of those events, however, a bit of cultural background needs to be established.

The significance of Abraham's response to the King of Sodom hinges on whether, in the time of Genesis, a captive human was considered just as much an item of personal property as a camel or a donkey, i.e. whether Abraham's rescued captives had passed from one captivity into another and now represented valuable assets. It is therefore valid to ask whether there is scriptural support for captives being treated as property of the captor.

The common-place practice of selling captives into slavery is reflected in verses such as Joel 3:4-8, but there is evidence of it from a time much closer than that of Abraham’s battle. It is found within the Joseph account, when the brothers accept the wisdom of selling captive Joseph to a slave trader rather than leaving him to die (Gen 37:26-7). In Exod 13:13, God’s instruction that Israel are to redeem their firstborn males, provides further evidence of captives being viewed as property. For these firstborn are, in effect, God's prisoners, He having spared their lives and rescued them from captivity (Exod 13:14-15), so it shall be as if they bear the owner’s-mark of a slave (Exodus 13:16).

Under the Mosaic legal system slaves were explicitly treated as property

44 “ ‘As for your slave and your slave woman who are yours, from the nations that are all around you, from them you may buy a slave or a slave woman. 45 And you may buy also from the children of the temporary residents who are dwelling with you as aliens and from their clan who are with you, who have children in your land; indeed, they may be as property for you.

46 And you may pass them on as an inheritance to your sons after you to take possession of as property for all time—you may let them work. But as for your countrymen, the Israelites, you shall not rule with ruthlessness over one another. ”

(Lev 25:44–46, LEB)

Though it is easy to overlook that this law may have an in-built way for a slave to escape from their situation, i.e. to accept proselyte conversion, for the Mosaic law treated Israelites who sold themselves as contracted servants rather than property. 

Additional comments

From Christian commentators

Vermes (2004, 359) treats Matt 6:1-4 as a single saying, suggesting that, overall, it was typical of what he sees as Jesus’ exaggeration to emphasise a point.